While I’ve long given up my parents’ Christian faith, there are parts of institutionalized religion that I just can’t shake. Thankfully for me, a few of those parts are positive. Outside of the church, nowhere else have I seen considerable effort for building community. Our family’s small Methodist church of 100 people had a shopping list of volunteer opportunities for members to choose from. As a teenager, I chose to join my church in passing out free groceries to people who lived without shelter in my hometown. Almost all of my church friends were plugged in to one charity or another. We were young, but it was an honor to serve alongside close friends who also happened to be a part of the so called ‘entitled’ millennial generation. Sure, speculation about the volunteering being motivated by evangelism can’t be ignored, but it wasn’t like any of my other friends were spending their Saturdays serving people who needed food.
When I enrolled in a Catholic high school, I learned that in addition to lengthening the hem of my skirt, I would be expected to volunteer 100 hours over four years. Once again, I joined an organization that my church partnered with. Founded by members of the North Texas Conference of the Methodist Church, Project Transformation matches literacy tutors with elementary school students who cannot read at their grade level. I love kids, so the work was rewarding in and of itself, but truth be told I would not have spent my summer mornings working in a school had it not been required. This is why I believe that the country should ask 50 hours of mandatory service from high school students.
I ask those who think that the personal initiative aspect of volunteering would be sullied by mandatory service to consider the statistics on volunteerism in America. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteer rate for high school students sits a few percentage points above the national volunteering rate which is 24.9 percent. I gather that this spike in volunteering numbers results the surplus time that younger students have. High school is not as time-intensive as college or parenting, so why not invest the extra time into something worthwhile? Not asking students to volunteer is a wasted opportunity.
In America, we are obsessed with personal freedom, a negative liberty that permits all to do as they please so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. During the ’90s, a few school districts were sued by libertarian groups who alleged that students enrolled in public schools requiring mandatory service had their 13th Amendment rights violated. Created during Reconstruction, the amendment protects citizens from involuntary servitude or slavery. It is absurd to compare a few dozen hours of community service to the chattel slavery of history. Americans are privileged to live in a wealthy country that values personal freedom, but a balance must be struck between rights and responsibilities. It is our responsibility to be aware of need in our communities, and then commit to fulfilling it. It is true that freedom is not free, but is also true that a good, healthy society is not free. When the English gentlemen of the Jamestown colony idly neglected labor required to keep the fledgling settlement afloat, leader John Smith quoted the Apostle Paul saying “He that will not work, shall not eat.”
For Westerners, Americans work very hard. We are an industrious society that worships the individual’s right to work for their own well-being. This work ethic has brought America success and wealth. It is not that we do not know how to work, we just don’t know how to work together. Applying our values to the public good will make our country greater than it ever has been.