published Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Cook: Loving America

Life's most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Fifty years later, Dr. King's dream is still alive in people like Daniel Becton.

Last week, Becton, 27, finished a yearlong project of community service. For 366 days and 42,000 miles, Becton traveled to every state in America, spending one week there with people whose work is bound up in the service of others.

"Every single community has people helping other people," he said. "I wanted to celebrate that and provide a counter-narrative to the idea that our generation and our society neglects each other in favor of having more power."

The old, worn narrative says that America is at its best when we're in competition with one another. We the people, we the ultimate fighters. Power then becomes something we acquire selfishly; more for me means none for you.

But Becton (and King's) form of power is more horizontal. Power, like medicine, heals, not harms, and is best shared, not squirreled away. The truest form of power comes through service.

So for one year, Becton served all across America. He tutored inner-city kids in Mobile, built a school playground in Maine, helped create a nonprofit website in Kansas, worked with anti-gang activists in Chicago.

And last week, he ended his trip here in Chattanooga by volunteering with the Oak Project, which cares for single-mother families, and Channels of Love, our city's interdenominational ministry that serves people with HIV/AIDS.

Becton called his year the Ubuntu Project after the African term "ubuntu" popularized by people like Desmond Tutu that says: a person is a person through other people.

Your humanity and my humanity are bound up together; like separated twins, our work is to remember and return to one another, realizing that my happiness is linked with yours. We, not us versus them.

"A place where all our gifts and resources are held, not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity," King once said.

What King (26 at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott) and Becton (who turned 27 on Monday) are talking about can be summed up in one four-letter word.

"Love," said Becton.

Too long the property of Woodstock and MTV Spring Break, our notion of love has long been misunderstood and mocked as wimpy and sentimental or sexualized. We value toughness, not Mister Rogers. (For example: when was the last time you ever heard any president or politician speak about love in any policy or stump speech?)

But this notion of love needs to be reclaimed, polished off, steroided up and reintroduced into 21st century America in a serious and meaningful way. Done right, love encourages justice and tempers power. Love builds community, forgives, empowers, shares.

Love, Gandhi said, is the most powerful force in the universe.

"We have to learn how to empower love," said Becton. "Get people to serve love, not serve power first."

Becton tells story after story of amazing unsung heroes (go visit Oak Project and Channels of Love) who spend each day loving other people. Their stories are already remaking this world, and there's room for more of us.

"You don't have to be working 72 hours a week at a nonprofit to make the world better," he said. "We need to recognize that in every interaction you have the chance to change the world. You can choose humble curiosity and love itself or you can choose fear and avoidance."

Becton, back home in North Carolina and soon to apply to divinity school at Vanderbilt (and Harvard and Yale), is a truer representation of his generation than the stereotypical, texting iSlacker.

"The doom and gloom mentality is largely focused on the assumption that young Americans are entitled, lazy and content," he said. "In fact, young Americans are principled, we're motivated and are actually better organized than the world savers of the 1960s."

During our conversation, Becton quoted King multiple times, like he'd memorized the man. But Becton himself speaks with a prophet's depth and with the energy and leaning-forward excitement of a I-refuse-to-have-enemies activist.

The last words of this column, most deservedly, belong to him.

"It is exchanging love, not accumulating power, that ultimately you need for happiness."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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