Serving on MLK Day: Service Equals Greatness

Today’s special guest blogger is Nathan Brunson, a corps member serving on the PS/MS 57 Credit Suisse team in East Harlem. As we host our 9th MLK Day of Service today, we asked Nathan to reflect on why he serves.

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” I doubt this is the first time you’ve read these famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I know I’m not the first service-based non-profit volunteer to quote the revered activist whose life we commemorate on Monday, January 16th.

But even if King’s words have been belabored to the point of redundancy, we can never overemphasize his simple message: service equals greatness. This is why I choose to spend MLK Day by serving in East Harlem with City Year New York.

As a tutor and mentor at PS/MS 57 in East Harlem, I often find myself telling the students I work with that they can do something great with their lives. That’s not just something I say lightly; these kids are truly special.

Jalen is one of the fifth graders in our after school program. He is a great athlete. Sometimes at recess we play basketball together and of course I have to let his classmates score on me every once in a while. But when it’s just me against Jalen, there are no deliberate bricks; I try my hardest and he still beats me.

Tony is another of the gifted students I work with. He has a great mind. When his fourth grade class was studying haikus, most other kids were stuck counting syllables on their fingers while Tony was analyzing the poet’s word choice and conceptualizing ideas like tone and metaphor.

But regardless of athleticism or intellect, I know that every one of my students has the potential to achieve greatness because they each have the ability to serve.

Dr. King, however, would be the first to tell you that true service involves more than just ability; it requires a “heart full of grace,” as he put it, and a “soul generated by love.” When we’re able to serve others with no personal agenda, we are exhibiting the truest sense of love and what it means to be human.

Unfortunately, it’s harder to teach a fourth grader “a heart full of grace” than it is multiplication tables. And “a soul generated by love” doesn’t come as easily to middle school students as does subject-verb agreement. But if there’s one lesson I hope to teach—or better yet, to learn—during my year of service with City Year, it’s that being a servant to others is the greatest thing you can ever do.

Exactly two months before his death, Martin Luther King concluded his famous Drum Major Instinct speech by envisioning the eulogy at his own funeral:

[Don’t] mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school [or] that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.

Today, January 16th, 2012 is your chance to carry on King’s legacy of service and to begin your own. For many, MLK Day has become “a day on, not a day off.” City Year New York, alongside community volunteers and corporate sponsors, will spend the day building bookshelves, constructing planter boxes, and painting murals for several East Harlem schools and organizations.

Indeed it’s true: everybody can be great because everybody can serve. But we don’t do service because we want to be considered great; service is never a selfish thing. We don’t do service just to bolster our resumes or to be quoted in newspapers. We serve because it’s what makes us human.