Volunteerism, spirit abound in celebration of MLK

Nearly 300 turn out for Brandeis-based service day led by Protestant chaplain

Brandeis volunteers (from left) Jason Pollens and Imam Abdallah Ddumba and chaplain Alexander Levering Kern

About 300 volunteers from area universities, immigrant-aid organizations and community activists fanned out from the Brandeis campus to a wide range of public service projects in celebration of Martin Luther King Day.

The number was nearly double what was expected the day before the events – a development that Brandeis Protestant chaplain Alexander Levering Kern coped with in frazzled elation.

“This is the most diverse gathering in recent memory of the Brandeis community and other communities for purposes of service and civic engagement,” said Kern, who also is executive director of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, an interfaith group that organized the day and won the Massachusetts Service Alliance grant that paid for food, transportation and other expenses. These efforts were featured in MLK Day reports  of the Boston Globe and the Waltham News Tribune.  

“New vanloads of people just kept arriving,” Kern said. “We eventually stopped counting and registering them.”

The day of service -- which volunteers spent working on projects in support of southern Sudan and Haiti, doing outreach to homeless people and low-income neighborhoods threatened with home foreclosures and other activities -- was followed by a King Day program in the Shapiro Campus Center focusing on the role of women in civil rights and social justice work.

The rollicking evening of high-spirited poetry, music and speech, organized by poet and Dean of Student Life Jamele Adams, was capped by the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, a well-known, Boston-based advocate for Africa and for disadvantaged communities in America, who reminded the packed house in the campus center theater that “well-behaved women rarely make history” and challenged female members of the audience to be “warrior women.”

“I am looking for women who are poorly behaved and willing to act out and speak out in the cause of social justice,” she said, proceeding to tell stories from her own experience and the lives of others to encourage young women to step forward with courage and determination.

Perhaps most poignant was White-Hammond’s recollection of her first travels to conflict zones in Africa. She now has made 20 trips to southern Sudan, Darfur and Chad, and has served as national chair of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, but when she first “saw the face of genocide” and was unaccustomed to getting off a plane and looking for a fox-hole, “I cried and cried and said, ‘God, I can’t do this,’” White-Hammond said. “And in that moment God began to minister to me.”

She assured the audience that, at some point, all people, even giants like Dr. King, have doubts about themselves.

“Warrior women and warrior men inevitably will hit a wall and have to decide whether to move forward in courage or shrink back in fear,” White-Hammond said. “Warrior women must step forward with determination, because the reality is that this is very hard work.”

To the roar of the audience, she concluded: “Just do it!”

The day of volunteer service was sponsored by the Brandeis University Chaplaincy, the Brandeis Haiti Initiative and the Martin Luther King Scholars and Friends.

Imam Abdallah Ddumba, a volunteer who is enrolled in the master’s program in coexistence and conflict, worked in a group doing outreach to homeless families living in a Waltham motel.

“Our goal was to share the vision and history of Martin Luther King and what he preached,” Ddumba said. “We wanted to share that comfort and say we were there for them.” In the process, he said, he learned how disconnected people in need of services can be from the people who are trying to serve them.

One of the more original projects was led by Mangok Bol, a member of the Dinka tribe from southern Sudan. After leading a group of about 30 volunteers in learning about Sudan and remembering its people in prayer, Kern said, Bol and a friend helped group members create clay cows – an artform of the Dinka – that will be sold to raise money for the Sudanese Education Fund.

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