When Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1986, I was entering high school. And the sense then was that the day was a day off. I think that the association of this holiday more recently with active service is a much more appropriate way to honor King’s legacy. Today, students gathered across the country to participate in service projects with their school communities. People took part in citywide planned service days in cities like Philadelphia and New York. The Obamas participated in the day of service by volunteering in a DC school. And Occupy Wall Street protesters linked their cause to King’s fight for social justice and to the Poor People’s Campaign King was planning when he was assassinated.
Today I was home with the kids. We took some time in the morning to collect their too small clothes into a bag that we’ll drop off at HomeFront, a local agency that focuses on aiding homeless families and families in crisis. They are eager to pass on to other children items they cannot use anymore and seem sad when we talk about people who are in need. But they have a hard time understanding that many of these people live in the same city we do. They know people need help in places like New Orleans, Japan, or Haiti because they know there were horrible natural disasters in those places. But, in their minds, nothing happened in Trenton.
And even though they repeat what they hear in school and at home about people needing help, do they really understand what that means? Did I as a child attending church every Sabbath really understand what helping those who people at church called “the less fortunate” meant? And what qualified someone as “less fortunate”? No. Our children are 7 years old and 4 years old and are just beginning to learn the differences between need and want, and what it means to empathize deeply enough to be compelled to act in order to help others.
We think often about this, as parents and educators: How do we teach service? How do we help our children grow into women and men who develop a commitment to service, a habit of helping others? How do we create opportunities for them to serve now? Learning service and developing a practice of service takes more than one day a year. It also involves more than allowing children to see poverty or disadvantage with their own eyes. According to Dr. King, service involves an active, generous soul and heart.
In one of my favorite King quotations, Dr. King asserts:
Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
All you need to serve, to be great, then, is your self. A self aware enough to feel and understand, even a little bit, that it’s not good, not right for people to suffer. It’s not right to stand by and do nothing while anyone hurts. For our kids, that understanding may take the form of a child not having any books to read, or sleeping without a favorite stuffed animal, or not having medicine and hot soup when they are sick. Their understanding of the problems isn’t complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Hopefully, it’ll grow as they do.
One day, as Nigel and Logan walked to the car, they saw newspaper strewn about the parking lot. “We should pick the paper up,” Logan said. “We don’t have a trashcan to put it in right now,” Nigel responded. Then Logan asked, “If we don’t pick it up, who will?” Out of the mouths of babes… This is not to say that Logan totally gets it. She has learned that littering is bad for the earth and she wants to clean up litter when she sees it (outside of the house!). But her question in this moment is important because it gets us to think not only about the why? or how? of service. We can also think of the imperative — the “must”– of service.
If we don’t serve, if we don’t help create change and make a difference, who will?