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Associated Press/Photo by Susan Montoya Bryan

The other stimulus

Charity | Concern over Obama's public spending need not overlook his call for private service

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

President Barack Obama called the nation to service in the weeks leading up to his inauguration. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Americans across the country responded, fanning out to soup kitchens, neighborhood cleanup projects, blood banks, and numerous other helpful community initiatives in every state. About 13,000 such projects generated a widespread sense of participation in Obama's presidential installment and the accompanying promise of change.

Now what?

Since that day of service and the subsequent inauguration, Obama has worked to push through unprecedented amounts of government spending in hopes of alleviating economic turmoil and its attendant suffering. The scope of that publicly funded strategy might well betray doubt about the impact of private charity.

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Nevertheless, thousands of citizens and civic groups remain committed to Obama's initial participatory vision. Indeed, the usaservice.org website originally set in place to facilitate the MLK day of service continues to teem with prospective community projects in most states.

Individuals, businesses, non-profits, and churches from Baptist to Mormon to Scientologist are employing the site to publicize events and recruit volunteers. In many ways, such online organizing and activity is a picture of compassionate conservatism: privately initiated and funded opportunities to render social services.

Gail Newtson, a political activist in Peoria, Ill., started a plan to provide sack lunches to the homeless population in her city each Sunday morning. She posted the idea on the website and gathered enough volunteers to provide a few dozen meals the first time out. That number has grown each successive week, and she now hopes to begin including backpacks of supplies.

She says Obama has both inspired and empowered her to serve: "I had gotten so apathetic that I was telling my family I have got to do something. I can't just sit here and complain anymore."

Newtson, 51, involved herself heavily within the grassroots of Obama's campaign and now aims to lend similar support throughout his presidency. She's hosting an economic stimulus party this month to convince friends and neighbors of the validity of Obama's plan, a tack identical to the living-room meetings she and many others held during the campaign.

Despite her support for massive government intervention, Newtson expressed hope that ongoing private service might so expand under Obama's leadership as to mitigate the need for public programs: "I think it will continue to grow. If we can get Barack elected, we can do anything."

Many other groups and individuals listing projects on the Obama service site have simply employed the online tool to facilitate their existing programs. Whether established national charities like the March of Dimes or little-known local groups like the Homeward Bound Shelter in Grand Junction, Colo., the site connects local people to engage in acts of compassion.

Art Mills of Wolfforth United Methodist Church near Lubbock, Texas, is using the site both to recruit volunteers and to advertise his church's participation in the Angel Food program in hopes of attracting more needy families. Angel Food Ministries helps trim the monthly grocery budget with low-cost food packages that serve a family of four for $30 a week.

Mills, 72, says many people just need to try volunteering for the first time for it to become a regular part of their lives: "Once a person comes out and helps with it, they're hooked. They keep coming back. Matter of fact, a lot of time we have more volunteers than we do people picking up food."

Yet very few evangelical churches or charities have taken advantage of usaservice.org. Most groups involved are secular or of the religious left-no doubt a reflection of political loyalties. Conservative evangelicals might well post events that model effective compassion and include proclamations of who Jesus is.

With a few easy clicks, I posted the following: "We're headed to Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle to preach to the homeless men there about the greatness of Jesus Christ and to pray for any who ask." Alas, after a week, no one had signed up to help.

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