When you are tempted to say…
I am the only one.
What can one person do.
No one will listen to me.
I am just an ordinary person.
The task is too big.
The need is too large.
The problem is too great.
It won’t make a dent.
I won’t make a dent.
No one will notice.
Nothing will change.
What difference can one person make.
One is greater than zero.
This week on our Twitter and our Facebook pages, Megan Hansen, who manages our online communication, posted a reflection written by MaryAnn McKibben Dana entitled Kick With Your Left Foot. The springboard for her reflection was a podcast she heard about the 1999 Women’s World Cup Soccer final in which the US National Women’s team beat China in a penalty kick shootout. The winning goal was scored by Brandi Chastain. Any of you who follow soccer at all may remember that moment and that kick and Brandi Chastain’s reaction. But what caught MaryAnn Dana’s attention was the fact that just before Brandi Chastain walked onto the field to take that kick, her coach told her to take the kick with her left foot. Something she had done hundreds of times in practice, but never in a game. Especially a game and a moment of that magnitude. Chastain followed her coach’s instruction. Took the kick. With her left foot. Scored the goal. The rest is history.
Ms. Dana ends her blog post with this:
And that’s how life works, isn’t it.
We do what is ours to do, day by day.
We pursue our “craft,” whatever that might be;
we explore what it means to be our authentic selves;
we learn, we engage in rituals and traditions,
we practice so that at moments when we are most needed in our communities and families, we are ready to give our best effort for the sake of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. As Danusa Veronca Goska writes, “When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”
Tiny, decent things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things…so we’re ready to jump in, with either foot forward.
Which brings me back to today.
And, to the Bible.
And, to you and me.
And, to our claim and calling to follow in the way and the spirit of Jesus, who, if Matthew’s Gospel is to be believed, spent his time and energy healing and teaching and bringing something of God’s Kingdom close.
Healing the world.
Little by little.
At a time.
One of the scribbled notes on the file folder in which I keep sermon notes and ideas is:
“Quit thinking you have to be Gandhi.”
Which, I think, means this.
Quit thinking you can’t do anything about it because the problem is too big.
Quit thinking you are just one person.
Quit thinking that someone else with more time, more energy, more influence, more power, more clout will be the one to jump in to fix it or solve it or do it.
Quit thinking you have to be Gandhi.
Or, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Or Nelson Mandela.
Instead, remember it is…
Tiny, decent things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things…that make us ready to jump in, with either foot forward.
In that same file folder as the scribbled note about Gandhi, I found this written by Emilie Townes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Studies in Religion and Theology a Yale Divinity School. She writes:
Ultimately, I believe that somewhere deep inside each of us
We know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of “what will we proceed to do with the fullness and the incompleteness of what we have brought to this time and place” is:
Live your faith deeply.
Now I am not talking about perfection.
I’m talking about what we call in Christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts.
It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action.
The everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk to hear what they are saying.
The everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh ourselves through prayer or meditation.
The everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths.
The everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives.
The everydayness of sharing a meal.
The everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment.
The everydayness of joy and laughter.
The everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere or at least point them in the right direction.
The everydayness of blending head and heart.
It’s the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.
It is in the everydayness that “we the people” are formed.
And, we the people of faith, live and must witness to a justice wrapped in a love that will not let us go and a peace that is simply too ornery to give up on us.
What are you going to do today to claim your calling and to follow in the way and spirit of Jesus?
What are you going to do today…
To bring God’s Kingdom close?
One person at a time.
One moment at a time.
One household…your household…at a time.
To heal the world…
Just a little bit?
Remember it is…
Tiny, decent things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things.
Tiny, decent, surprising things
That make us ready to jump in, with either foot forward.
I spent last week in Colcord, WV with 27 high school students, 4 college students and 4 other adults. In the 90+ degree heat we worked repairing floors, building and repairing handicapped ramps and repairing and building two porches. In addition to the work, on most evenings we gathered in the small Presbyterian Church next to where we were staying to talk about the work we were doing and about what we were learning. All this is a familiar summer pattern for me. Except for four years, every summer since 1979 I have traveled to Appalachia – first from Illinois and then from Wisconsin and now from New York – and spent a week with high school students and other adults living in a community and part of the country very different from where we lived and repairing homes of those who could no longer do the work themselves. These trips have shaped who I am both as a person and as a pastor and given me the opportunity to form relationships with many who have been and are role models for me. That legion of everyday saints who do what they can to make the world in which you and I live a better place.
Last Sunday evening, which was our first evening there, as we sat on the floor and in the pews of the Colcord Presbyterian Church, we asked the question of the young adults who were with us:
“Why are you here? Why did you come on this trip?”
The answers were honest and what you might expect.
I like helping other people.
I like making a difference.
The friendships and the relationships I make on trips like this are so important.
