Throughout his career as a civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed a tumultuous but deep-seated relationship with the city of Chicago. It was here, in our city, that Dr. King launched the Chicago Freedom Movement as part of an initiative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to further engage northern urban areas in the fight for racial equality. He persisted, despite violent opposition, and ultimately helped inspire the widespread activism that led to the establishment of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. During this period of advocacy in Chicago, Dr. King gave his first major address at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in 1956, and visited UChicago twice more in the following decade. It’s fitting, then, that once per year the UChicago community mobilizes to honor the legacy of Dr. King as part of the annual MLK Day of Service, which took place this year on January 14, 2017.
The MLK Day of Service is an opportunity for UChicago community members to engage in meaningful service activities at community-based organizations, working in the areas of education, housing, poverty relief, and community development on the south and west sides of Chicago. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the University Community Service Center (UCSC), which sponsors the MLK Day of Service. Given my extended involvement with the UCSC over the past four years, the experience held import as one of my final activities with the UCSC in college. In my past engagement with the UCSC, I have worked as a Service Match volunteer, a Volunteer Referral intern, a conference delegate, a graphic designer, and a frequent consumer of leftovers from the UCSC fridge. So as my alarmclock blared at the ungodly hour of 7:30 on a Saturday morning, grogginess quickly gave way to excited anticipation.
The morning began with a breakfast of pastries and bagels—and coffee, of course—served promptly at 8:30 a.m. in the Cloister Club of Ida Noyes Hall. As winter sunlight filtered in through the windows, community members sat and conversed at service team tables arranged around the room. I couldn’t help but admire one of the rare opportunities afforded for UChicago College students and Laboratory School affiliates to speak and interact with local community leaders effecting change outside of our institution.
After breakfast, UCSC Director Amy Chan presented the theme of this year’s Day of Service: “Building the Beloved Community.” The phrase was first coined by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce in the early 20th century, but adapted by Dr. King in various speeches to refer to a widespread, universal commitment to solidarity and love for one another. The phrase serves as a salient reminder of our own responsibility to uplift others, and seemed to me a pertinent launching point for the day.
Each service group was randomly assigned to one of 17 community organizations throughout the city. My group headed to Living Hope Church at 64th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, located in the neighboring Woodlawn community. Living Hope Church houses several initiatives aimed at community revitalization, including Hope Works Community Development, a program that strives to address issues of poverty and unemployment by providing resources such as interview preparation and job search help. Pastor Brad Beier, who runs Living Hope Church, and Shalom Parker, Community Outreach coordinator for Hope Works, greeted us with smiles at the door and welcomed us inside. The space itself was cozy and warm, having been renovated entirely in 2014 in order to accommodate the multitude of Living Hope Church programming.
As we took a seat in the atrium, Brad and Shalom detailed a number of tasks they were looking for help with that day, running through a list that included moving furniture, shifting boxes in the basement, and posting items for sale online. Wanting to engage with the neighborhood and our surroundings as much as possible, I volunteered, along with my team member Roni Lubofsky '18, to post flyers for the weekly youth program called Y-Vibe, hosted at Living Hope Church. Y-Vibe offers after-school opportunities for students from the Woodlawn area to receive tutoring, play games, eat healthy snacks, and even participate in a chess club. Roni and I made our way down Cottage Grove Avenue, stopping every so often and taking in the sights and sounds as we moved toward the southern border of Woodlawn, where we were greeted by a colorful mural depicting famous residents of nearby Greater Grand Crossing.
After arriving back at the church, we quickly jumped into helping sort clothes, all of which were business-casual donations meant to aid those in the community who needed proper attire for interviews and other professional events. Time flew, and around 12:15 p.m. it was time to head back to Ida Noyes Hall for lunch. We left Living Hope Church with the sense that we had contributed in some small way to the operations of the organization—and all it took was a few hours on a Saturday morning.
Pastor Brad, Shalom, and a couple other members of the Living Hope Church team accompanied us to the luncheon, where we dined on delicious food catered from Spice Kitchen, a local family-owned catering service run out of the South Loop. We then listened to additional performances that paid tribute to Dr. King’s message of unity from singer Claire Moore ‘18 and poet Michelle Yang ‘19, which served as reminders of the immense talent of our peers here at UChicago.
The highlight of luncheon was a keynote address from Charles M. Payne, the Frank P. Hixon Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, who spoke regarding his own interpretation of “Building the Beloved Community.” Part of Professor Payne’s speech discussed the assertion that for college students, often trapped in the academic bubble, direct service might seem daunting, unapproachable, and even unnecessary; however, civic engagement and service should be treated as a responsibility and a method of deeper connection with the community around us.
Directly after Dr. Payne’s speech, we had the chance to speak with the Living Hope Church team members regarding the importance of direct service days like the MLK Day of Service. Brad assured us that the work we did that day was work that might have fallen to the wayside otherwise—our participation in that small act of service was enough to make the hectic task of running an organization like Living Hope Church a little bit easier. Dr. Payne’s words embody my takeaway from the MLK Day of Service year after year: as important as it is to discuss, theorize, and postulate about the injustice manifest in the world around us, it is just as vital to get out and do good for our city.
I would urge all UChicago students to engage with a Day of Service before leaving UChicago, in the hopes that it may lead to a more long-term commitment to community involvement. After all, service, motivated by compassion and a desire to better oneself and one’s surroundings, is the first step toward building the “Beloved Community” that Dr. King envisioned.