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Is new voluntarism for real or for show?

This may go down in history as the year of the volunteer. The three-day President's Summit for America's Future, launched April 27, marked the crest of a wave of goodwill aimed at making the nation kinder and gentler. Choreographed by the august Colin Powell and featuring Bill Clinton and several former presidents, the Philadelphia voluntarism fest signaled a national wish to help one another, especially the most needy and vulnerable among us.

Half the Clinton cabinet was there and about 4,000 other notables from diverse walks of life. There were stirring speeches outlining a more ideal and caring U.S. future, followed by a succession of photo-ops as the national leaders donned yellow T-shirts and painted over the abundant graffiti on Philadelphia's inner-city walls. The media gave the event high-impact and sympathetic coverage befitting an event that had fused a huge variety of powerful energies for an obviously good purpose.

A significant aspect of the summit was Powell's mustering of extensive corporate enthusiasm and participation. The nation's top companies and organizations vied with each other to donate money, time and talent. Honeywell Inc. promised 8,000 employees as mentors to grade school kids, 4,000 volunteers to work with Habitat for Humanity and more, to the total tune of $20 million. IBM promised computer equipment over four years for 2,000 daycare and senior citizen centers, plus IBM volunteers for training, at a total estimated cost of $10 million. But these are merely highlights amid an outpouring of national benevolence.

One could easily get the impression that voluntarism was born last April 27.

On the contrary, one can fairly assume volunteers go back as far as the race does. The 12 apostles were volunteers and before that the Old Testament is full of volunteers, as is history. They came in all sizes, but probably more often small than big. Daily life worked because neighbors or family members volunteered to go the extra mile, help out. Community members volunteered for the common good, citizens for the national weal, in peace and war.

Volunteering became so much a part of our lives together that we took it for granted. Paradoxically it was often at its best when our lives were at their worst. The less we had to give of ourselves and our substance, the more willing (and willing is the root meaning of voluntarism) we were. More recently, as our substance grew, we have more good times to chase, more good things to protect and therefore less time for altruism.

Voluntarism was and is humanity at its best. In various ways it became embodied in our religious traditions. Members of religious orders and congregations were and are, in their way, professional volunteers. At their best they are disinterested and expect nothing in return, unless one counts intangibles such as grace or eternal life.

And, on the purely human level, our civilization has expressed its voluntarism in a multitude of ways, from Habitat for Humanity to volunteer fire departments in every little town to running errands for one's elderly neighbor.

In the self-congratulatory atmosphere of Philadelphia, there was precious little acknowledgment by our politicians and civic and corporate leaders of this legacy of volunteering.

If this voluntarism crusade, unapologetically spearheaded by the rich and powerful, fulfills half its promise, it could help transform the face of America, even the world. One does not have to be a cynic, however, to be reminded of the incongruities that abound.

The whole point of this new voluntarism is help of multiple kinds for the children, the poor, the disadvantaged. But the very people behind this corporate crusade are the politicians and leaders who, under guise of "welfare reform," are doing most to deprive the children and welfare mothers, homeless people and others of the benefits they already receive. The Powell brigade may say they plan to substitute self-reliance and backbone for previous handouts, but the issue goes deeper. This Congress, this president, these corporate leaders are politically bunched so far to the right of center that the liberal benevolence of which this country was long a shining example seems now an outmoded sentimentality.

Ever since Ronald Reagan came to power there has been a growing opposition to the multitude of charitable organizations that have long embodied the spirit of voluntarism. This opposition is expressed in various ways but mainly through cutting off government funds.

For example, one might expect politicians who favored voluntarism to give maximum breaks in mailing costs to nonprofit organizations. On the contrary, such nonprofit, charitable groups have in recent years been hit -- selectively hit -- by mailing costs much more severely than for-profit -- that is, business -- organizations.

Since mailings constitute the primary lifeline for fundraising for nonprofit groups, and since this case has been made abundantly in Washington over the years, it doesn't take a four-star general to see that the enthusiasm for voluntarism is selective.

This may derive from the fact that traditional nonprofit groups have constantly been critical of the de facto uneven distribution of the nation's wealth among its citizens.

Over against the notables who flew into Philadelphia April 27 stands a whole culture of professional and voluntary helpers. They are people who know the inner city and other places of poverty, who deal each day with the drug addicts and crazy people as well as the average poor or lonely. They are a special breed, the caring professionals and do-gooders, indefatigable and cheerful and street wise -- and many of them are saying that the Clinton/Powell extravaganza is a stunt.

The country is, after all, doing great. Wall Street going through the roof. Unemployment almost a memory. Corporations making so much money they scarcely know what to do with it.

Colin Powell to the rescue. Sure, welfare reform was necessary -- all that money wasted, not like the money spent, say, on the Pentagon. Despite the good times, darn it, there still are kids with no health care and other disadvantages. This is no time to appear harsh or cheap.

CEOs to the rescue. Time (April 28), as reliable a chronicler of the popular ethos as any other, says Apple Computer's CEO made $22,874,580 last year; Green Tree Financial Corp.'s CEO took in $137,228,766; Disney's head was compensated to the tune of $204,233,281. A few pages earlier, Time listed some of the really big corporate volunteer boosters: Honeywell, Kimberly-Clark, LensCrafters and so on. Publicity one could scarcely buy for love or money. Well, maybe for love.

Maybe this is a bad rap and all the volunteermeisters will keep their promises and help transform inner cities and impoverished lives. For love or whatever. Maybe put all the Catholic Worker soup kitchens and free clinics and their like out of business.

If so, NCR will be first to nominate Colin Powell for king. Or pope.

Meanwhile, Catholic Workers and all of that ilk: Hang in there.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997