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 CNS Story:

ELECTION-SERVICE Oct-9-2008 (1,410 words) With photos. xxxn

Candidates issue calls for greater service to meet nation's needs

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- If there was one day during the marathon presidential campaign when the candidates were not making digs and tossing accusations at each other, it would have been Sept. 11, the seventh anniversary of the terror attacks on American soil.

It was that day when Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the major-party presidential candidates, gave back-to-back live broadcast interviews on service at Columbia University in New York.


McCain said that, had he been president during those deadly attacks, he "would have created organizations ranging from neighborhood block watch to making sure that our nuclear power plants are secure." He also would have expanded not only the military but the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, two federal service organizations.

"There's a great (service) role for faith-based organizations, volunteer organizations -- and the private sector," McCain said. "I think we've got to involve more businesses and industries that routinely provide goods and services, rather than rely on the federal government to do it."

"When I graduated from Columbia, I had a choice. I could pursue a lucrative career on Wall Street or go immediately to law school," Obama said in his interview, "or I could follow through on the inspiration that I had drawn from the civil rights movement -- and from the Kennedy era -- and try to work in the community. And I chose the latter. But it was tough.

"I made $12,000 a year plus car expenses in Chicago working with churches to set up job training programs for the unemployed and after-school programs for youth, trying to make the community better," he said.

Obama added, to applause from the audience, "What we also want to do is to remind young people that if it weren't for government then we wouldn't have a Civil Rights Act. If it weren't for government, we would not have the interstate highway system. If it weren't for government, we would not have some of our parks and natural wilderness areas that are so precious to America."

"And so part of my job, I think, as president," he continued, "is to make government cool again -- and to say to young people even as we're transforming Washington, 'Come up. We want you. We want you to get involved at every level.'"

But "government can't do it all," said Jeanne Haster, executive director of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, which has its headquarters in Portland, Ore., and has 100 volunteers working in about 75 different volunteer assignments in five states.

The number of volunteers has been holding steady, Haster said, but the organization "absolutely" could use more. "The need is great," she added.

Haster related a story that connects the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, founded in 1956, with the Peace Corps.

"One of our very first volunteers came from a college in the East where one of the Kennedy women went," she said in an interview with Catholic News Service.

Sargent Shriver, President John Kennedy's brother-in-law and the first Peace Corps director, approached his female in-law and asked her, "If young people will volunteer for their church, will they volunteer for their country?" Based on her answer, the Peace Corps was created in 1961.

The concept of national service didn't originate with the Peace Corps, but came a generation earlier, during the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration devised the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and a host of other agencies whose acronyms became known as "alphabet soup," but which gave out-of-work Americans a chance to serve their country.

After the success of the Peace Corps, which focused on service abroad, President Lyndon Johnson created Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, to help America's needy. It was folded into the AmeriCorps, part of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, created by a 1993 law. Today, about 2 million people do some kind of volunteer work through AmeriCorps agencies.

Early in his presidency President George W. Bush touted an initiative to make federal dollars more accessible to smaller church-run programs. The first head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was John DiIulio, a Catholic Democrat. But he didn't last a year in the office before quitting, and later criticized the administration as "Mayberry Machiavellis" who favored political decisions over policy-based ones. He later softened his stance.

"Obama's proposed Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is well-named. Sen. Obama wants to foster interfaith, ecumenical, religious-secular and public-private partnerships with faith-based and other nonprofit organizations that constitutionally, compassionately and cost-effectively supply social services to the needy and the neglected," DiIulio said in a Sept. 23 interview conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Even so, he added, "Bush deserves enormous credit for putting 'faith-based' into the policy vernacular and on the national policy agenda to stay. His multibillion-dollar, multiyear, faith-inspired HIV/AIDS initiative in sub-Saharan Africa is enough all by itself to reinforce his claims about being a compassionate conservative."

"I thought it was great that service is being elevated to the point where we're having a forum on it for a presidential election," said Jim Lindsay, executive director of the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. "It bodes well for CNVS and the work that we do."

The volunteer network links Catholics looking to make a difference in society with roughly 200 Catholic organizations that need their talents; opportunities range from weeklong domestic placements to positions abroad that last several years.

"It always seems we have more women than men" volunteering, about a 2-1 ratio, Lindsay said. "That's always been a source of concern for us, how to get more men involved. We've also tried to get more people in different racial and ethnic backgrounds," since 82 percent of current volunteers are Caucasian, he added, and the organization has launched a diversity initiative.

"Most of our volunteers are college-educated. Most of our volunteers are recent graduates," according to Lindsay, and those who opt for long-term overseas assignments often have had some graduate school.

"Whoever's elected, there seems to be support for AmeriCorps," Lindsay noted.

He said he had checked out the possibilities of the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service working with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but didn't find much common cause there. As for mandatory national service, "I've heard the idea discussed, but nobody's brought it up in this campaign," he said.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps' Haster said the volunteer experience changes the future direction of many "JVs," the shorthand term often used for Jesuit volunteers. Their motto is "Ruined for Life."

"Of the four (Northwest Province Jesuits) ordained in the last year, two were JVs," she said. One volunteer was assigned to a Jesuit parish in Seattle 25 years ago "and never left," she added. "Now he's a deacon."

She can also identify a Massachusetts state senator, an Oregon assistant attorney general, a Catholic Charities director in Washington state -- and Hunter Biden, the son of Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Obama's running mate -- as "JV" alumni.

But one person who guides significant volunteer efforts believes the emphasis on service is misplaced.

According to Roger Playwin, national executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis, the focus should be less on helping those who want to volunteer find ways to do that and more on helping those who benefit from the volunteers' service.

"Our sense up to this point in time has been that none of the candidates have addressed the needs of those who are living in poverty in this campaign," Playwin said.

Poverty is up "across the board," he added. The society's 4,700 conferences nationwide distributed an estimated $520 million in aid -- including $321 million in cash assistance -- last year, up from 2006, and the 2008 numbers were trending even higher, according to Playwin.

"The urban areas have a huge impact (on poverty figures), but it's also showing up in the rural areas, because more and more the rural class is being affected. They're going from being on the edge of poverty to poverty. We've seen people increasingly being a paycheck away" from poverty, he said.

"If you were around when President (Lyndon) Johnson was trying to attack it with the War on Poverty, there were 12 million people living in poverty then," he said. "We're now at 37 million people."

END


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