Faith in Action: Martin Luther King’s Legacy

Martin Luther King, Jr.What role does religious faith play in your nonprofit’s work?

It’s a question some nonprofits deal with daily.  And some avoid it, well, religiously.

Whichever category you fall into, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an important reminder for all of us of the connection between religion and volunteering, and between faith and action.

Dr. King was himself a very religious man – a Baptist minister – and his beliefs permeated his speeches and the spirit he tried to instill in his followers.  As he said, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”  (This is from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

In the tradition of other famously religious service leaders like Ghandi and Mother Teresa, Dr. King recognized the power of religious faith to influence people to act, to serve and to work to make the world better.

People and Faith

Despite an official separation of church and state, for many people in our country the connection between the two is very real and very important.  According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 83.1% of the United States population is affiliated with a religion.  And as of a survey done in 2007, the majority of Americans feel it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.

These beliefs also influence people’s actions – how they vote, where they give their money, and even where they volunteer.  According to data from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), religious organizations are the most popular with which to serve, encompassing 35.6% of where people volunteer each year.

Nonprofits and Faith-Based Groups

Considering these numbers, nonprofits – whether faith-based or not – should consider religion as a relevant issue for your audiences.  If faith is not an inherent aspect of your work, a great way to incorporate it is to partner with faith-based groups.  These groups often work to fulfill missions very closely aligned with those of secular nonprofits, especially if your work focuses within a local community.

Faith-based groups can provide significant benefits to nonprofits partnering with them, specifically in the realm of volunteering.  They instill a culture of service and giving among their community members.  According to data from CNCS, most of the country’s congregations (83%) take part in or support social service, community development, or neighborhood organizing projects.

Partnering with faith-based groups can also help you expand the diversity of your volunteer program.  According to CNCS, adults over age 65, African Americans, and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are all more likely to volunteer through their religious groups.

During the tumultuous time of the Civil Rights Movement, the faith that Dr. King had in his beliefs and what he was fighting for ignited others to action – even those who didn’t share his religion.  For example, many of the Freedom Riders who rode South during that period were actually Jews, including two of the three young civil rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

As nonprofits, you can learn from Dr. King to embrace the connection between religious faith and action as a way to engage more people, and a greater diversity of people, in your nonprofit’s work.  After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that whether religious or not, we all can have faith that by working together we can make a difference.

Incorporate Faith into Your Projects

This year on January 17, 2011, honor Dr. King’s legacy by engaging volunteers in service projects.  If you’re not sure how this might work, we’ve listed some initial ideas below to get you started:

  • Contact a place of worship in your community and offer your nonprofit’s resources to help them with one of their service programs.
  • Host an interfaith event on MLK Day of Service and invite local faith-based groups.
  • Browse the list of MLK Day service projects already listed on VolunteerMatch to get ideas of what others are doing and how your nonprofit could help.
  • List your opportunity on the VolunteerMatch website using keywords like “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” “MLK” and “MLK Day of Service,” and we’ll promote it to our audiences.

Does your nonprofit integrate faith with action? Share with us your faith-based volunteer projects and ideas in the comments!

(Photo from caboindex)