THE BLOG
01/15/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

'Everybody Can Be Great, Because Anybody Can Serve'

This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the defining quote in today's community service movement. His words endure and his presence is still felt.

I remember writing a book report on Dr. King in fourth grade in the late '60s, and have watched each of my sons do the same. And this week, grammar schools and high schools, colleges and universities, churches, synagogues and countless community organizations are preparing to celebrate his birthday and engage in service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Organizers call it "A Day On, Not a Day Off" and thousands of people across the country will participate in service projects of all kinds. Many of those projects are run by secular organizations, and in today's climate, religious conversation and dialogue are often discouraged and even prohibited.

If Dr. King were alive today, what would he think of our culture of service? How would he respond to the great disconnect that often exists between faith and service?

I can imagine Dr. King being invited to a campus to lecture in a service-learning class, but be reminded in the hallway before entering the classroom not to talk too much about religion, or about his faith. The explanation would be something like: "We don't do that here; we don't want to offend anyone," or, "It's not our style."

I can imagine that Dr. King would be perplexed. Because how could he separate the activist from the preacher?

It is important to remember that it was Dr. King's faith that guided and sustained him in his acts of courageous leadership. You're not going to understand him if you don't understand him as a man of faith. He was a religious leader who was committed to his faith tradition and community, while also respectful and affirming of others. He led from the pulpit, he quoted and embodied the words of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, he incorporated hymns, spirituals and scripture into his sermons and speeches to the point where it is not always clear who said what.

I believe that he intended it that way.

Dr. King talked about Jesus. He talked about Jesus a lot. Just listen to some of his sermons, with titles like: "The Ways of God in the Midst of Glaring Evil" and "Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool."

Dr. King didn't just preach about a comfortable Christianity or a stagnant church. He led the church to action. As a prophet he denounced not only racial inequality but also wealth disparity and economic injustice. The reason Dr. King was in Memphis when he was shot was because he was organizing a strike for better pay and working conditions for sanitation workers.

As a peacemaker, Dr. King spoke out vigorously against the war and stood up, sat down and marched as a way of nonviolent protest against oppression. As a preacher he used his pulpit to inspire his congregation to follow him on marches, boycotts and protests.

So when you do your service this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, consider honoring him in the following ways:

1. Open in prayer, if the context allows.

Don't be afraid to pray. But don't just say a Christian prayer. Encourage people of all faiths to lift up prayers to their creator, proclaim their own faith and not disclaim others. For those who claim no faith tradition, encourage them to speak and reflect in comparable ways.

2. Service is important, but it is not what is most important.

Let the service activity that you are participating in be a context and opportunity for conversation and fellowship with people you may never have met before. Service generated out of grace and love requires that your assumptions, stereotypes and even prejudices be challenged and eventually eliminated.

Participate in a service project with people you don't encounter very often, if at all. Work side by side with people of different races, ages, different neighborhoods, congregations and economic backgrounds.

It will be a way to build the "beloved community" that Dr. King spoke of.

3. Learn more about the issues your service is directed toward.

If you are working at a soup kitchen, learn about the status of hunger in your community. Or homelessness. Or the prison system. Or human rights violations. What is behind the courageous response of the organization you are working with to address these needs, challenges and injustices?

4. Consider the faces of those who give shape to the service movement.

Whose picture hangs in our service offices, our libraries and our school hallways? Write their names down. Think of the phrases, articles and books that we refer to when writing a term paper or selecting an inspiring quote to put at the end of your email message.

Then identify a local person, someone older, who for years has come week after week, year after year to serve with a community organization. Look at the list and talk about what you notice.

My experience with this exercise is that many of the individuals named, from the famous to the unsung hero, will be those of faith, from many faith traditions.

There is more to Dr. King's quote:

"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 verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

This is the essence of service, the key ingredient that both inspires and sustains us to serve.

In all the service that we do -- not just on this day but over the course of our lives -- remember that the key ingredient is grace and love.

If we do not serve with our heart and soul, it is not the service that Dr. King envisioned and it will fail to move us in the direction that he marched toward.