Who was he to think he could change the course of destiny? Who are we to think we can "repair the world," as Judaism puts its moral mandate? There are fewer and fewer people who even ask the question. More and more people are "bowling alone" a term used to describe retreat from the public realm. In a nation of legendary voluntarism, the pool of volunteers is drying up. The Southeast Ecumenical Ministry Friends in Service Here - SEAFISH - is desperately short of drivers for poor, elderly and disabled people. If it weren't for volunteers from this congregation, the program couldn't function. The ranks of social activists in the Rochester community are sadly depleted. Our Social Responsibility Task Forces cry out for Unitarian Universalists who still believe we can change the world.
I think of an indicative conversation. A to B: "I'm tired of pretending to care about everything. I didn't create poverty or AIDS. Racism isn't my fault. Why should I worry about it? I refuse to go on pretending....I don't care. I never did and I never will!" Having ended the conversation, A leaves. B thinks to himself: "Militant apathy: the ultimate freedom."
I don't believe Unitarian Universalists will tolerate that kind of freedom FROM responsibility. But why don't more people volunteer? One reason is unabashed narcissism. Our rampant individualism drives us to acquire and hoard - both resources and time. What used to be considered greed - one of the seven deadly sins - is now touted as what makes America tick. More and more of us ask "what's in it for me?" and spend more and more of our time as couch potatoes, computer fanatics and health-club addicts. And it isn't enough to say that human beings wrapped up in themselves make a mighty small package.
Then, too, certain kinds of volunteerism challenge the way things are arranged in our culture. Many of us are not truly persuaded the world should be differently ordered. However, one cannot read Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace without rising anger at the way things are - for instance, that the seventh richest and the poorest census tracts in the nation are but nine stops apart in an 18-minute subway ride between East 59th Street and Brook Avenue in New York City. But where are the calls for a complete overhaul in the American social system in which most of us are so relatively comfortable?
Then, too, there is the element of risk - not so much to life and limb as of entering upon new and unfamiliar terrain. To enter St. Joseph's House of Hospitality on South Avenue, to visit School 22 on Zimbrich Street as a tutor, to be on vigil at Planned Parenthood can be disquieting experiences. We're not used to such conditions. For the most part our world is much more secure.
And we are discouraged from volunteering because we are not really sure it will do any good. Daily the media assault us with massive social problems that overwhelm our capacity to cope with them emotionally, or to do anything about them socially. It is paralysis by analysis. Or in the cynical words of the playwright Bertoldt Brecht, "The man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news."
However, for those who do respond to what Harvard's Robert Coles names "the call of service," why do we do it? Why do we volunteer to serve when we could be watching "ER" or "NYPD Blue" or "Monday Night Football," my own particular indulgence, though, I hasten to add, it is possible to do both.
As I read Coles' book The Call of Service, I could not help being impressed by the personal portraits he creates. There was a young black student, Dion Diamond, who had taken leave from the University of Wisconsin to do civil rights work in Louisiana. He had been jailed on grounds of "disturbing the peace" for attempting to integrate a restaurant.
Coles visited him there and wondered out loud, "Dion, your ideals and values apart, I'm wondering why you keep at this, given the dangers and the obstacles." Coles was stopped in his "well-meaning tracks by the young man's three-word reply: 'The satisfaction, man.' He went on, 'I'm meeting some really fine people. I'm listening to them tell me a lot about their lives....Isn't that enough - isn't that a good reason to feel satisfied? If you can spend some of your life doing work like this, then you're lucky! There may be a sheriff out there waiting for me with a gun, but if he gets me, I'll die thinking: Dion, you actually did something - you were a part of something much bigger than yourself, and you saw people beginning to change, right before your eyes, and that was a real achievement, and that's what I mean by satisfaction.... I tell you, this is a real privilege; I am doing something useful with people who are the salt of the earth! Every day I thank my lucky stars - I thank God - for the good fortune to be here.....The way I see it, this is the most important educational experience I'll ever have."
In this single outburst Dion answers my question. The people one meets alone make volunteering worthwhile. I think of the General - a young German boy I befriended while working for the Universalist Service Committee in Germany in 1957 and 58; of Annie B. Willis, matronly saint of the Jordan Neighborhood House in Suffolk, Virginia, where Joyce and I spent the summer of 1965; of Bruce Klunder, a campus chaplain who died under a bulldozer while protesting the building of yet another segregated school in Cleveland; of Bruce Dancis, a Cornell student who gave up his draft deferment to protest the war; and many more, in this congregation, unnamed so as not to embarrass them.
There is a sense of meaning created when we invest something of our life in that which will outlast it - serving a cause, befriending the friendless, casting the stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of justice. It is energizing to think that we have tampered with the world and, however slightly, made it a better place. I know how small a role I played in the civil rights and peace movements, but I carry with me a sense of having participated in something terribly important. That satisfaction energizes me and keeps me going.
There is, strangely, a deep sense of gratitude in volunteering - a clearer appreciation for our own blessings, merited or not - thankfulness at being given the opportunity to serve - to make a difference in the lives of people - to repair the world.
Coles quotes a ten-year-old girl in a class that collected food and clothing for poor students in the Roxbury section of Boston: "Even if we never go over there to Roxbury, we have to be grateful to the people there for all they've done for us!" There was a moment of absolute silence, after which all those students nodded in appreciation for the chance to serve.
