In Service

February 2, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about service lately. A big part of Obama’s call to America asks us to be in service to our communities. I am fully behind this idea, but as I cheer the concept I also find that it’s harder than you might think to know just what it means. What is required of us? How do we participate? Since I’ve moved around a lot in my adult life, I am distinctly aware that the idea of a community is much different for me now than it was when I was a kid. My community in Covington, Tennessee in the 1980s was made up of three parts. There were the people I knew from school. There were the people I knew from church. And there were the people I was related to, most of whom lived out of town. Community was easy to find. Everybody knew everybody else. Like it or not, you knew what the neighbors were up to and they knew what you were up to. Honestly, that small town all-knowingness was the first thing I was happy to leave behind when I moved to New York. But the resultant privacy came with sacrifices. My first apartment in New York City was a 4th-floor walk up. I lived there for six or seven years and only knew one other tenant by name. I went to a big city church but pretty much came and went without ever getting involved in anything. My friends, mostly actors and musicians, were scattered all over the city. We kept up with each other’s lives but finding actual time to connect was a rarity indeed. Several years and several cities later, that sense of scatteredness has only gotten worse.

On his last day as a private citizen, Obama declared Feb. 19th to be a “National Day of Service,” and I was excited by the challenge. I scoured a few websites to find out what activities were going on in my neighborhood, and sure enough I found out that there was going to be a community-wide parade just blocks from my house. It was called the “Double Happiness Parade,” celebrating Obama’s Inauguration and MLK day. Following the parade, everyone was to scatter back to their own neighborhoods and clean up trash in the area. I signed up our family and, despite the fact that we all were sick that day, we went.

It was a sight to see. Not since I was a kid have I seen such an outpouring of local support for anything. People came from all corners. Kids, dogs, wagons, signs, noisemakers. There were hundreds of people there. Families. We ran into people we kind-of know in the ‘hood — moms and kids from the park, people we knew lived nearby but hadn’t yet encountered. Our favorite moment was when we fell into step with an “old lefty” (as Jason called him) carrying his banjo and leading people in singing along the great folk songs from the 60s and 70s. After several verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” he launched into “We Shall Overcome,” and the middle-aged black couple right next to me sang, “We shall overcome… TO-DAY.” It was moving, y’all.

So, I offer you this website. Type in your zipcode and see what’s going on near you. Also, take a look at I found one organization that is gathering used magazines for literacy. How hard is it to drop off your old magazines instead of throwing them in the recycling bin? And for those of you who aren’t in America, I ask: are there similar community-based, volunteer-based websites with more global objectives? Let me know.

Finally, I came across this questionnairre in a completely unrelated source, but I think the questions are great and they might lead you to think about what it is that you can be doing to be a part of something greater than yourself. I’m still figuring it out, but I can tell you that these questions sent me thinking in really surprising directions. Have fun.

1. Name the things you did as a child that brought you greatest joy.
2. What do you do now that gives you the most energy?
3. What wears you out?
4. What are your hobbies? What do you do to restore your soul?
5. Is there something you have thought about doing for a long time? Is now the time? How do you know?
6. Is there a wall or barrier that keeps you from following your call?
7. If you could do anything in your community, what would it be?

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