09/12/2013 03:08 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Have Faith in National Service

Each day in America, faith-based organizations, national and local, large and small, perform civic miracles. For instance, cash-strapped urban congregations supply many social services, from day care to health care, from sheltering the homeless to finding jobs for ex-prisoners. Faith communities also power many public-private, religious-secular partnerships that address national needs. For instance:
  • Over the last dozen years, religious leaders rallied to the hope that the children of prisoners could benefit substantially from having adult mentors in their lives. They forged inter-faith and ecumenical alliances, sought and found government grants, and succeeded in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people of faith to mentor these children of promise.
  • Over the last eight years, Catholic Charities and many smaller faith-based groups have powered post-Katrina New Orleans' ongoing recovery process by working in partnerships with a wide spectrum of government agencies plus universities, mental health clinics, and other groups.
  • Over the last four years, faith-based organizations responded to the economic downturn by setting up hundreds of "job clubs" where unemployed Americans could network, review resumes, find work and receive spiritual and emotional support.
  • Over the last two years, in response to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan to increase the number of needy children that participate in its summer food service program, faith-based organizations stepped up, worked with state and city agencies, and moved the needle on program participation.
But, we wonder, what still greater civic miracles might America's faith communities perform if blessed with thousands more miracle-workers?

Specifically, what major national challenges might the nation's faith-based organizations help conquer if thousands more young adults ages 18 to 28, representing every demographic description and socioeconomic status, and each working full-time for a year, bolstered the religious sector's civic partnerships?

And how might a year in the civic trenches with urban and other religious leaders and volunteers benefit the young adults themselves?

These are among the exciting questions raised by the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project. Its report, A 21st Century National Service System Plan of Action, calls for engaging one million young adults each year in a demanding full-time national service position. It describes national service as "a civic rite of passage" that will "unleash the energy and idealism of each generation to address our nation's challenges."

For reasons that are fact-based, not faith-based, and civic, not spiritual, we concur wholeheartedly. To return to our examples:
  • America is home to more than 2 million children of prisoners. Even the most successful faith-based and other programs for mobilizing mentors for this huge and hard-to-reach population would have gone farther and faster if they had full-time folks to help craft, coordinate, and communicate the programs.
  • In post-Katrina New Orleans, young people deployed by AmeriCorps quickly became fixtures at nonprofit organizations, both religious and secular, that rebuilt homes and much more. But there was never enough such young energy and talent to go around.
  • "Job Clubs" are abounding at local congregations, but they need additional support to connect with local employers, link with local workforce investment systems and share models with other congregations in the cities in which they operate. Full-time national service volunteers could do just that.
  • Only a tiny fraction of all children that receive USDA-funded meals during the school year participate in the agency's summer food program (as low as 5 percent in some states). In Philadelphia and other cities with robust faith-based partnerships, participation rates range higher (about 50 percent in Philly). But nearly everywhere more year-round staff is needed to tee up "summer sites" and really move the needle on summer childhood hunger.
Having national service participants by the thousands engaged with faith-based organizations could spell real progress in reducing childhood hunger, mobilizing mentors, rebuilding cities that have suffered disasters, and addressing numerous other national needs. The participants--different incomes, races, regions, and religions (including none at all)--could be cross-laced and intentionally placed in never-been-before places beyond their respective comfort zones. They would likely learn horizon-broadening civic lessons in leadership and life that are traditionally learned en masse only through military service.

Faith-based organizations would be especially fertile grounds for cultivating life-long, active-duty citizenship. Whether representing Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or other traditions, community-serving religious individuals and institutions tend to approach things holistically. They emphasize not only solving people's problems but sticking with and suffering with ("compassion" means just that) those whose problems you can't solve but who covet support that is up close and personal (not distant and bureaucratic).

This type of civic mobilization would be rejuvenating for the faith community as well. In a time when far too many congregations are shrinking, stepping up to the plate of active-duty citizenship would bring new energy and dynamism the local congregations and attract newly-engaged members, partners and supporters.

Moreover, ours is a world where many young adults lead hyper-fast-paced lives, are hooked on gadgets, and feel pressured to learn how to make a living without pausing to reflect on how they ought to live. We believe that they would benefit from serving the nation alongside people that, as in many older, urban African-American and Latino faith communities, are typically more prone to go slow but steady, often do without the latest life "necessities" (and in some cases still use typewriters), take the long view (the longest), and are unafraid to discuss either the vision behind one's goals or the purpose behind one's vision.

So, to the Franklin Project action plan, we say "amen."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.