I grew up in a family where the value of service was emphasized and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outsized figure of reverence. I heard my father tell stories of his work with Dr. King in the 1950s and Dr. King’s tragic murder stung deeply. Together with the losses of my uncles John and Robert Kennedy, his death seemed to form a string of grief that was played out on the world’s stage but also on my own personal one. As a child, I could only wonder at the meaning of so much violence.
To celebrate Dr. King’s legacy is not only to pay tribute to his work but also to create something from the grief surrounding his loss. It is for us not just to engage in the actions that would bring about the justice he longed for but also to search for the source of inspiration that powered his vision. After all, his legacy continues to inspire less because of his political achievements —enormous though they were—than his personal attributes: his cadences, his distant eyes, his invitation to an unknown future of harmony and light. King is relevant today not because of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, but because he continues to invite us to explore the language of our hearts—our deepest desires for a more hopeful world.
Every year, we hear calls to celebrate this holiday with a day of service. I won’t disagree with that invitation.
But I can’t make sense of all that legacy without prayer—reflective, plaintive, hopeful, confident prayer. Not only is King himself unthinkable without prayer, but I could never find the hopefulness he represents without prayer. And it doesn’t matter what religion you embrace: King quoted the prophets of Israel, followed the philosophy of a great Hindu, and preached Christ crucified and risen. His words were awash in prayer.
In our time, service and prayer may seem like opposites. Service is about getting active, effecting a difference in the world, getting outside yourself. Prayer, on the other hand, is about getting quiet, focusing on one’s relationships with what is beyond the world, getting inside yourself. Prayer is often practiced alone or in small moments of focus; service is often in crowds or in hectic moments of action.
But the perception of opposites obscures the transformative power of both service and prayer. The best prayer is the kind that reorients our whole being to a divine purpose—to peace, to justice, to mercy, to love. Some people think of prayer as asking God for things, but the deeper prayer is listening for the “still small voice” of the divine. That type of prayer isn’t confined to bedtime, but is rather a constant awareness of one’s deep longing for the ultimate.
That type of prayer can make service a prayer all its own. Service as prayer makes it less about serving the meals at the kitchen and more about elevating the dignity and humanity of both server and recipient. To be open to the dignity of the other—no matter how difficult the circumstances—is to humble one’s self and recognize the divine in that humility. To look across that soup kitchen table and see the face of God is the only really valuable form of service. Anything less is only about the food and not about the love.
It’s not an accident that many of the Bible’s calls to service are followed by promises of light and joy. Too frequently, religions teach that these rewards will come to us in a later life, not now. I think the opposite: when Isaiah asks the people of Israel to “share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched into your home…” and promises that “then your light shall burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly,” I believe the prophet is referring to the ways in which the self-emptying actions of service can produce transcendent experiences of joy in the one who gives. The real invitation to service is not to fulfill an obligation or discharge guilt but rather to release the divine gifts of joy and light within us.
So it’s easy to see why service and prayer go together. Haven’t we each heard people say, “I got back more than I gave?” It’s hard to articulate just what that means. The gifts we get back are so powerful that we just move on knowing that something good happened to us, but not being able to say exactly what.
So I will celebrate this King Day with my family by praying for a heart that is both quiet enough and engaged enough to experience the divine in every act of service that seeks justice, dignity, and peace. Try it: go ahead and volunteer on Monday at the soup kitchen; help a neighbor, work for political justice, donate to a cause that protects the earth; lend a hand to someone who needs it.
But pray while you do. Look prayerfully at the man who needs a sandwich, at the elderly neighbor unable to walk, at the person with a disability unable to read, at the grief-stricken parent living amid violence and desperate for peace. Before you try to solve their problems, pray to remove whatever blinds you to their beauty, their divinity. Pray to see clearly God’s presence in the tears, in the vulnerability, in the limits.
That’s service as prayer. That’s the kind that unites the human family, that humbles the proud and elevates the lowly, that can create the belief that someday, divisions of race and religion and nation can be overcome. That’s the kind of service that Dr. King invited.
If you practice prayerful service, you might even find yourself, in the twinkling of an eye, experiencing a peacefulness the world cannot give. Reaching out your hand to that child, that neighbor, that pain that you so dread, you might find yourself free in a way you never expected. And maybe you will hear the cadence of the hymn welling up within you: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.”
Timothy P. Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics, Inc. In that capacity, he serves 2.5 million Special Olympics athletes and their families in more than 160 countries. He’s also a TV and film producer. His credits include co-producing “Amistad” and “The Loretta Claiborne Story.”