Living Faith

Any time an event attracts four presidents and a couple of first ladies, you know it’s an event to be reckoned with. I’m talking, of course, about the Presidents’ Summit on Volunteerism, which took place recently in Philadelphia. It was an impressive television event, brilliantly choreographed. Former Presidents Ford, Carter, and Bush took part. So did Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, along with President and Mrs. Clinton and the Gores. General Colin Powell led the charge, and Oprah Winfrey and film star John Travolta had active roles as well. But in the wake of this celebrity-soaked event, I’m left with a question: What is it that really motivates volunteers? The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky asked: Can we be good without God? Today I’m tempted to ask: Can we do good without God? In other words, what is it that motivates people to reach out with compassion and love to help others? Is it a media extravaganza-a single weekend of celebrities exhorting us to help people? Or is it something else? What provides the staying power? If you look at the history of our country, the evidence strongly suggests that it’s religious faith that motivates people to volunteer. Religious faith spurred earlier generations of Christians to put an end to child labor and to build hospitals, libraries, and schools. A later generation of Christians began the fight for civil rights. With this history, why did the organizers of the Volunteer Summit invite so few members of religious organizations—and wait until the last minute to do so? The Wall Street Journal suggests that conference organizers were nervous about church-state entanglement. That might seem a bit odd, considering the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who go out from their churches every week. Because I lead one of the largest volunteer organizations in America, I desperately want to see the volunteer summit succeed. The "Great Society" experiments of the 1960s have proven to be bankrupt. In fact, they’ve created a subculture of poor families without hope-of kids without consciences committing random, violent crime. We’ve almost lost two generations in a row. American political and social stability is at stake. We have to do something. But who is down in the inner cities, reaching out to kids at risk? When I visit these areas I find the Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army, Prison Fellowship volunteers, and church-run soup kitchens. I’ve seen Habitat for Humanity building homes. I know a lot of volunteers do wonderful work for the arts and the opera societies and libraries-and other good community efforts. But who are the people getting their hands dirty? I wonder. One thing I do know, millions of Christians reach out in compassion to suffering people because our Lord commands us to. I hope that the glittering celebrity extravaganza in Philadelphia will infuse America once again with a spirit of volunteerism and civic duty. But while we’re waiting for John Travolta and Oprah Winfrey to do that, Christians will quietly go right on volunteering on behalf of the poor and downtrodden—just as they’ve always done. Not because of a TV event, but because our Lord commands us to.


Chuck Colson


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