This originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times on January 31, 2020.
For 1,300 volunteers on MLK Day, what comes next?
On the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we have a lot to be proud of. A coalition of 23 Jewish organizations and 26 service partners, coordinated by Repair the World, mobilized 1,300 volunteers to address urgent local needs.
We packed 2,850 kits for people experiencing homelessness and sorted 168 boxes of books. We cooked 380 meals for people in shelters and delivered over 100 more to families facing food insecurity. We packed 400 dental supply kits and swabbed 40 potential new bone marrow donors. We planted trees and sustainably stewarded green spaces. We modeled love and care for our seniors and volunteered with our children. We didn’t let the scale of need paralyze us; we took action and we tried to meet it.
One week later, I’m still proud of our service together. And, I know that 200 people will line up at SWEEAC [Southwest Ecumenical Emergency Assistance Center] to get groceries today. I know that 90 percent of these food pantry clients are currently employed, but don’t earn enough to feed their families. I know that those 200 people standing in line represent 600-plus family members who don’t have enough to eat, most of whom are children. And I know that they will be back next week.
Working at Repair the World means that I get to see firsthand the ongoing commitment to service from many individuals and institutions in the Atlanta Jewish community. I get to fight back against the overwhelm every day and see the impact of small acts of kindness. For example, hearing about the moving experience of providing nail care to men at the Gateway Center, how unusual to connect on a deeply human level with individuals who we more often fear, demonize and hustle past. Service is an opportunity for us to reconnect with our own humanity and compassion.
Dyonna Ginsberg teaches about the difference between chesed (kindness), tzedakah (philanthropy) and tzedek (justice). A few days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I find myself thinking about the times that I have been forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. A random act of kindness or charity is a beautiful thing, prized in our tradition, but I wouldn’t want to count on it for adequate nutrition, shelter or safety.
We have accomplished a lot by honoring Dr. King with acts of service. But let’s not be too proud, or too complacent, to ask ourselves why acts of kindness and philanthropy are still necessary in the wealthiest nation on earth, in a thriving city. We can also honor Dr. King with frankness and honesty: 52 years after his murder, massive health and wealth disparities based on race persist in this country and in this city. Between now and next MLK Day, let’s ask ourselves what enduring structural changes are necessary to ensure that the basic needs of every person are non-negotiable, that their rights are iron-clad, their dignity a foregone conclusion. The legislative session is upon us. There are people and organizations doing the work of long-term change. Between now and our next service day, let’s join them.
Lily Brent, Executive Director, Repair the World Atlanta