By MATTHEW B. WILHELM
For the Monitor
Sometimes we get so caught up in where we differ that it's easy to forget where we agree.
Whether John McCain or Barack Obama wins the White House in November, the next president is poised to follow through on his campaign promise to inspire millions of Americans to serve their country through bold legislation to expand AmeriCorps. With increased funding to the Corporation for National & Community Service, local beneficiaries like the AmeriCorps Victim Assistance Program, Campus Compact, and the Student Conservation Association will be able to provide more New Hampshire residents with hands-on opportunities to address critical need in the areas of education, public safety, health and the environment.
Unfortunately, faith-based organizations have only begun to scratch the surface in partnering with the federal government to meet our most pressing challenges as a nation. While I was a skeptic of President Bush's very first executive order mandating equal treatment of faith-based organizations by the federal government, I recently had the chance to spend two months traveling the country, meeting with non-profit leaders and witnessing first-hand the amazing work being done by AmeriCorps members to lift our most vulnerable citizens out of poverty.
While we must be careful not to slip down the slope of religious proselytizing, I am convinced that we need not only to expand the number of AmeriCorps members serving with Habitat for Humanity's hundreds of affiliates across the country, but also drastically increase the number of smaller nonprofits based out of temple, mosque, and church basements.
Of the $15.3 billion in federal grants administered last year to aid the homeless, at-risk youth, recovering addicts, returning offenders, and people infected by HIV/AIDS, faith-based organizations received only $2.2 billion. Yet, of the 60 million Americans who are volunteering each year, a whopping one-third do so through faith-based groups.
My own path of service began a decade ago at Calumet, a Lutheran church camp on the shores of Lake Ossipee. Transformed by a shared common experience with 24 of my peers from across New England and the man who trained us to be camp counselors, an AmeriCorps alum from Derry named Jonathon, I left inspired to serve my church and community. After eight summers on staff at Calumet, I was proud to follow in Jonathon's footsteps and serve my country as an AmeriCorps member.
I chose to do my service with City Year New Hampshire, a youth corps uniting diverse 17-24 year olds from across the country for a challenging year of full-time community service. Addressing University of New Hampshire graduates at this spring's commencement, co-founder and CEO Michael Brown described the makeup of the City Year corps as "people who otherwise probably would never meet each other, even if they lived just a mile or two apart."
In addition to race, gender, education, party affiliation and socio-economic background, the God we worshiped (or didn't worship, in many cases) was yet another factor that made us unlikely friends - or even co-workers - under any other circumstance.
Common desire to serve
Regardless of that which would have normally have driven us apart, we built true "esprit de corps" through our service. For some, our service origins were deeply rooted in family. For others, it was a teacher, coach, or mentor. However, for many of us, it was our faith. In a day and age when religious extremism keeps most Americans at a comfortable distance from those who look different, talk different, or pray different, we were given an opportunity to bring out the best in and find the true common thread between our faiths. We found that common thread through our desire to serve and make the world a better place.
Last week, Obama gave a major policy address outlining his plan to build on Bush's legacy of support for faith-based organizations. He reflected back on his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, an experience which he has said led him to a life of public service. Obama recalled that, "I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."
It's time to take the transformative power of AmeriCorps to the next level and unleash its potential on faith-based organizations across the country. There is much to be gained by both communities in need and volunteers looking for purpose as we continue to build, rally, and mobilize armies of compassion for the 21st century. We know not where nor how the next great leader is waiting to be called into service.
(Matthew B. Wilhelm, a 26-year old national service activist from Manchester, recently received the National Volunteer Excellence Award from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. He is national field director for ServeNext.org.)