During our recent Fourth of July celebration, I received 2 emails that fit together and address a crying need within our current political and cultural climate. The first one, from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation message, was entitled “Civil Rights and Obligations”. As guest writer, Sister Simone Campbell (“the nun on the bus”) reviewed America’s efforts to atone for the sins of slavery with the civil rights movements during the 1950’s and 60’s. This movement focused on the individual’s right to exercise the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. In the article, Sister Simone noted that some Americans, largely white men who profess conservative Christianity, felt threatened and pushed back. In part, this reaction created the tea party movement of the first decade of the 21st century.
She went on to write that democracy cannot survive if everyone is pulling in different directions. In order that all citizens have the opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, we must recognize each person, having inherent dignity and gifts, must be respected no matter their skin color, religious beliefs, or place of origin. She asks if perhaps the first part of our twenty-first century should concentrate on civil responsibilities as a balance to our past focus on civil rights. Civil obligations call each of us to work for the good of the whole. This means “we all need our civil rights so we can all exercise our civic obligations.” Our responsibility then is to build up the whole of society.
Arriving the same day was a message from one of our current presidential candidates, Pete Buttigieg. In his letter, Pete recalled his military service. He pointed out that serving with people from all backgrounds, often with nothing in common more than the fact they were American and in uniform, gave him a unique sense of connection. He wrote that young Americans need many opportunities to grow that sense of connectedness he felt in Afghanistan without having to go to war.
The goal of his plan is to greatly expand the opportunities for high school graduates to serve. These opportunities offer chances for students to explore different vocational directions as well as experience the strength of interdependence and the satisfaction of making a difference to others. Service orientation as part of the federal agenda began with implementation of the Peace Corps in the early 1960’s and has continued through various programs initiated by a succession of presidents.
Selective Service draft ended in 1973. While volunteering for military service is still an option, programs such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, and City Year provide young people with chances to serve disadvantaged communities and help in areas of education, construction, and organizing for local solutions to ongoing issues. Pete wrote that these programs should be greatly expanded.
I’m fully in favor of opportunities for young people to learn more about service in ways that help them figure out what their role in the world will be. Many countries embrace the gap year concept, a time when high school students can leave the routine of high school for a semester or a year and do volunteer work while keeping connected with mentors at their school. Often this is scheduled during Sophomore or Junior year and gives students a chance to explore themselves and their relationship to the world at large. When they return to the routine of high school, they frequently have a much clearer vision of how they want to proceed beyond high school. American students do not have this luxury and Mayor Pete’s plan and similar ones have the potential to build a much stronger America.