As a part of our conversation I added my response, but I can’t remember what I said, but the question stuck with me all week. Why am I here?
On our last evening in Colcord, we gathered again in the front of that small church. Each person was asked to bring something which represented the week to add to the collage we create in the center of our circle. One by one items were added and stories told.
A piece of wood from the first time he used a circular saw.
A stone from the creek.
A coke can which a neighbor gave them while they were working.
A screw representing the hundreds of screws used to hold porch or ramp together.
My contribution was a piece of paper with a question mark on it.
As I thought about the question of Why am I here? I realized that each of the trips I have been on over the years have been my effort to answer the question which the lawyer asked Jesus 2000 years ago: Who is my neighbor? which I think is the most important religious question of our time.
I answer that question better today than I did in 1979.
But, truth be told…
I still have a long way to go as I do my best to figure out the answer.
A month ago we were on our way home from our summer work trip to Colcord, WV.
Heather. Myself. Kathy DiBiasi. Five other adults. 22 high school students.
We had replaced a floor in trailer which seemed to have more holes than solid surface. We had built a handicap ramp for an older gentlemen so he could, more easily, get in and out of his house and a porch so a woman who had heart issues had a place to sit besides her living room. And, we had installed a railing around a porch so it would be safe for a family’s 3 year old granddaughter. And, we talked about what we were doing and why we were doing it, and about this quote by Jane Goodall, the British anthropologist who is the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees.
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Some parts of the conversation we had were easy.
When you were replacing a floor or building a handicap ramp, the impact you were having was easy to see both in terms of what had been built and in the faces of the families with whom we were working. The conversation became a bit more challenging when we talked about the deciding part of the quote. As in each day you have to decide… When all of us were there and working and doing what we could to make someone’s home a bit safer or more livable, the decisions seemed easy. They become more complicated, don’t they, when you are on your own or at home or at school or reading and responding to the headlines in the news.
Then, on the last night we were in Colcord, came the most challenging part of our weeklong conversation.
How do you make the decisions you do?
What guides you?
What shapes you?
What are the values behind the decisions you make?
What you want?
What you think you need?
What you can afford?
What feels right in that moment?
Or, something else?
As we were asking the high school students to think about this, I remembered and told this story. A number of years ago a group of people in the church decided it would be fun to host a square dance. An intergenerational event which would include the youngest to the oldest. And so, a date was set. We rented the gym at the elementary school around the corner. We hired a person to be our caller for the evening. There were maybe 50 or so of us there. We dosey doed. We swung our partners. We even learned to the Grand March right and left. As the evening was drawing to a close, the caller suggested we try a line dance. For me, this is when the evening became complicated. I knew how to dosey do and I knew how to swing my partner, but when it comes to other kinds of dancing I feel like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. So, as we took our places for the line dance I strategically made my way to the back of the room. My reasoning was that if I was in the last row no one would see how awkward I was and I would be able to watch and to follow all the other people in front of me.
And, so we started.
The line dance we learned went something like this.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Quarter turn.
Are you beginning to see where this is heading?
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Quarter turn.
Suddenly, I was in the front row.
And, the moment I was…
The moment I could not watch the leader and what others were doing>>>
I lost my way.
There is this story in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus.
Jesus had spent the entire day surrounded by the crowds of people who had come out from the nearby villages to see him and to listen to him and to be touched by him. At the end of the day he was exhausted. As he was sending the crowds home, he told his disciples to get in the boat and start for the other side and he would catch up with them later. That evening, as they were part way across the lake in their boat, the disciples looked up and saw what looked like Jesus walking across the water towards them. They were some combination of scared to death and wondering if they were dreaming. Peter, called out saying, “Jesus if it is really you tell me to get out of the boat and walk across the water to you.” Jesus said, “Come.” So, Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk across the water towards Jesus. Then, the Bible says, Peter began to look around and saw the wind and the waves and in that moment he began to sink.
Looking around at our lives and world, there is certainly a lot of wind and waves to distract our attention, isn’t there.
Let me leave you with this.
This quote from the iconic New York Yankee, Yogi Berra.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up someplace else.”
Let me tell you a story.
About Bedford Presbyterian Church.
Which means it is also a story about you and me.
Ten or so years ago, the committee responsible for raising funds to help maintain the church decided it was not enough to just raise money for a building…even as beautiful and as significant and meaningful as this building is. They believed that if we were to be true to who we were and what we believed some of the money raised should be for the work we do in the communities around us. So, they decided that 25% of any money they raised would be set aside for something beyond our doors. That practice continued with our most recent Capital Campaign which, in contributions and pledges, has raised around $1,000,000 which means, when all the funds are accounted for, $250,000 will be earmarked for work in the community. Some of that money has already been allocated and distributed. To help the Emergency Shelter Partnership purchase a new bus. To Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center for needed improvements so they can better serve those who use that wonderful facility. To the Westchester Youth Alliance to help them sustain their interfaith youth program.
