There has been a lot of discussion going on about whether religion should be part of public life.
This kind of theoretical discussion can be thrown around on national television shows.
But anyone who lives in a community in any town in this country knows that the church is as vital a part of any community as the town hall, the library or the local swimming pool.
Whether you have religious convictions or not, the role of the church in community life is impossible to ignore. Most churches have as part of their core reason for being that they will reach out to the community in a wide variety of ways to help the needy and provide comfort to those in need of help in the community in which they reside.
Since this country was founded, the church has been a gathering place where important public factions take place. Just take a walk around Boston where the nation was born and you will notice that many of the important public landmarks that were part of the start of this country were churches. To a church, participating in community service is just as natural as a policeman helping a lost child get home. It just is part of who they are what they do.
If you have a community service project in mind, it is never a bad place to start to go to the church and meet with their administrative board. The church knows that if you improve the community, you make people feel more part of the lives of others. And people who want to be involved in the lives of others get out and go to church. So it just makes good sense for your local church, temple or synagogue to be a vital part of any community service project that can make your town a better place to live.
It is important to understand the role the church can play in any community service project in town. The church is probably not the place to go to get massive funding for huge public works to project. But don’t count the church out as a funding resource because within the church there may be many influential and wealthy citizens who might be ready to kick in their fair share to make the town a better place to live.
The church, if it is a vital and living religious body, has at its disposal a strong community of enthusiastic members and the ability to mobilize those members to get out and make a difference in the community. The pastor or priest of the local church has the pulse of his or her congregation and he or she knows how to get them moving on an exciting project and, by the way, how to turn them against one just as fast.
So when you go to the local church to discuss that community service project, think of what means the most to that religious institution. They are not motivated by property values, marketing statistics or traffic the project might generate. A church is interested in the people who might be touched and if the project gives them the ability to make a positive impact on the community. That kind of influence will help people feel open to coming to church again and that is what makes churches grow.
So we should look at churches as places that have a tremendous value to any community service project we might need to get started. As people motivators, they cannot be beaten. Church members are joiners and doers and them as a rule can be trusted with money, equipment and responsibility. Churches have small communities such as the youth group, the ladies circle or the men’s fellowship that by themselves can take on a community service project and make it a success. So if you have plans to start a project that is going to make a positive mark on your community, remember a church can always be counted on to be a good neighbour.
There is something about community service that causes a sense of coming together that is not possible in any other setting. When a community comes out either in a time of crisis or when a big community project is in the works, you see a side of people that will not surface in their day to day world. This may be why community service projects that mobilize the population to get out and help others are so popular.
Community service gives people a chance to do something for someone else. It also gives parents the chance to get their kids involved in something wholesome, fun and to learn the value of doing a project for a selfless motive. And it gives everyone a chance to get to know others in the community that we might never meet any other way.
United Way functions are great for this because they pull volunteers from businesses all over your community. So you might be working shoulder to shoulder painting a schoolroom with the president of the biggest bank in town or a minister of a church you never otherwise would have gotten to know. The hours working together builds bonds and friendships that are in every possible way healthy for everyone.
There are plenty of historical precedents for how the bonding that occurs in times of community service pulls a community and even the nation together. During World War II, the nation was shocked into action by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All around the country, communities mobilized in dozens of ways to conserve precious resources needed for the war effort, to equip, train and take care of the expanding military and sending their sons off to fight this threat to the nation.
To this day there is no time in our history remembered with such fondness as those days after Pearle Harbor when the nation functioned as one person to do all they could to win this battle that was before us. The songs of that era and the movies are cherished even by generations that have come later because they are reminders of a time when the people came together for what was perhaps the greatest community service project of all time, to defeat the enemy overseas by mobilizing here at home.
Similar unity has happened from time to time since then and always, it seems, in response to a crisis. When President Kennedy was shot, when the towers fell on 911 or when the hurricane hit New Orleans, the unity of purpose among all Americans was evident. If ever there was a time when we showed the world that we were one people with one heart, those were the times.
If we can find ways to create a similar spirit, not as a result of crisis but built around a community need, even at just the local level, we can see a similar unity between peoples that can cause some real social bonding. In many communities, there are divisions between neighbourhoods based on racial or economic divisions. A strong commitment to community service can cause people to look outward and away from their resentments and prejudices and work shoulder to shoulder with a fellow citizen that they may have treated with hostility in any other setting.
There are many good reasons to sponsor community service at the local level including the good it does for the recipients and the good feelings the volunteers get when they get out and help another person. But this side benefit that happens when a community service project brings people together and makes new friends out of old enemies may be one of the greatest benefits of community service of them all.