You Only Need a Heart Full of Grace

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If it weren't for the distinctive 1960s fashion, it would be easy to mistake the picture of the 1963 March on Washington for 2010. The placards in the grainy photo of the thousands gathered on the national mall express the concerns of the day: jobs, access to quality education, housing.

Fast forward some 45 years and we are a nation that has made remarkable progress on some dimensions of Dr. King's dream, but we are also a nation grappling with the upheaval of high unemployment and economic dislocation and its very real human manifestations. Almost 20% of our nation's children live in poverty and half of our minority students drop out of high school. One in six American households struggles to keep adequate food on the table and nonprofits around the country are reporting record demand for basic services such as housing and utility assistance.

Yet, now as then, as the young preacher on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial told us, we cannot give into "the valley of despair." That clear voice from that hot June day in 1963 is remembered and it is the voice of one beckoning us to live out the dream of our best selves, as both individuals and as a nation, and to take action to effect real change in our communities.

Some five years after his "I Have A Dream" speech, just months before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us: "Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.... You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace..."

This Monday, Jan. 18, the nation celebrates the birth of this remarkable leader. Thousands of "hearts full of grace" will be engaged in acts of service around the country this day in active tribute to his legacy and in direct response to the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.

On the King Holiday, Points of Light Institute and HandsOn Network, in collaboration with civic and service organizations and its network of 250 affiliates and 70,000 nonprofit partners, will be providing an array of diverse opportunities to serve in communities across the US, engaging more than 100,000 volunteers in 1,500 projects that solve critical problems in education, the environment and the economy through HandsOn Network's Get HandsOn campaign across the nation.

Also, for the first time, the nation will be invited to join an MLK Day Virtual Town hall, an online, interactive discussion that will explore new ways to live out Dr. King's dream. These virtual town halls will combine action with reflection and feature service events and "deliberate dialogues" to garner the most compelling stories of service and to showcase the impact of caring individuals in cities from Atlanta to Sacramento.

To tell the stories of America's service leaders is to evoke our very history as a people, from Frederick Douglas to Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony to Millard Fuller. These creative, passionate and courageous individuals have written our narrative of change. Alongside them, in obscurity, were the everyday heroes who bandaged wounds and built houses. When ordinary kindness meets extraordinary leadership, great voluntary movements are born that transform our social, political and economic landscape.

This week, our President and our First Lady have asked us once more to find our place alongside those who serve. Millions of Americans around the country will take a "day on" not a "day off" on Martin Luther King Day 2010. This year, every individual has the opportunity to answer President Obama's call to make service critical to our national priorities and to address the as yet unrealized dream of Dr. King to create economic justice, tolerance and peace.

This day is a touchstone for creating a life of service and communities of change agents. In 1968, reflecting on how he wanted to be remembered, Dr. King asked that we recall that he "tried to give his life serving others." Every day that we find ways to serve, we honor his memory. Every time one citizen reaches out to another with charity and dignity, we move ever forward toward Dr. King's dream of a great nation made even better.