Author’s Note: These short stories are a series exemplify lessons I’ve learned in building a foundation. I realized in writing these that I’m not embarrassed by the mistakes I’ve made; perhaps I’m even proud of them. They have been my tuition for learning.
In the summer of 1997, I asked our parish priest Norm Smith how I could better serve. He asked me to come with him into the inner city to build services in a tough neighborhood using the campus of a semi-abandoned parish.
I told him I would do so because “the poor need us.”
He laughed and said, “Actually, I won’t allow you to go with me if that’s your attitude. We cannot serve well unless we serve each other.”
Norm felt that if you’re “giving” correctly, you receive as much or more in return. Too many people already “lord over the poor,” he said, which he felt was arrogant of the giver and disabling to the receiver.
People, rich and poor alike, don’t need our pity, they need our partnership.
John Wesley said, “It is possible to give without loving, but it is impossible to love without giving.”
And the risk of giving without loving is that by doing so we enable, never empower.
I’ve learned this lesson over and over. It’s tempting when you’re well-funded to “fix” things. But it is far more fulfilling to partner and learn together how to grow.
In all good service, dignity must be mutual.
After a few mission trips on our own, Alice and I took our three grown children to Kenya in 2008. Frankly, I never handled these trips well. It’s where I confirmed my strength was “serving those who serve” since I learned I’m incapable of serving the very poor directly.
One night we arrived at an orphanage far away from Nairobi, where we had seen unimaginable poverty. Out in the country, things seemed even worse to me. I slept briefly and fitfully in what were difficult conditions.
Just past dawn, I went for a walk to relieve my anxiety. Through a grove of trees, I saw my son Kevin sitting with a group of orphans. Kevin was sharing his guitar with them. It was quiet and the music was dreadful, but the scene is burned into my mind indelibly. Kevin was leading by calmly, lovingly sharing his passion.
A few days later, we sat at a bride rescue mission where young women are hidden from their fathers who wish to sell them to older men for marriage. In a remote pasture under an acacia tree, we listened to the teachers and young girls tell their stories. At the end, my 25-year-old daughter stood and said, “I have been so concerned with myself my whole life. Your story reminds me that I’ve been selfish. You’ve taught me things that I will carry with me my whole life. Thank you.”
The day we returned to Chicago, our son Tim organized a meeting for us to share our learning and make commitments to our individual journeys. We spoke of sharing our gifts and our spirit with these and other people.
Let the children lead.
Alice and I learned by watching our kids’ response to troubling matters and their responses reaffirmed our own commitments.
While working with many large non-profits, we came across a small group in Youngstown, Ohio, called the Beatitude House. Their mission is to house, feed and school homeless mothers and their children to get them back on track. Their leader, Sister Patricia, seemed to be a good person.
We’ve given them very little direct attention in the years we’ve known them but we’ve often noticed how they have showed up to training we conduct and picked up on many suggestions we made, such as learning to write business plans and evaluating their revenue streams.
And with that little effort they claim we’ve helped them reshape their thinking and their organization.
Coachable people lead the most effective relationships.
To put it in a business context, I remember that in consulting I could never create great work with a lousy client. My great clients led me as much as I led them.
And so, we’ve learned that our number one filter for identifying partners is coach-ability. Who can take a little of what we have and turn it into a lot? And who can bless us with good learning while we are “teaching” them.
We’ve learned a lot from the Beatitude House.
I recently reviewed our foundation’s work and tried to come up with one theme. If there is one, it is this:
Whatever your ultimate goal may be, you will always find yourself in either a vicious or a virtuous cycle. The bad cycle is accepting defeat. The good one is accepting setbacks as tuition for the education; then moving on the wiser.
The end is never perfection. Our best hope is for progress.
And in that progress is the joy of the journey.