Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”
Following the example of this civil rights hero, millions of people answered this question by serving their neighbors on the MLK Day of Service. Residents of all 50 states came together to deliver meals to the hungry, refurbish schools, build homes for those in need, among other ways of helping people.
In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday to also be a national day of service. Taking place on the third Monday of January, the day is the only federal holiday that is also designated a national day of service, which means that many have the day off to volunteer.
“Dr. King believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all, and encouraged all citizens to live up to the purpose and potential of America by applying the principles of nonviolence to make this country a better place to live,” stated the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that supports volunteer and service opportunities around the U.S.
“The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community.”
People of all ages from all walks of lives participated in these efforts to build a better community. Young people also made the day “not a day off but a day on.” This included 866 members of The Catholic University of America serving in places like homeless shelters, parks and religious institutions, according to the university’s website.
“(We) students are given the opportunity to give back to their community and honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, which is truly inspiring,” said Kianna Chevalier, a junior at the university and a Habitat for Humanity team member. She spent the service day helping at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence.
Miguel Chavez, director of Campus Ministry at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, told a local newspaper that the day of service is an opportunity to honor King as well as help others, no matter how big or small the gesture.
“As long as we are doing our part, God will do the rest,” he said.
Several dioceses across the country also honored King on Jan. 16, while others hosted weekend-long celebration honoring his life through service. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, for example, young adults began the holiday weekend by donating and assembling travel-sized hygiene kits for those in need and learning about Catholic Relief Services.
As this year’s presidential proclamation by President Obama said, it is only fitting to do works of service when remembering King, who championed causes about civil rights, international peace, as well as job creation and economic justice. Now it is time to continue honoring King’s words and actions.
“As we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, we celebrate a man and a movement that transformed our country, and we remember that our freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of others,” the proclamation continued. “We must live our values, strive for righteousness and bring goodness to others.”
Now as we enter into Black History Month, we remember how Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to improving the world in which he lived — his example challenges us to do the same every day of the year.
Maria-Pia Negro Chin is bilingual associate editor at Maryknoll Magazine.