But, all of that is background for this.
The story I would like to share with you this morning.
Three and half years ago, we became aware of a young man who had the dream of going to college, but whose family insisted that when he finished high school he go to work to earn money for the family. When he continued to insist on college, he suddenly found himself without a place to live. Some of you already know this part of the story. Kim Lapple and Michelle Gosh, members of our congregation, adopted Kevin Tejada instantly becoming parents of an 18 year old. As college acceptance letters came in, Kevin received an acceptance to Bates College in Maine. On top of that he received a full scholarship. That spring, as Kevin moved towards graduation and getting ready to head off to college, we/BPC raised additional funds to help cover some of those other expenses related to going of to college that were not covered by his scholarship. Kevin is now completing his Junior year.
But, as wonderful as that story is…
And, it is wonderful.
It also proved to be a bit unsettling.
As we got to know Kevin, we began to realize there must be other students like him.
Young men and young women who had the academic credentials and who dreamed of going to college, but who, because of background or income, found that dream impossible to achieve. So, once Kevin headed off to college, we began a conversation with others in the community.
Were there other students like Kevin?
And, if so how many?
And, could something be done to help transform their dreams into reality?
The answers, we discovered, were: Yes. Lots. And, yes.
Yes. There were other students like Kevin.
Many other students like Kevin.
And, yes. There was something we could do to help.
Remember that money we set aside for something beyond our doors?
We took $50,000 of that money and said:
Here is seed money.
Let us figure out what we can do.
What emerged from a year long conversation was the Rewarding Potential Scholarship, a four year scholarship, whose mission is to meet the gap between the cost of college and what colleges and universities offer in financial aid for students who meet the academic and financial criteria.
In 2015, 30 students applied for the scholarship.
We were able to offer annual scholarships totaling nearly $20,000 per year to three students.
This year nearly 50 students applied.
We are providing $26,000 in annual scholarships for four students who will be headed off to college in the fall.
And, because most of these students are the first in their family to go to college and, in some cases, the first in their family to graduate from high school, we also make sure each of these students is connected to a mentor. An adult from the congregation or the community who will be a friend/resource/confident to help these students navigate the transition for home and high school to college. This past year, Chris Perry and Shirani Ponnambalam have been mentors to two students. Others from BPC – Kim Lapple, Michelle Gosh, Mistie Eltrich, Eric Eichhorn and Kathy DiBiasi have served on the Scholarship Selection Committee.
When Paul asked if I would consider being on the Selection Committee for Rewarding Potential Scholarship, I didn’t have to take very long to consider it and say yes. How often does someone get an opportunity to be a part of something where the result of your effort is immediate.
Many of us have served or are currently serving on non-profit boards where it often seems the fruits of our labor never come to fruition. I was going to be a part of something pretty extraordinary. I was one piece of a large puzzle. My part could help a young person fulfill their dream of going to college. I hadn’t been more excited about anything else in quite some time.
Fulfilling my piece of the puzzle, however, proved to be more difficult than I originally thought. Words to describe the selection process – exciting, difficult, heart breaking, anxiety provoking.
This year the guidance office at Fox Lane High School narrowed the list of 50 applicants to 10. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that process was.
Each of us on the selection committee received a packet of information for each of the ten candidates. A cover sheet listing the schools applied to and whether or not they had been accepted, a resume done by the applicant, their college essay and finally a high school transcript.
In addition to receiving this material, we each received a Pre Interview Grid with general qualities listed to rate the applicants on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 not so good to 10 as excellent.
We had to rate the applicants on things like, Responsibility, Willingness to seek help, confidence, curiosity, sense of purpose. These young people haven’t been alive for very long and to expect that they could even come close to meeting or exceeding something like sense of purpose, or realistic self-appraisal. But they did.
My strategy: Read through each applicant’s materials, jotting down a few highlights. Let it sit for a day. Go back and read through all the material again, taking more notes and finally filling out that very difficult grid. You have to understand, I wanted each and every one of them to go to college. They all have the credentials to go, just not the financial resources to do it.
But I had to stay on task. Who among the group is most likely to succeed if they get to college? That was the focus. That was my task. So I completed the grids.
Each of us on the Selection Committee submitted our grids and based on the results the candidates were put in order from 1 to 10. 1 being our top candidate. It was determined that we would meet the top 6. How exciting to see some of my personal favorites make the top 6 and how heart breaking to see one of my favorites ranked 9th.
Then we got to meet our top 6. Putting a face to the resume to the essay to the GPA. To put it in perspective – statistically these teens should not have been able to get to the point where they could be sitting at a table across from a group of adults talking about their dreams of going to college. They defied the odds. In contrast, statistically my children should have no problem getting into a good school based on my and my husbands education, the financial resources we have, the gift of my presence, helping with homework assisting where needed, and my knowledge of how to maneuver the school system to meet my children’s needs.
