Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Members of what President Bush yesterday called the “armies of compassion” spent the day moving closer to the brotherhood and sisterhood envisioned by Martin Luther King.

They cleaned and refurbished run-down apartment buildings and schools, marched in parades, prayed and talked about King’s life and ideas.

In the District, several hundred volunteers from the city’s universities and businesses joined with local community groups to show “equality, peace and community service” in action.

Matt Cohen, a 19-year old sophomore studying political science at George Washington University, led a team of 15 volunteers as they cleared trash and undergrowth from a courtyard between two public-housing units in Benning Heights in Southeast.

Mr. Cohen and other volunteers, mostly students, shoveled piles of dirt and trash and vines into trash bags. Despite a wind chill that put the temperature in the teens, Mr. Cohen said, “It’s actually not that bad out here. I’m having fun.”

Each team of volunteers had names like “character,” “wisdom,” “action” and “truth.”

Mr. Cohen said, “I picked the name ‘respect,’ because I think that’s what [King] wanted for his people.”

Blair Lawhon, 21, a senior criminal-justice major at George Washington, worked with Tsufit Daniel, an 18-year-old freshman international-studies major, clearing large amounts of trash from a dirt path leading from the apartments on 46th Place down to Benning Road.

“I just realized that I’d never really done anything for MLK Day before. It had always been just a day off from school,” said Miss Lawhon. “Everybody has the capacity to serve, and if they can, they should.”

In the basement of 601 46th Place, three members of the Washington Capitals hockey team helped paint a mural in an apartment that members of AmeriCorps are turning into a public space for the Benning Heights football team. On the second floor, George Washington students put a fresh coat of white paint on the walls of the apartment hallway.

Capitals defenseman John Gruden helped paint the mural, along with defenseman Jason Doig and left-winger Matt Pettinger.

“When they asked me to do this, I agreed to do it. But you don’t realize what it means until you get here,” Mr. Gruden said. “It’s a neat experience.”

King, the civil rights leader and a passionate Baptist preacher, advocated civil disobedience to protest segregation and racism in America in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was assassinated on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968. That now is the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

King based his fight for racial equality on his faith in God. In a rousing speech titled “Rediscovering Lost Values,” delivered in February 1954 at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, King said Americans had lost sight of the fact that “our world hinges on moral foundations. God has made it so.”

“The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood,” King said.

The King holiday, which was not nationally observed until 1986, increasingly has been identified with public service. For several years, Americans have been urged to make Martin Luther King Day “a day on, not a day off.”

The Benning Heights service project was coordinated by Americorps and George Washington’s office of community service. Students from American University and Georgetown University also took part.

Community-outreach specialists credited George Washington’s group for doing a large amount of planning, coordinating and training. George Washington students planned activities for children to take part in and coordinated seminars for community residents on matters of race and self-improvement.

The Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center worked with the National Civilian Community Corps to clean and refurbish an elementary school in Northwest and a shelter for teens in Northeast. They also prepared and gave out meals at the Hunger Action homeless shelter in Northeast.

Contingents of marching bands paraded in Southeast Washington and in Baltimore. Churches in Gaithersburg and Fort Washington held prayer breakfasts. High schools in Salem, Va., and Reston hosted celebrations of King’s holiday.

Volunteers also undertook service projects and cleaned up neighborhoods in Mount Vernon and in Germantown and Silver Spring.

James Madison University hosted an event last night called “Keep the Fire Burning” with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The Rev. Loretta Johnson of Memorial Methodist Church in Benning Heights said she hopes the lessons of the holiday would take effect throughout the year. The cafeteria at Memorial Methodist provided a spaghetti lunch for 150 volunteers.

“It ought to be every day, the interaction, the sharing, the encouragement. It should be an everyday way of life,” Miss Johnson said. Yet she was pleased and impressed with the many volunteers and their service.

“This is remarkable,” Miss Johnson said. “If the change is going to take place, it’s going to take place with the young people.”

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