– Rosa Parks, Quiet Strength (1994)
I spent yesterday afternoon with a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Seriously! I was delivering food boxes with Ms. Opal Lee and found out she had just been nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. In true Ms. Opal fashion, she laughed and said, “There’s thirty-two other nominees but it’s great to be one of them”. It was no big deal to her – just another of the honors this beautiful woman has received in her ninety-five years of service to her community and the world. Meanwhile, we went about delivering food boxes as she’s done for many years – just another of the ways she serves her community with love and determination.
I’ve thought much of the gifts I’ve received since I began working for Unity Unlimited, Inc. in the Fall of 2018. Perhaps the greatest gift of all is knowing Ms. Opal. I wish I could talk to the Nobel Prize Committee directly; to tell them about this special woman who makes the lives of everyone she touches better. It’s not just the public things she does – and does she do a lot! I can only speak for myself, but I feel I’m not alone. She’s helped me become a better human being.
She’s quietly taught me to love and serve others better. Simply being in her orbit transforms my heart daily. People probably get tired of hearing me say, “Ms. Opal says…” but they’ll have to get over it. I’ve become adept at sharing the many things I’ve learned from her. I could not have asked for a better mentor and friend. The wisdom she has so graciously shared with me is the good news of what it means to be just another of God’s kids serving God’s other kids. I’ve learned the simple value of listening and serving.
Working for Unity Unlimited, Inc has been a Godsend. Dione Sims, her granddaughter, is our Executive Director and I get to tell everyone I work in the family business! One day a while back, I told Ms. Opal that I was jealous of Dione. When she asked why in the world was I jealous of Dione I told her that Dione got to call her Grand Dear and both my grandparents were gone. She laughed and told me some of the most precious words I could ever imagine – “Oh, son, I am your grandmother. I’m just from a different mother.”
Now I know Ms. Opal is “the grandmother of Juneteenth” and I know she’s a grandmother to multitudes of people because that’s just who she is, but I’m so proud to claim her as my own.
So… to the Nobel Prize Committee – I know there are thirty-three nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. I know they are all eminently qualified to be winners. I’ve read of their work and praise them all. But… I don’t know them and they’re not my grandmother. I can’t think of anyone better to receive the honor this year than Ms. Opal Lee!
It’s a cold, windy morning here in Cowtown. The “feels like” temperature won’t get out of the low twenties but by Tuesday we’ll be back in the seventies. The rollercoaster continues…
A friend posted a word puzzle on social media that said the first four words you saw were going to be your mantra for the new year. I’m the perpetual skeptic when it comes to things like this, but I looked anyway. I must say I’m pleased with the words I found. The order was:
The first one was love. I can’t think of a better way to begin the mantra. I strive to love better each day, but I fall woefully short sometimes. Fortunately, I have tremendous role models, mentors, and friends who help me along the way. My wife, Margaret, is my main role model. Her patience and acceptance of others is wondrous. Then there’s Ms. Opal. Maybe when I get to her age, I can love others as she does, but I have a feeling it’s something she’s been doing for a lifetime.
The second word was peace. Our home is a place of peace. We prayed over our home since we bought it eight years ago. We wanted our home to be a place where the spirit of peace abides for us and our friends. We live a predominantly drama-free life. We have our moments, but they are few and far between. I’m infinitely grateful God has blessed us with his peace.
I’m in dire need of having peace as part of my mantra when it comes to looking beyond our home. There is division and strife everywhere I turn these days. I sometime think of the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”. It’s as simple as that, but it’s certainly not easy. I think of Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God”. I pray that I become a peacemaker – not a peacemaker: one who exercises power over others to simply maintain order or someone who gives on everything just keep the peace.
Peacemaking is an arduous task and that brings me the mantra’s third word – strength. It’s not physical strength I need (although I might say different at the end of a long day at Opal’s Farm…), but spiritual strength to be the man God made me to be. Honestly, there are some days when my strength is completely absent and then I find the strength to do the next thing in front of me. I became acutely aware of this when my son died in 2020. God held me up then and still holds me up in many ways today I need strong emotional shoulders for others to better serve them. I need strength of character to be there for others and, to be a peacemaker.