And there is in volunteering a realization of one's own moral and spiritual growth, an education that is rare in a self-indulgent culture. My contact with the people of Empower - a local welfare rights organization - has taught me to consider people on welfare neither as saints oppressed by society, nor as sinners who should be punished, but as people with whom I need to work for economic justice.
But the "bowling alone" phenomenon is pervasive despite attempts at re-igniting the fires of American volunteerism. Last spring the Summit for America's Future grabbed headlines. However, a follow-up article in last Tuesday's New York Times indicated that the response has been underwhelming. One observer contended corporations use the program for "cause-related marketing," while another retorted, "If a company's business grows because it's doing good things for the community maybe that's healthy." Maybe so.
October 25th, National Make a Difference Day, co-sponsored by USA Weekend and the Points of Light Foundation, is another high-profile attempt to get citizens involved. A recent issue of USA Weekend said, "After you've done your good deed, send in an official entry form....(and) you will be counted.....(and) also will be eligible for recognition and charitable awards."
"After you've done your good deed." I know I ought to be excited by the Summit and Make a Difference Day. I'm not. I am curious to know if these are simply high-profile one-time responses or the beginning of an ongoing participation in community service - for example like our little heralded ten-year partnership with School 22 and later the Children's School, or even longer support of SEAFISH and its food cupboard. It isn't good enough to be fair weather volunteers.
Repairing the world is not simply done by a media-hyped summit or a single day of caring. It is the work of a lifetime - a fundamental expression of our religious faith. I can't help but wonder if these well-publicized events give the wrong message - that repairing the world is a simple act of charity. I fear the summit may be used as a cover for abdication of public responsibility for the needy. The governments of other nations provide a safety net for their citizens, while our convoluted public and private systems try to repair ours in vain. As government retreats from responsibility to "promote the general welfare," more will be expected of the private sector than it can be expected to deliver.
For example, this week I had a call from a local social service agency asking help for an employee whose power has been cut off by RG&E - she is $1000 behind in her payments. This woman is disabled and caring for two disabled children. Social Services will give $22 in emergency help. After admitting our funds for such purposes were meager, I called RG&E, the Red Cross, The Center for Independent Living, and no one could provide financial help. Funds have been cut, or she doesn't qualify. Statewide Youth Advocacy? Cut! Youth probation officers? Cut! The Center for Youth Services? Cut! And we of the private sector are supposed to make it up. It may sound wonderful for Bill Clinton and George Pataki to brag about all those leaving welfare - but they don't talk about the people who are being badly hurt by the meanness of welfare reform.
While honoring and encouraging volunteer service, my belief in "justice, equity and compassion in human relations," is why my own volunteerism is primarily in advocating policies that create public responsibility for those in need. I illustrate this by speaking of the late Mother Teresa - by all accounts the most famous volunteer in the world. I did not agree with her on many issues, her adamant opposition to abortion and family planning chief among them. She dealt compassionately with the poor, but would that she had used her influence to attack the causes of their misery as well. She refused the opportunity. Her life of service to "the least of these" is a strong challenge to my liberal "do-goodism," but does not suffice. For me, when I see injustice, I have a civic duty to annoy the unjust.
Instead I think of Margaret Sanger, founder of the planned parenthood movement. She was a public health nurse who day after day visited scenes of suffering in which poor women were plunged into even greater despair with unwanted pregnancies.
"These were not merely 'unfortunate conditions among the poor' such as we read about. I knew the women personally. They were living, breathing, human beings, with hopes, fears and aspirations like my own."
Sanger told the story of Mrs. Sachs, a 28-year-old woman with septicemia as a result of a self-induced abortion. The woman's doctor warned her that one more pregnancy could be fatal. She begged the doctor to tell her what she could do to avoid the pregnancy. The doctor said, "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Mrs. Sachs begged Margaret Sanger, "Please tell me the secret, and I'll never breathe it to a soul." Sanger was haunted by the request, but did nothing. Three months later Mrs. Sachs was pregnant again, went into a coma and died.
Sanger left the death-bed scene and walked the streets. That night she decided that she could not go on like this, merely witnessing to human suffering. "I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky." The planned parenthood movement is the social action that grew out of her compassion for one suffering soul.
The two basic questions we must ultimately ask are these: what should we do and why should we do it? We should try to repair the world, because in so doing we will help to repair not only the world but ourselves as well. To volunteer - from voluntas - choice - and velle - wish. We don't have to do it - no one is forcing us. We do it because we want to - we are Unitarian Universalists bent on changing the world. We do it because that is part of our ministry as people of liberal religious faith. We do it because we know that if we are not involved in solutions, we are part of the problems.
This is a call then, to look outward by looking inward. Do we think our puny efforts can change the course of destiny? We ought at least tamper with it. That is our moral mandate. Today's Social Responsibility Sunday finds us on the brink of Judaism's High Holy Days, so we do well to remember a Jewish legend of the "lamed-Vovnik-Tsaddikim," the 36 righteous people by whose merit the world survives. In every generation there are these 36 secret tzaddikim - saints. Nobody knows who they are, but were it not for their lonely example, the world would crumble. So live as if you were one of them.