Missing the Mark on MLK Day

If you put together a list of the five people in Dallas who do the most to help the poor, Larry James would surely be on that list. Larry’s been a friend for over fifteen years now, and I have been and admirer of his for all of that time. He began ministry as a suburban pastor, but years ago made the bold move back to the heart of the city to help those most in need.

Larry is President and CEO of Central Dallas Ministries, and is one of those rare human beings who doesn’t just talk about the poor, he lives his life with the poor…serving them…worshipping with them…challenging those of us who are more affluent to get off our rears and do something to change the world. He is something of an “Amos” to Dallas’ suburban churches. (He also has a fantastic blog that everyone should read…)

Today’s DMN has a commentary by Larry, about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The essay is titled:

Missing the mark on MLK Day
Focusing on volunteering diminishes significance of his life

(Read it here)

Basically, Larry says what I have been thinking all week, but didn’t really know how to express: that the idea to “volunteering” on MLK Day really misses the mark for what the holiday should be.

Larry references a column by Steve Blow earlier this week, in which Steve bemoans the relative lack of placements for someone to volunteer. Steve’s basic point, written like the investigative journalist he is not, is that IF we are going to emphasize volunteerism on that holiday, then we should have far more places for folks to volunteer. And he insinuates that the fact that there aren’t more sites to volunteer reveals some sort of moral failing on the part of Dallas, local-non profits, and the citizenry at large.

Within it’s own inner logic, it’s an interesting point. The problem is with the “inner logic” of the whole idea in the first place. And, all week, I’ve had the itch to respond to Steve’s column on my blog. Larry’s column today pushed me to follow through…mainly because he makes the case so well and everyone should pay attention to his words.

Larry starts off by naming the issue:

“Several years ago, lots of people got the idea that the best way to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday was to organize a special day of community service. You’ve likely heard it: “Not a day off, but a day on!” The idea is that the best way to honor Dr. King’s memory and legacy would be discovered in organized volunteer efforts to extend compassion and aid to the less fortunate among us.

Here at Central Dallas Ministries, we manage a rather large AmeriCorps program, so we received word from the Corporation for National Service directing programs like ours all across the nation to orchestrate volunteer projects. Certainly nothing wrong with that.

I picked up on the same sentiment early this week at the Web site of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Here’s part of the post: “President Bush marked the Martin Luther King Jr. King holiday by volunteering and calling on Americans to honor King’s legacy by showing compassion on the holiday and throughout the year.

“The President and First Lady Laura Bush joined dozens of volunteers at the Martin Luther King Jr. library as they repaired and shelved books and taught lessons about King’s life to children. More than a half-million Americans are serving in 5,000 King Day of Service projects across the country.”

Here in Dallas, we enjoyed the commentary of popular Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow, who bemoaned the lack of organized community volunteer opportunities on this special day of national service (“Ready to go, nowhere to serve,” Jan. 20).

I’m all for seeing folks volunteer. I believe in the value of community service. Nothing beats genuine compassion and concern for others, especially for those who are down and out, ill, mistreated, marginalized and neglected. Don’t get me wrong.

But, in my opinion, the continuing and growing effort to link the memory of Dr. King to a day of volunteering diminishes the real significance of his life, to say nothing of how badly it misses the mark in understanding his personal mission.”

I know Steve Blow, and I’m sure Larry knows him too. And I know him to be a very good guy. In fact, I kinda hate that it’s his essay that’s inspired this response from me.

But, like Larry, I think Steve misses the point. And I think he misses the point in two crucial ways. Larry describes one way really well, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But there is another reason to critique the idea of volunteerism on the King holiday, and I’d like to unpack it here…

When I served in the area of “Mission and Outreach” for HPUMC, every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas my phone would start ringing off the hook. Folks would come pouring out of the woodwork, yearning to find some “soup kitchen” to serve lunch at on Thanksgiving Day, or some place to give out toys on Christmas morning.

These were always well-meaning folks who clearly had a fantasy in their mind of the “perfect” holiday. That fantasy involved doing some act of service along with their gathered family and friends. I suppose they imagined that they’d go serve some styrofoam plates of stuffing and turkey somewhere else, before returning home to stuff their own faces at home.

The problem, of course, is that TONS of other people all had the same idea; all at the same time. That first year I worked in mission/outreach, I called dozens of the agencies we worked with mostly closely (Central Dallas was probably one of them!), And over and over, I got the same message back:

During the holidays, these agencies were inundated by offers of help. People opened their checkbooks. People dropped off clothes (that’s a whole other story…) and food. People signed up to volunteer. And ultimately, the desire for folks to help outstripped the possible placements to serve.

