iding in plain sight, faith volunteering is a giant in the American national service sector. The statistics are instructive: A quarter of all American non-profits are faith-based. Congregations engage 45 million volunteers, nearly half of the total of all Americans who volunteer. Faith groups employ nearly 1.3 million paid staff, just less than one percent of all those earning a salary in the U.S. But how will that change the world?
At the Points of Light Foundation, our aim has always been to challenge the nation to more and better service. The faith sector is no different. For a while at the start of the new century, the debate focused on how faith organizations might take up slack from declining public revenues. We all discussed the constitutional proprieties of such a course. Like 300,000 United Ways, the nation’s congregations were set up as places where the generous-hearted might come to offer much-needed help. They were going to be a pool of willing, waiting volunteers to any organization of whatever purpose or value.
Not so fast.
National leaders and secular agencies wanted to fit faith into a grand new alliance for greater voluntary service (and probably fewer federal dollars). But faith groups have always had very different ideas as to what they are, and more importantly—why they are.
This is where the value over the last five years of the work of two of the service groups inspired by Rev. Moon has been honestly, quite amazing. Groups like Service For Peace (SFP) and the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) have understood both the faithful idealism—especially of young people–and the practical realities of changing the world. They did not run away from the faith part. This is rarer than you might think.
SFP and the UPF can be seen day in and day out, on the ground, changing lives and hearts. We at the Foundation who have had the chance to put that ideal into action with them are testimony to it. The example of Rev. Moon has been surprisingly instructive as a focus for selfless, giving love. And be assured, no other motivation works with the same power. I have often wished that other religious traditions captured the power of love, the power of selflessness in the way I have experienced that in the service groups driven into being by Rev. Moon and his followers.
Look at it at the most basic, general religious level. Why does a working mother give an hour a week at the local church thrift store? What makes a young person freely spend time volunteering in her local Jewish Community Center? What makes an organization like UPF give generously to the victims of hurricane disaster? In a general way, their desire is to help fellow men and women. But this fact takes flesh in the desire not just to help in the abstract, but to serve the church or mosque or temple they love.
Above all, it is an outworking not of a secularist philanthropy, noble as that may be. No. It is because they love Jesus, or to perform Jewish tikkun olam–"healing the world," or whatever is their religious belief. It is faith in the raw. It is about God. It is absolutely specific.
In my work in the service movement I can honestly say there isn’t a single group whose internal beliefs I completely identify with or hold. But I know that some have a better way than others of creating good change. In my years encouraging faith service, I have not met a group that harnesses that power as well, or in a sustained way, as in the followers of Rev. Moon. For that, I am grateful. It changes the world.
It is among young people that this trend for meaning in service is most marked. In America, some travel for weeks in the summer to the Appalachians to fix up properties for the poor. Others paint houses in the Pacific North West or tutor kids in a poor Atlanta neighborhood. But the effort is very often marked with the songs, prayers and fellowship of a Christian retreat or Jewish Shabbat. It is about the building of faith as much as it is about the building of property.
Whether we want to or not, we cannot divorce faith service from faith itself. For many, this is an uncomfortable fact, something we would rather hide, preferring to emphasize the value of the act. But this is to miss the meaning for these young people and the utter connectedness of faith intertwined with action. In fact, these young people are far less ashamed of the direct connection to faith than their parents’ generation.
Perhaps for good reasons, but for far too long, we have ignored the power of faith in our existing volunteering. What effect does this have on how this fits in the volunteer sector, of which it makes up nearly half? It means that the young person or the active senior who helps out, wants to find their faith engaged in what they do. They are seeking the spirituality of service, not just an unpaid job. If that is denied them, interest quickly wanes.
That is why most people do their volunteering in churches or mosques or synagogues. We yearn for faith volunteers to get involved in activities beyond their churches. But it means that the secular service activity will have to have a relationship to the faith those volunteers love, or that pool of volunteers will rapidly shrink in the hot dry sun of secularism.
For those of us engaged in trying to figure out how to challenge faith groups into service beyond the church walls, it means we must attend to the particularity of faith. We seek to push this giant into action beyond the specifics of their faith, because we believe it will further the common good. How can that happen? How can something ostensibly unrelated to belief, become an opportunity for a Muslim, or a Christian, to understand and extend their faith?
Here too, the universalism of Rev. Moon’s movement has helped opened new doors all across the country. Places where people of completely un-like faiths—work together. I believe it is an example that may one day heal America. And not just America, but the Middle East, Europe, the Far East. This service movement in the end, changes me. I have been proud to serve alongside—and to learn from—the work of Rev. Moon’s movement. I look forward with anticipation to their continued involvement in the faith and service world, in which his life and actions has had a powerful and meaningful effect on so many lives.