It seems a simple enough thing, this day on the calendar. But I’m old enough, and you probably are, too, to remember when Dr. King’s birthday was not a holiday. Although the Stevie Wonder “Happy Birthday” is the standard now for regular folks’ birthdays, I pointed out to my kids recently that this cooler, dance-ier version to cut cake by was part of the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a holiday, way back in the 80’s (this holiday was only first officially celebrated in 1986.)
For my kids’ entire life, the third Monday has not only been a federal holiday for Dr. King’s birthday, it’s also been a Day of Service, where we are encouraged to be of service to our community in line with Dr. King’s dream.
That’s kinda cool, don’t you think, that to them, the King holiday has always been about service to others. Each year, we go to a large-scale community event where dozens of organizations have set up project work-stations and information displays. Over the years, we’ve worked on cards for soldiers, packing lunches for the shelter, making bracelets and small play items for children in the hospital, blankets for the shelter, among many other projects.
It’s really as much as fun as it is service for them, since they often bring or meet their friends there and then wander from station to station together. But it’s okay, this simpler day of service. They have the opportunity to learn about the needs in our community. It serves as a reminder not to let this holiday become just another day off from school, to sleep in, listen absently to the famous “I Have a Dream” speech and stop thinking about the words. It’s a stop in time to reflect on Dr. King’s admonishment to overcome self-centeredness by finding purpose in your life in his sermon “Conquering Self-Centeredness.”
“I think one of the best ways to face this problem of self-centeredness is to discover some cause and some purpose, some loyalty outside of yourself and give yourself to that something.”
Across your community, there is probably some type of organized service program today. If not, you can always find your own interest, cause, or purpose. And can I give you a few pointers, from my own experience?
Find something hands-on. It’s valued, of course, to write a check or click the PayPal “donate” button, the organization will be happy to accept your donation, and you will probably even feel good about doing it. But it’s a different feeling to get up, touch something or somebody, and see someone smile (even yourself). Pack foods at the local pantry, pass out meals at the shelter, sort clothes at the church collection, read books to children, knit a scarf for a foster child, shovel an elderly neighbor’s walkway. I know that you will reflect back on this experience differently than you will putting that check in the mail.
Do something for other people. Whatever your normal service activity may be, if you have one, choose something today that’s for people. There’s a lot of volunteer activities involving collecting blankets for dogs or hauling trash out the river and they are all worthwhile. But today, consider the spirit of Dr. King and do something that touches another person.
Find something you enjoy. Community service doesn’t have to be only serving soup or painting a fence, unless you like that sort of thing. Find something you enjoy doing, something meaningful to you, and to which you can add value. That’s not to say it’s always going to be fun and wonderful, service may sometimes be uncomfortable or even hard, that’s okay. Sometimes your best experiences will be when you get out of your comfort zone.
Keep doing it. Today is the Day of Service – just one day. But don’t stop by midnight and then wait until next January to do something else. Let today be a springboard or a change in pace. If you already have a regular service activity, let today be the day you try something different. If you want to start being more active, use today as a day to explore the needs in your neighborhood and how you can use your skills and talents. Make a plan to stay active all year long. Even consider getting your friends involved, the more the merrier.
Need some inspiration about why you should get out there? Read Dr. King’s 1957 sermon about our tendency to be self-centered. I only came across it while writing this blog post, in search of the source of the quote, “What have you done for others?” Get your coffee and sit back, it’s a bit long. In fact, it’s more than just the sermon, it’s the transcript of the church service. It goes from the church announcements and offering all the way to alter call. He promises not to preach too long, on account of the heat (it’s August in Alabama). But, if you’ve ever been to a Black Baptist church you know when the preacher says he’s not going to preach too long, well, just get comfortable, you may be there a while.
The sermon goes on about the dangers of self-centeredness and the solutions, which brings us to the point of the day – being of service to others. Don’t think you’ve gotten where you have all by yourself, don’t think you are too important. Find your purpose.
Enjoy your day. I’d love to hear where or how you gave in service. #MLKDay