So we met our top 6 candidates. We loved each and every one of them. Putting a personality with the resume. Through our conversations a current theme began to emerge – the desire of each applicant to continue their education and the gratitude they had for Fox Lane High School.
I would like to make this more personal for you. I would like to share some of the joy I received in learning more about these young people. I have taken a small morsel from each of the 10 applicant’s essay to give you a glimpse into their lives….
In no particular order
- “The events in my life may have been horrible, yet they taught me many things about growing up. I learned to be independent and walk on my own two feet. I learned to manage myself and keep moving forward. I face them stronger now, little things do not bother me, school and social issues seem trivial in comparison to what I weathered.”
- “On an August summer day, my body reacted to the intensity of the sun’s rays as drops of sweat fell down my forehead. I suffered as I tried to dig two holes. Not only was it physically draining, but the thought of other kids my age having fun while I was working made me upset. As the hours went by, the ache from my hands escalated to the point of being unable to dig a 30-inch hole for a six-foot fence that my father and I were installing. This was embarrassing because Dad would dig one hole in twenty minutes.”
- “I’ve realized I will not always be successful in something I do, so I just have to strive harder to make it a success. This lesson, I will carry with me throughout life. I know that there will be times where I’m going to fail but that doesn’t mean I have to give up. It just means that I have to try harder.”
- “Going forward, I would like to build on the responsibilities I already have. I believe that college is the key to success and a great place for me to become an even better man. I know I have the potential to thrive at the next level and I have come way too far to stop now. This is what my mom has wanted and I want to make her proud. Most importantly, I will never be an empty seat for anyone who relies on me.”
- “One of the most challenging experiences in my life was moving to a new country with a different language and culture. Here I have faced many challenges that tested how much I was willing to give in order to strive. One challenge was learning English. Going to a new school wasn’t easy. I had to start from the bottom and work my way up, step by step, to be where I am today.”
- “I knew I had to change. My mother wasn’t being all that helpful and my grandmother found everything related to my brother’s situation disgusting. I was the only person who could support him at home because I was the only one who could understand his situation.”
- “Soccer is like an intense friendly war; shots being fired from all over the field, battle scars on the player’s legs, braces and bandages to heal the wounds. Trudging through the mud and sprinting down the field for eighty minutes or more. Having to fight back and defend your home. Eleven soldiers with their armor made of plastic fighting hand to hand, or foot to foot, combat for possession of the inflated ball. Sweat running down their forehead, joy radiating off their face; the beautiful game.”
- “It took me years to fully recover from not having my mother in my daily life. By the time I was in middle school, I fully understood that she had chosen to live her life without me. Thankfully, I had my grandma to help look after me. Every night, she would tuck me into bed and read me bedtime stories. I remember forcing myself to remain awake just to hear my favorite story read over and over again. She taught me how to clean, cook, iron, sew, and do laundry. These became my new responsibilities once my mom disappeared. Perhaps these skills are not what every child learns at the age of six. My grandmother knew that I needed to learn how to become responsible.”
- “Many people see school as something that is required, but for me school is my way of having a good life and being the first in my family to go to college. Having a job is important because I don’t have the luxury of having my parents pay for college. I have to work hard for anything I need. I use the money that I do make to help my mom pay for things that my sister needs in school. Since I want my sister to have a good education I can’t stop working because they are relying on me.”
- I will move forward and become everything I always dreamed I would. I repeat this mantra to myself everyday. I will not let what happened to me define who I am, and I will work my hardest to achieve greatness. Although, I will never be able to express my gratitude sufficiently to my parents, I’m determined to make their sacrifices worth it by reaching my full potential as I pursue my college dreams, and bring home a college degree.”
As Paul mentioned earlier, Rewarding Potential Scholarship has helped 4 of these 10 students achieve their dream of attending college.
Beyond our doors.
The $50,000 in seed money has grown into $500,000.
And one student has grown to seven additional students.
And poverty has given way to aspirations to be doctors and lawyers and veterinarians and physical therapists.
Repairing the breach.
Restoring the streets in which to live.
I am a list maker.
Today’s To Do list.
A long term To Remember list.
A list of people I need to be in touch with.
But I realized today as I worked my way down my list that something was missing. Something I remind others of nearly every Sunday, but which was getting lost as I went from one task to the next. One person to the next. I was forgetting that in the midst of everything else I have the responsibility of doing, I am also to be Light and Hope and Grace and Presence to others. Each day I am to do what I can to both recognize and to bring God’s Kingdom close. At least that is what I believe. And, so I am adding something to my list for today. And, for tomorrow.
- Make a difference
- Touch another’s life
- Recognize God’s presence
Maybe if those things are on my list each day, I will do a better job of paying attention to not just what needs done, but who I am called to be.