The early morning of Monday, Jan. 16 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — was as beautiful, as it was full of purpose. Like many in communities across the country, I had arrived at Tricentennial Park in Mobile to give my time and energy to something bigger, and of far greater importance than myself — my community.

The third Monday of January, nationally recognized as the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has become more than just a commemoration of the inspiration and vision Dr. King gave to our nation, but also of the commitment, service and change that his life exemplified. To honor his legacy, Americans throughout the nation gather to serve on this day. As it should be, King’s name has become synonymous with the call to service, with the call to sacrifice and with the call to community.

The Martin Luther King Day of Service Community Clean-Up at Tricentennial Park, organized through the collaborative efforts of groups such as Mobile Baykeeper, Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and a plethora of others, was a call to our community to assist in cleaning up one of our vital waterways: Three Mile Creek.

The response was phenomenal. Black and white, young and old — more than 300 people — came out to do the unglamorous work of picking up trash and removing debris. From area businesses to local fraternities and sororities, high school groups, families and individuals, a diverse array enthusiastically answered the call to service.

Using descriptive and picturesque language like only he can, Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson aptly referred to it as the “mother of all clean-up campaigns.” It was impressive. At the end, more than 170 tires and a “mountain of trash [bags]” was grand evidence of the effort and commitment of all who labored.

However, what did and still does impress me most about being there and bearing witness to the event is the realization of how powerful the spirit of “community” is, and the things it can accomplish.

Division is a serious problem in America today. Many national polls show it is a real concern for many Americans. In any healthy democracy, difference will always be present, and difference should always be appreciated. Difference can bring fresh insight, perspective and awareness. Difference can also prevent societal stagnation, and spark economic and cultural innovation.

Division, however, is different. Division in society brings about a fracturing, an undermining and a breaking down of the mechanisms that allow a society to reach the consensus or togetherness needed to push a society forward. Division impedes the process of governing by making compromise (which is a political necessity in a democracy) nearly impossible. Whereas difference is definitely not an enemy to society, division most certainly is.

Healing our division nationally begins with how we interact with and work with each other locally — it starts with community. The 300-plus people gathered at Tricentennial Park on the King Day of Service — that assembly of difference who united that morning with a sense of purpose — showed what is possible when members of a community prioritize and invest their time and energy into advancing those goals and objectives most beneficial for all. The majority in a community will agree that a clean environment, or safe streets, or good schools, or a robust local economy are good things, but it’s not until there is a collective investment in trying to make these realizable that they become more than just lofty words or goals.

As King often stated, individuals have to see their existence as part of something larger than themselves, and also feel the responsibility to engage personally in furthering the betterment of that larger community. The more individuals have a concern for the community at large and feel a personal pull to impact it in a positive way, the greater the chance that community will be a place of progress and opportunity for all.

Accordingly, it is less likely such a community will be a place of destructive division. It doesn’t mean there will be agreement on every issue, but consensus and compromise — those very important traits of a healthy democracy — will be much easier to reach.

King has rightly been called by scholars and political leaders of all stripes one of our “modern-day founding fathers.” As one writer insightfully noted, “He [King] offered a hopeful, transcendent idea of how America could be truly great.” King took our founding ideals and re-energized them, he connected those ideals with the hopes, dreams and aspirations of every American and showed that we all play a part in making the founding promises of this country something from which all can benefit. King made clear that difference does not exclude one from the promises and ideals upon which our nation is built. The hard work of this, though, begins at the community level.

This past weekend has been a momentous one in many ways. As many of us contemplate the very long road ahead and the obstacles that face us as a nation, may we remember the road to unity begins close to home. It begins when we work to engage and build on that most important of societal levels: the local community.