National Service Chaplains: A Call to Congregations Serving Those Who Serve

Last week the country celebrated "AmeriCorps Opening Day," an event designed to welcome the more than 75,000 individuals that have chosen to serve in AmeriCorps this year. Each year, these AmeriCorps members (most of whom are between 21-35 years old) serve in more than 15,000 communities and mobilize more than 4 million volunteers. Over the past twenty-one years, more than 900,000 people have served in AmeriCorps, and next year that number will surpass 1 million. The vast majority of these alums continue in careers that "change the world," pursuing lives of service.

Yet for all the good work that AmeriCorps members are doing, I wonder how many congregations participated in this annual day of welcome? How many clergy or other faith leaders knew about it or knew that AmeriCorps even exists in their communities? As Mary Bruce, Co-Executive Director of AmeriCorps Alums, stated, "If you want to strengthen communities, if you want all communities to thrive, then support AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Alums."

Our towns and cities are filled with young adults who are committed to causes beyond themselves, and who are working to change the world. Tens of thousands are involved in programs that are powered by AmeriCorps, including Teach for America, City Year, Public Allies and Notre Dame Mission volunteers and other programs that make up the comprehensive landscape of national service. Other young people serve outside of the national service infrastructure while volunteering to advance the causes they are committed to: literacy, environmental stewardship, public health, safe spaces for women and children, addressing homelessness and addiction.

Many of these individuals find themselves isolated and disconnected as they are engaged in challenging service, while struggling to pay their own bills (most are deep in debt due to student loans and earn only a very modest living stipend during their year of service). Many of our young people are working in cross-cultural spaces where they struggle to build networks of support and care. They seek to understand the systems that created the challenges they are working to address and to understand what their role is in change making. They are at time of transition and transformation as they seek to create meaning in their lives. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, gave voice to the experience many of these young people have, when she wrote:

"While I lived in the east side, I felt the spell of the long loneliness descend on me. In all that great city of seven millions, I found no friends; I had no work; I was separated from my mates. Silence in the midst of city noises oppressed me. My own silence, the feeling that I had no one to talk to overwhelmed me so that my very throat was constricted; my heart was heavy with unuttered thoughts; I wanted to weep my loneliness away... And yet...I wanted to go and live among the impoverished in Chicago; in some mysterious way I felt that I would never be freed from this burden of loneliness and sorrow unless I did."

A lament I hear over and over again is that young people don't come to church. The question we should be asking is: How can we reach out to these young people who are committed to our communities and who are looking for ways to serve, to engage in interfaith dialogue, and to determine their own relationships with the creator.

So what can faith communities and faith leaders do? If young people serving in the military have chaplains, why not have chaplains for those serving in our communities? This is why the Center for Faith and Service has launched the National Service Chaplaincy Initiative. The initiative, which is headed by National Service Chaplaincy Directory Chris Flowers, is an initiative aimed at identifying congregations who will make intentional efforts to reach and support young adults involved with AmeriCorps and other service organizations.

The focus of the National Service Chaplaincy is to provide:
• emotional and moral support (pastoral care),
• basic necessities (housing, food, social gatherings)
• access and engagement in the broader community

Flowers writes:

"Community is the only proper response to the world's need. While institutions of faith develop conferences to further discuss the Millennial exodus, those young adults are richly engaged in being agents of love and justice in the neighborhoods our congregations resides. These national service volunteers are embodying the identity houses of faith claim, and if we as people of faith are to whole heartily make meaning of our existence it must be alongside their efforts."

Below are 14 suggested actions a congregation can do to support young adults who are part of AmeriCorps and other service programs and their young alums who transition to "life after AmeriCorps".

1) Meet new members at the airport and give them a ride and a cup of coffee
2) Offer a place to stay until they can find a permanent place to live
3) Create a house of hospitality where volunteers can live in intentional community or an empty bedroom in a house that has room
4) Feed them once a month
5) Offer your building as a meeting place for their program
6) Introduce them to members of the congregation who can connect them to a doctor, dentist, or car mechanic
7) Identify and train a member of your congregation to serve as a National Service Chaplain
8) Pray for them, put them on your prayer chain
9) Offer them tickets to sporting events, plays, and any event that offers food
10) Engage in meaningful dialogue where you listen to them rather than judge them or tell them what to do and what to believe
11) Invite them to a family event and for dinner on the holidays
12) Create programing that is compelling and helpful (show a film and have a conversation after, hold a workshop on financial and career planning)
13) Identify your congregation as a part of the National Service Chaplaincy Network
14) Walk the Talk ( live authentically and faithfully in the community and with each other)

If you or someone you know or is interested in the National Service Chaplaincy Fill out the interest form at www.faith3.org or contact the Center for Faith and Service via email at faithandservice@mccormick.edu.

We will make the road by walking. Sign up and get to work and in six months those who have acted will gather and map out a strategy for moving forward.