U.S. postage stamp of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Serving, as families, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

By Michelle Richards

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not only for celebration, remembrance, and a tribute to an amazing individual, but in recent years has evolved into a national day of service. All across America on this day, people perform community service in hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, and wherever people need help. It is a day of volunteering to feed the hungry, rehabilitate housing, tutor those who can’t read, mentor at-risk youngsters, console the broken-hearted, and a thousand other projects building the beloved community of Dr. King’s dream.

For Unitarian Universalist parents who lament our lack of meaningful holidays, a national day of service can be a way of living our faith together as a family. Beyond honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, this national day of service promotes actively working to uphold our Second Principle, “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” And since many children are home from school to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this can be an optimal family time for community service.

For instance, Laura Yamashita, who attends the Unitarian Universalist Church of Atlanta, marches in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade with her children every year. This has become an annual tradition for her family and has marked the passing of the years just like holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. It also makes a clear statement to her children that their presence is important in honoring the man and his work for non-violent social change.

Other Unitarian Universalist parents have arranged time to serve meals in soup kitchens, work on community restoration projects, or donated time to stock a food pantry’s shelves with food for hungry families. The opportunities for service are limitless; in fact, many local organizations that are in need of assistance will hold special opportunities for volunteers to help out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. You can find out about ways to make a difference all over the country and in your neighborhood through the National Day of Service website.

Even if your family does not engage in social action projects together on this day, the holiday presents an opportunity for Unitarian Universalist children to learn about the power of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, two key aspects of our religious heritage. One thing that my kids find really amazing is that even though Dr. King was not a Unitarian Universalist, he was heavily influenced by Gandhi (who was a Hindu) and through him, by Henry David Thoreau (a Transcendentalist Unitarian). (King also drew inspiration from the Unitarian-Universalist utopian minister Adin Ballou, whose idea of “nonresistance” influenced Tolstoy and Gandhi, and from the radical Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, whose language about the “moral arc of the universe” King used in his speeches.)

This National Day of Service presents an opportunity for all of us, no matter our color or creed or political affiliation, to create a better world. For beyond his work on the civil rights movement and non-violent protest, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presented a challenge to all of us when he said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” To this challenge, I’ll add: “What are you doing to teach your children what we need to be doing for others?”

Learn more about the MLK-Thoreau connection at these links: “The Formative Influences on Martin Luther King,” by Gregg Blakely (Peace Magazine, Apr.-June 2001); “The Life and Words of Martin Luther King Jr.” (Scholastic curriculum guide, grades 6-8).

Photo above: ©2011 Ken Brown/iStockphoto

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