The final word of the mantra was change. I had to think about this one for a while. Change is so difficult for folks to deal with. There was a time in my life I was sure nothing was going to change – but that had more to do with my fear, addiction, and depression – that life was a problem with no solution. I’ve learned differently since then.
I know longer fear change (most of the time), but welcome it. My walk with God encourages me to grow, to change, and to be the special, unique man God made me to be. I look back over a lifetime and the only constant has been change – some good, some bad – but always know that the God of my understanding has walked me through each one. He always has my back, so I don’t have to fear. Maybe that’s why “Be not afraid” is mentioned so many times in the Bible…
I also pray to be an agent of change – to be part of the world around me no matter how big or small that world may be. I have a quote from Mother Theresa at the bottom of each of the emails I send, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one”. I may not be able to do for the hundred, but I can be the agent for change for one person. I may never know that I was, but each of our actions has influence and consequences. You just never know how you can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
The mantra now made complete sense. If I walk in peace, rely on God’s strength, and be an agent of change, then I will automatically love better.
“But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” 1 Corinthians 13.13 (The Message Bible)
While everyone can be a role model, not everyone can be larger-than-life. I think of those that are “larger” than the rest of us as the positive role models to role models. We all have larger than life heroes.
The kind of hero they are changed as I’ve grew. It was John Wayne, Superman, and John F. Kennedy when I was growing up in the sixties. My definition of a hero changed by the time I was in college in the seventies – it was more of an anti-hero. If you were against the establishment, I was with you! I even had a Che Guevarra poster in my dorm room and a “Question Authority” bumper sticker on my car (both by the way, were a burr under the saddle of the administration of the Christian college I attended for a year where piety and strict obedience were the norm).
I’m not sure who my heroes were in the eighties and nineties. Those were lost decades in many ways. I think I thought of anyone who could stay clean and sober was my hero. I sure wasn’t hanging around anyone like that. The new century brought about the recovery I’d longed for and my definition of “larger-than-life” changed once again to those that looked beyond themselves to serve the common good and make this a better place to be.
It I’d be willing to wager that we’ve all wanted to be a hero. I’ve even met folks who believe themselves to be one (a little clue – larger than life people don’t think of themselves as heroes, or even think of themselves at all, really – at least not mine…).
What is larger-than-life?
“What creates such larger-than-life people? Their altruism is hard to understand by almost any psychological definition of the human person. I believe such people have built their lives on the reality of union with God, Reality, or What Finally Is.” – Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 161–162.
“Surrender is the strongest, most subversive thing you can do in this world. It takes strength to admit you are weak, bravery to show you are vulnerable, courage to ask for help.” – Holly Whitaker
“Your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” – Desmond Tutu
“Whatever that you do, you begin from the premise that you’re human together.” – Musimbi Kanyoro
“I’m not sure it even matters what the artist thought they wanted when they sat down to create the work. The art itself seems to want something, to make a change in the world. And the ability to create art like that belongs to each of us.” – Seth Godin
“If someone can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. – Dr. Opal Lee (the Grandmother of Juneteenth)
I asked Ms. Opal if I needed to start calling her Dr. Lee. She laughed and told me Ms. Opal is fine. That’s what larger-than-life heroes do…
The last thing I wanted to see tonight was the news of another hero of the faith passing on. I was flying through personal email when a headline caught my eye just as I clicked “delete”. I hurriedly went to the deleted folder only to discover that Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away today at ninety years old.
I first came to learn of Archbishop Tutu through his work to end apartheid in South Africa. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1984. When apartheid finally ended in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu went on to help start the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to bring healing to the country. His was a heart for restorative justice for the perpetrators and the victims of apartheid’s senseless violence.
He spoke to injustice anywhere regardless of color or status. In 2004, he accused post-apartheid President Mbeki of catering to the South African elites and forgetting the people he was elected to serve. He wasn’t afraid to call anyone out.
He reminded us that silence in the face of injustice was not an option. During my college years he said something that has stayed with me all these years – “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”. Silence may appear neutral, l but it’s really consent to the oppressor.
I could go on for pages about Archbishop Tutu’s work. He was indeed a true hero of the faith. May we follow his example. The world is a little quieter without his voice.