If the 1970s was the "me decade" and the 1980s the "decade of greed," some analysts think the 1990s is emerging as the "we decade." After spells of looking inward, then grabbing as big a slice of the pie as possible, Americans are rediscovering meaning in togetherness and giving to those in need.

That's wishful thinking, perhaps, but it is the hope of the organizers of the Presidents' Summit for America's Future. The April summit's goal was to mobilize 2 million volunteers by the year 2000 to help "at risk" children and to enlist the support of corporate America. The volunteers are to serve as mentors and models to children and youth, ensuring their safety and health, giving them the tools to succeed through education, and encouraging them to serve in their own communities.

The crisis among America's youth is acute: According to one report, 14.7 million American children (21 percent) lived in poverty in 1995, 2.1 million more than in 1989. Almost 10 million children (one in seven) have no health insurance, 3 million are abused every year, and more than a half-million teens belong to gangs. Teen violence, suicides, and pregnancy are all on the increase.

With such daunting needs, it is strange that the faith community was given a seat at the back of the bus en route to the volunteer summit, especially since more than half of American volunteers credit faith as their motive. Religious leaders were not at first included in planning the event, and when they were invited to join, the religious leaders involved felt marginalized by the political and business interests already engaged.

The potential for volunteering should not be overlooked. For example, an African-American young adult testified recently in my church that he was mentored by one of our members in his inner-city Sunday-school class when he was a child. He has accomplished more in life than he could have imagined otherwise, he said, just because someone saw potential in him that his environment did not allow him to see.

However, we should not assume that massive volunteerism can solve all our social ills (any more than big government has done). Mentoring programs can ameliorate the problems of children growing up in single-parent families, but it does not guarantee stable homes. Corporations can donate people and financial resources to charitable causes, but that does not create more jobs. Volunteerism cannot solve the systemic problems in public education or make health care accessible to all the poor—though volunteers in both areas make valuable contributions. Those goals demand social policies that make financial and human resources available to all, as well as nurturing homes and local communities that cultivate environments hospitable to learning and good health.

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Volunteer America
Volunteerism and voluntary associations form a "hidden" component in American history, according to American historian Daniel Boorstin. Out of necessity, colonial and frontier Americans formed associations to do for each other what they couldn't do alone. In signing the Mayflower compact, the pilgrims pledged "to all care of each others good and of the whole by everyone and so mutually." From the first, we were a nation of givers and joiners.

In the 1830s, the French social observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the new American republic was marked by a spirit of generosity and a practice of voluntary association. A century and a half after Tocqueville, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has documented that volunteerism is alive and well in America, but that it has always paradoxically existed alongside an oftimes stronger impulse toward personal freedom and self-reliance.

Indeed, volunteerism lives on. According to a study by the Independent Sector, 93 million Americans volunteered 20.3 billion hours in 1995. This averages out to 218 hours per volunteer or 77 hours per American. "There's hardly a member of Congress that hasn't used that 93 million number," wrote Michael Gerson in U.S. News & World Report. But, as Pastor Eugene Rivers of Boston's Azusa Christian Community asked Gerson: "If there are really 93 million volunteers in America then why are our cities worse then they have ever been?"

In reality, Gerson points out, more than a fifth of those hours consists of "informal volunteering"—anything from baby-sitting for friends to baking cookies for school fundraisers. These figures also include volunteers at cultural institutions and those who serve on boards and committees. Less than 8.4 million of the 93 million Americans volunteer in "human services." The same pattern prevails in church where our volunteer hours are more likely spent in nurturing the church family and keeping the congregational wheels turning, rather than in outreach to the needy.

"Volunteerism, Christian-style, is much more likely to mean serving on the parish council or the vestry, not conducting Life Plan seminars in prison," says Roberto Rivera of the Wilberforce Forum. "In the current volunteer economy," he adds, "giving the Metropolitan Opera $10 million … is [counted] the same as using that money to help 3000 inner city kids attend private schools. Changing that economy requires reinventing human nature and that's not going to happen." The seeming generosity of American people is often an expression of self-interest. In caring for others, we care for ourselves.

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Human as we want to be
So why should people bother to help others? "Volunteerism is good for the soul, and it's good for the country," Vice President Al Gore said at the summit, and that is reason enough for some people. Who doubts the therapeutic and civic benefits of volunteerism? Psychiatrist Alfred Adler had this simple prescription for melancholy: "You can be cured in fourteen days if you … try to think every day how you can please some one." The real malady, said Adler, was a lack of connection to others.

Harvard professor Robert Coles, himself an inveterate volunteer, was forced to wrestle with his own motivations for service by the unsettling comments of precocious nine-year-old Ruth Ann. A student in the inner-city school where Coles was volunteering, Ruth Ann said: "Well, it's nice that you're here, but where did you get the idea, that's what we wondered. Did you hear something bad about us?" Having suggested he was there to meet some need of his, Ruth Ann said, "We'll try to tell you everything that we know." And then she added, "If you folks need any help, we could come and help, you know."

Our motives for serving others will always be mixed. But when Coles shared his misgivings about his own motives with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, she chided him, "If we were going to forbid hypocrites to work here with us, there'd be no one to do the work, and no one to do the forbidding!"

Service as vocation
In spite of mixed motives, Christians must "be compassionate as [our heavenly] Father is compassionate" (Luke 6:36). Christian service should also be guided by these principles (borrowed here from Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America):

Volunteerism has its own intrinsic value. There is a fix-it mentality in the American drive to volunteer. But although faith-based social ministries are often more effective than purely secular ones—Christian drug rehab programs, for instance, have an exponentially higher success rate—we do not serve because we are effective. We offer service with no guarantee of a pragmatic outcome, doing it in the spirit of Christ, who showed love to many who ultimately rejected him.

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God's love provides the incentive for volunteering. When Lenscrafters provides 1 million free eye exams to needy children and Pillsbury launches a mentoring program, it seems like good business—savvy public relations. And when economic incentives are offered, such as college scholarships for youth who volunteer, one asks: Is it truly voluntary and is it truly service when a reward is provided? Christians need no incentive to serve other than following God's lead in showing compassion for his world. This means suffering with others, just as God's Son suffered with and for us.

Christian volunteerism should be directed toward the deepest hurts and needs. Volunteering for youth sports, service clubs, and school projects are all constructive, social contexts for fellowship and community improvement. But specifically Christian volunteerism will be motivated by the compassion of God toward the world's deepest needs. When John the Baptist's disciples asked whether he was the Messiah, Jesus replied: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor" (Matt. 11:5, NIV). One sign that the Messiah had come was that God in Christ was ministering to the least and the lowest on the earth.

Volunteerism is not a comprehensive social strategy. Volunteerism individualizes social problems by putting a human face on a statistical mass. But volunteerism only reaches individuals and most often leaves structures untouched. Volunteerism alone cannot ensure that basic human needs are met and economic opportunity is offered to all. Society as a whole, including private and public sectors, along with the church, has a responsibility to work toward equal opportunity.

John Carr, social-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, received a call from a reporter on the eve of the Presidents' Summit. Now that Lenscrafters and Burger King are getting on board with the call to volunteer, the reporter wondered, what is the church's response going to be? Carr responded, with irony: "I promise you, we will not stop doing what we've been doing all along now that others have joined the effort."

Service is what Christians do; servants is who we are.

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