Washington’s skyline is dominated by two buildings, each sitting on a hill. At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue there is the U.S. Capitol, which stands for our political values — constitutional democracy, liberty under law. Here, in the northwest of Washington, and on a higher hill, is the Washington National Cathedral, which stands for the nation’s spiritual values.
One of those spiritual values is the habit of voluntary service to our families, to our neighbors, to our Nation, and to our fellow human beings.
The voluntary doing of good is the aspiration of every committed Christian, who thinks seriously about the Good Life. We, each of us, recognize the challenge of seeking to live as God wishes us to live, to do such things as are pleasing in His sight: we seek to obey the commandment: “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The word “volunteer” comes directly from the Latin word “voluntas,” meaning “will.” A volunteer is one who does good voluntarily, willingly.
The heart of the matter is that we render service not because we are paid, nor because we are coerced or pressured, but because we independently decide that we want to – we volunteer. The concept of volunteer service is embedded in the American psyche. In few other countries in the world is the role of voluntary service so prominent as it is in the United States. In the formative experiences of the Jamestown Colony, and Massachusetts Bay, and on the frontier, and in remote farming communities in the face of fire and drought — in all of these, and in many other settings, Americans learned the value of contributing to one another, to their community’s welfare. This is a tradition which carries on today all across the land, in PTAs and Little League, in vestries and disaster relief, in thousands of charities and in efforts in the inner city, in Appalachia and in the Mississippi delta. In a country that steadfastly resists the notion that government is the source of all social service and benefit, volunteerism is a mighty engine for good in every city and county in this country. Voluntary service is the expression of America’s better self. It is a momentous force. And, it has meaning. And, we honor it.
When we enter the west doors of the Cathedral, we sense at once the majesty of the building, the beauty of the great arches and the stained glass windows, the spiritual impact of the art and music – all of these register at once. And they are important.
But also, all around us, perhaps less obvious, but with just as much beauty, with as much impact, with as much mystery, is the power of the human spirit as exemplified in the 1,100 or more volunteers that make the Washington National Cathedral what it is: not just a great stone building erected as a monument to our God, but something much greater: a cockpit of vibrant and creative human activity engaged in ministries of hospitality, of teaching, of beauty, of stewardship, of inspiration, of caring and comforting, all voluntary labors, without reward, save that of knowing that we do God’s will.
And in the end, it is those human beings that give this great church a human face. They are the human voice of warmth and welcome. They are the human hands reaching out to help. Those women and men are the heart and soul of our Cathedral. They are a powerful force. They have meaning. And we honor them.
Think of what one of our docents meant to a young boy who chanced to visit the Cathedral only hours after learning his grandfather had died. When the docent by chance uncovered this fact, she took the boy aside, comforted him, found a nave chaplain and together they sat with the boy, talking to him about his grandfather’s life and how to live in such a way as to make his grandfather proud.
Think of the young Japanese man, thousands of miles from his home, living for a time in a strange land, who visits the Cathedral and is so moved by the welcome of one of our volunteers that he writes, later, to try to express his gratitude. Says he, “I felt in you a great welcome. Although I understood perhaps one-half of what you said, I felt you were a holy person. I want to bring my family when they visit from Japan so they too can be in your presence.”
And we know dozens — and there must be thousands —of other such stories telling of efforts of our volunteers to inspire, to comfort, to teach, to welcome – in short, to give this Cathedral a human face.
It is not right to say that this is the clergy’s Cathedral, nor to say that this is the staff’s Cathedral, nor even to say that this is the volunteers’ Cathedral. The Cathedral is a part of all of us; every one of us is part of it. We helped to build it; we all work to make it a living institution; and we all hope to make it better for those who come along after us. We — volunteers, staff, clergy — are part of a great team, and like any great team, each member has a special role. We volunteers are an essential, historic, and valued part of this great Cathedral.
Perhaps it is worth taking just a moment to describe the Cathedral’s volunteers: who are we, what is it that we do here, and why do we do it?
We number approximately 1,100. We are doing approximately 1,400 different jobs – some of us do two and three different tasks. Just imagine the actual monetary value of the talent, time and energy we contribute. We are young and we are less young – two of our volunteers have been part of this Cathedral since 1940. Some of us have been here for a brief time but are already valued volunteers. Some of us grew up as choirboys singing in those bays, and playing sports on the Close’s lawns and fields, and have returned again and again to do our part.
We come from this city. But we also come from across the country, and indeed increasingly, we come from across the world. Embassy personnel from foreign countries are part of our volunteer corps; one of our most faithful and favorite volunteers was born in Normandy many years ago and has been with us at those tables out in the west end almost every Tuesday and every Friday and a good many Saturdays, too, since the 1970s.
We have former public officials and leaders of the business community and the Bar; but we mostly have lots of people who lead crowded everyday lives and yet find time in those lives to spend untold hours here. And many of our volunteers live across the country – over a hundred of our National Cathedral Association regional leaders make that organization the strong development partner that this National Cathedral needs out there – in the Nation.
But we also reach into our own community through our volunteer efforts. 240 of us work in one of our largest and most popular volunteer programs – the literacy program. Almost 100 of us help by putting food on Martha’s Table. Thirty or so work in our Cathedral Scholars program with the area’s public schools.
And how could this Cathedral be what it is without those who work miracles with flowers to soften the stone and create great beauty, day after day, week after week. And the people of All Hallow’s Guild who help to make this sacred precinct so special through their ministry of cultivation and husbandry. And those at the Green House, and at the Herb Cottage, and those who work in the Museum Shop, and the bell ringers, and the volunteers who organize the Summer evenings, and the tours and teas, and our almost 200 docents and ushers, many of whom have given of their talent and their time for years and years, some for decades.
Why do we do what we do here? It is a fact that we volunteers believe we get more out of what we do than anybody else. We would not do this if we were simply paid the going rate, nor would we do it merely for the thanks of a grateful institution.
We do it because we share a vision and a dream of what this Cathedral means, and what it can mean, to people all over the world. Remember, as an example, September 14: we who were here, either in person or through television, mourned those killed on September 11. We found strength in our faith – in this place – to determine to do what must be done to defeat terrorism. After that day, we should never be in any doubt about what this Cathedral means. And that is just one example.
We do our work here because it makes us part of a larger community, not just in the sense that we make new friends and celebrate each other’s birthdays, as the second shift of the summer evening volunteers does, and as some of our docents have for decades.
Being part of this institution makes us a part of the larger community, across geography and across time, that has been and is dedicated to making this world a better place.
We reach back across the years to the young farm boy in Kansas who in 1910 gave everything he had saved that year – one shiny new nickel – to help build the Nation’s Cathedral. We reach through the years out into the future by working to acquire the resources whose actual use we ourselves will not live long enough to see.
By being part of this Cathedral, we find our place in historic Christendom, and more than that, we find our place as members of the human community of faith dedicated to do what we can do to improve the lot of humankind.
Each one of us has enlisted in the cause of service to our fellow human being and to God – through our voluntary work in this Cathedral.
Let us pray.
O God, we pray to You as volunteers in Your service through our work in this holy Cathedral,
Help us to carry out Your mission in this world by what we do here,
Teach us to do it more perfectly, in Your sight,
Strengthen us to persist when the hours are long and the task seems endless,
Stir up in us a sense of renewed dedication so that we may approach each opportunity for service with fresh creativity and redoubled energy,
And lift our hearts, O God, with the joy of serving You in Your Cathedral,
All of this we ask in Your Name, Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.