I believe that the highest office I should hold is that of a servant. The greatest joy in my life is serving the people nobody wants to think about.
When I was sixteen I spent almost every Friday night for two winters at the Salvation Army Warming Station in Pontiac, Michigan. I brought the men of that shelter brown bag lunches from the affluent students of Bloomfield Hills. I arrived in the evenings, sorted the lunches, and then distributed them to the men who gratefully accepted the sandwiches, snacks, fruit, and drinks.
I stayed long into the subzero nights, sometimes until morning, listening to great friends, teachers, and wise philosophers. I remember how my heart pounded in my ears as a man slashed wildly at us with a razor after we had slammed the shelter doors closed. He vanished into the icy, soulless, crack-ravaged wasteland. But, on other nights we laughed until our ribs ached at the many follies we survived, because in our laughter we turned back the four hideous horsemen of terror, bewilderment, frustration, and despair. Then one Christmas Eve I watched the worlds of dignified affluence and abject poverty come together in mutual celebration. The teachers from my school helped prepare a feast for the men of the shelter. They cooked together, ate together, and shared the pleasure of each other’s company long into the night. My grandfather was there as well, and his face beamed with joy throughout the evening.
In his career as a prison educator, my grandfather taught his students at Auburn State Penitentiary to be electricians. When the riots broke out in the 1960’s the inmates escorted him through the yard to safety. His body trembled as he passed the beaten guards wrapped in gasoline soaked blankets, and tears streaked his face as the inmates smoked cigarettes a couple of feet from the guards. That night he wept on his knees praying for a miracle. After the riots ended, my grandfather demanded that his students return to class and be released from lockdown.
Upon his retirement, my grandfather’s students immortalized his compassionate nature with a plaque. On it are these words:
We who were fortunate in our misfortune to have been students under your supervision have found in you sincerity consistent with your ideals. Truth, such as experienced in you presence is a stranger so seldom met in this civilization of frauds.
We came unsuspecting the concern that we encountered. You seem to be bubbling with knowledge and wisdom, and in you there was a willingness to share it with others. Just knowing you is precious, because you brought us in touch with the goodness that is so terribly obscured in the world today.
The precious thing about you cannot be bought, only given. This is a symbol of our gratitude. Farewell doesn’t mean goodbye, for we will forever be together in memory.
Everyday I challenge myself to be a person worthy of such praise, respect, and admiration. My belief in service is a fire ignited by the wisdom of a largely anonymous man who had love for all men, stoked by the memories of hopeless men in prison, and fueled by the vision of homeless men on freezing nights. I believe that a world set ablaze in this spirit of service could inspire the heart of God.
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