Listening for the Call to Service
After college I completed a year of service with Public Allies New York, an Americorps service program. A national program with sites around the country, the mission of Public Allies is "to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits and civic participation." This experience had a great impact on my faith, my vocation, and my worldview. Though Americorps is not a Christian organization, because it focuses on community service many Christians have participated in its programs. Teach for America is one of the most well known of all the Americorps programs, and 50% of its membership identify as people of faith. As shown by Christ's words in Matthew 25, service is essential to the Christian faith, so it is no surprise that many Christians are seeking ways to serve. As young evangelicals increasingly seek to serve in urban areas, programs such as Americorps can be a great option.
While serving in Americorps Public Allies I had the support of a program manager, trainings on issues such as diversity and teamwork, the opportunity to work in a New York City nonprofit, and the chance to implement a Team Service Project (TSP). I was able to do this with a diverse group of young people from all over the country, as well as native New Yorkers who wanted to serve at home. We received an enormous amount of support and guidance as we dealt with the difficulties that might come up as you serve at-risk communities. Though Public Allies did not have to live together in community, there are Americorps programs where you can live with other participants. In my Public Allies class I met fellow evangelicals whose faith prompted them to serve, while learning to work with those from different faith traditions. Upon completing the year of service, some of my friends have gone on to seminary, law school, politics, social work, and the arts. With a living stipend, relocation assistance, and medical coverage a diverse group of young people were able to serve, some within their communities.
During last year's historic election, Public Allies gained attention because First Lady Michelle Obama served as the Executive Director of Public Allies Chicago. Following in First Lady Obama's footsteps is Edward Gonzalez-Novoa, the current Executive Director of Public Allies New York, with over 12 years of experience in education, youth leadership, and community service. I interviewed Mr. Gonzalez-Novoa, a graduate of Princeton University with master's degrees in divinity and education from Harvard. He was born in Queens, N.Y. and raised in New Jersey. A Catholic, he served as the spiritual director for a Boston gospel choir and worked in the faith community educating and fundraising around the issue of HIV. During our interview, Mr. Gonzalez-Novoa spoke of his call to service and why he has hope in the next generation of leaders.
Why did you attend seminary?
I always believed I was called to service. I wasn't sure if I was called to ordained ministry. At Princeton and Harvard I studied theology as the foundation for service. I wanted the latitude to explore different faculties of service: education, nonprofit classes -- the full breadth of service connected to and grounded in theology.
How has your faith influenced your work in education and service?
While writing my undergraduate thesis Mary Mother of God, Mother of Defiance, under the advisement of Dr. Cornel West, I studied Mary Mother of Jesus as a model for social action and referenced my mom and Dorothy Day. These women and Dr. West modeled the lifetime of service I envisioned for myself. They each led lives of reflection, study, and service in action. Each modeled these characteristics in different ways. As a student, in my personal relationships and career, I tried to integrate those three characteristics into myself and my work.
What does service mean in this time of economic crisis?
Public Allies is located in the heart of Wall Street, which creates greater opportunities to serve because the need is so great; it created a sense of urgency that service is no longer optional in these times. It seems irresponsible not to be involved in service, because we all have the capacity to serve and lead.
What potential do you see in this generation of young people?
I see that the younger generation has an access to info, media, and one another in a way that allows them to be informed, heard, and connected in ways we haven't seen before. I see hope from the older generation that have a readiness to embrace and cultivate new ideas and new leadership; they think it is good for younger people to have an impact.
How should young Christians get involved in service to their community?
The most important thing is for them to listen, because I believe the call to service comes in different ways. I think they need to actively learn about the communities they are living and serving in, study the issues, and develop the skills that are best suited for their own strengths and the strengths of their communities. They need to prepare themselves to serve and not to save.
Onleilove Alston is a Sojourners contributing writer, graduate of Public Allies New York class of 2005, and a student at Columbia School of Social Work and Union Theological Seminary. She blogs at Esther's Call. For more information about serving with Americorps, visit Americorps, Americorp Public Allies, and Americorp Urban Ministry Internships.