Fast forward to…say…mid-July….

And in the heat of the summer, at the height of the vacation season, those same agencies –overwhelmed with donations of old shoes and dusty canned goods at Christmas– struggle each day to keep their doors open. Food donations dry up. Volunteers are scarcely seen (Everybody’s on vacation with their families!)

The point is this: your volunteerism IS need, just not on Christmas Day, or Thanksgiving Day, and probably not on MLK Day either.

The staffs of our best non-profits agencies work their butts off during the holidays. They put in long hours –and often work every weekend of the season– trying to match human need with the tidal wave of resources, human and otherwise, that come through theirs door at that time.

So, what? Two weeks later –while they are still trying to recuperate from the holiday– they’re supposed to gear up for another onslaught of volunteers and resources?!

Pretty bad timing, if you asked me.

See, Steve Blow makes it sound like everybody was just taking the day off and taking their eye off the ball. This is what annoyed me most about his essay.

My hunch? By the time MLK Day rolls around, the staffs of our best non-profits are just barely beginning to catch their breath from Christmas and Thanksgiving. It’s not that they are uncaring about the MLK holiday. It’s that their reserve of caring –their internal spirits, and their external supplies of goods and services– need some time to rest and renew.

My second hunch? The folks who first thought up this idea of “A Day On” never really bothered to ask any social service agencies what they thought about it. These places are not going to turn help down, don’t get me wrong.

But offer to sponsor “A Day On” in mid-July?
My guess is they’d well up with tears of joy.

If anything, we should be giving these folks the King Holiday OFF, offering them our profound thanks for their service during the just-concluded busiest time of the year.

So if your soul feels called to volunteer, fine. But don’t do it on Thanksgiving Day. Don’t do it on MLK Day. Do it on July 22nd. Do it on June 29th. Do it on some other mid-summer day when the rest of the world is on “summer break,” and your contribution will be desperately appreciated.

Call the North Texas Food Bank in June, and make a contribution to get them through the summer months. Call Central Dallas Ministries, or NDSM, and put in your name to do a day of service in late August. My guess is, they’ll need your help a lot more then, and your contribution will have more lasting meaning to everyone. Including you.

BUT!!! If honoring the vision of Dr. King is what you want to do, then forget about all of this.

“Huh?!” you say…

And this where Larry’s essay really gets at the crux and heart of the matter. The bottom line:

Dr. Martin Luther King was not about challenging people to develop their sense of “charity” for a day, he was about challenging people to change our systems so that our charity would no longer be necessary.

Larry says it better than I ever could. And I hope you’ll read these next paragraphs slowly, several times, and take these words to heart:

“Dr. King didn’t call folks to volunteer to help the poor. He wanted to know why so many people were poor in a nation of such opulence and wealth. So far as I know, Dr. King never organized a food pantry or invited the rich to serve in soup kitchens. He asked hard questions about the meaning of hunger and homelessness to our collective, national soul.

He didn’t call for mentors and volunteer projects in our public schools. No, Dr. King asked penetrating questions about the quality of education for all of our children. Dr. King didn’t just invite people to visit the hospitals where soldiers were returning home with severe injuries and lifelong disabilities caused by a terrible conflict in Southeast Asia. He asked why the war needed to continue at all.

He didn’t wonder why more health care professionals weren’t volunteering in indigent clinics. He challenged the nation to adopt just universal health care policies to ensure that every American received adequate and routine treatment.

The kinds of volunteer opportunities that Dr. King invited people to take part in often landed them in jail, not on the front page of the society section. He asked people to march, register to vote, sit in, resist and confront systemic injustice and unfair laws. He asked people to lay down their very lives for the sorts of changes that made the American system better for everyone.

His program didn’t seek to simply meet needs. His vision called for the elimination of need. To redefine Dr. King’s life and legacy in those terms limits his importance and drains his message of its power. And, frankly, such an emphasis lets us all off the hook when it comes to the fundamental and sweeping public policy changes still needing our attention and the full expression of our courage as a people.”

Thank you, Larry, for putting words to the feelings I could not have expressed better. You are dead-on the mark.

If the King holiday becomes a day of just passing out canned goods or painting the walls of a “clinic for the indigent,” then we have turned the lion-hearted vision of Dr. King into Garfield the Cat.

To really honor Dr. King, we need to ask why we need the clinic and the food pantry in the first place.
To really live out his vision, we need to work for a world where one day we don’t need either.

What a “day on” that day will be!!!

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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