Rediscovering an American Tradition

Jacqueline Baptie is the director of LOVE INC of North Orange County, an organization of volunteers from community churches

“Let your heart feel for the affliction and distress of everyone; let your hand give in proportion to your purse, remembering always, the estimation of the widow’s plight.”

--George Washington


Americans have a tradition of volunteer service as old as the first colony. Whether for a barn-raising or for a widow’s fund, we have “an inclination to organize nonpolitical groups to achieve common purposes,” noted French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835.

The recent President’s Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, headed by military hero Colin Powell, reminded Americans of this tradition and the importance of service to others.


Society benefits when social needs are met through volunteering. Similarly, volunteers gain from forming personal relationships with the poor and disadvantaged. They find new benefits of our old tradition.

Many Americans today are isolated and often can be intolerant of one another.

Volunteering provides an opportunity to tear down the barriers of cultural polarization by building personal relationships between people in need and those with time and resources to share. It gives us the chance to reinvigorate a community, to renew civility.

By working with the homeless, with welfare moms, with children of the working poor, volunteers have an opportunity to let go of their preconceived notions of the poor.

Volunteers also learn that while economic circumstances may differ, we all share a need for compassion. Common ground is found in pain. The experience of helping to heal the pain of others is one of the keys to healing ourselves and bettering society.

Volunteering provides an opportunity to experience sacred moments--glimpses of knowing what’s real and what matters in lives that are often too busy to notice. When confronted face to face with the suffering of a family in crisis or a child who is the victim of violence, everyday life takes on deeper meaning. These pivotal moments contain the power of transformation because they are experienced by the soul. They can alter our life course or reinforce our courage to pursue our dreams.

Over time, volunteering can renew our sense of civic responsibility toward “them,” the disadvantaged. They become real people with real names and faces and “them” becomes “us.” We become friends. Relationship-based volunteering gives us the opportunity to assert our common humanity and equality as children of God and to redefine what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.