Heroes you should know:  Gino Bartali

 

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“One does these things, and that’s that…” -Gino Bartali

 

 

Gino Bartali (July 18, 1914 – May 5, 2000), known affectionately as “Gino the Pious,” was an international cycling champion.  He won the Giro d’Italia three times, and the Tour De France twice (1938 and 1948) —the ten year gap between Tour victories being the largest in the history of the race.  He was also personal friends with Pope John the XXIII, to whom he gave lessons on how to ride a bike.But what he did on and with his bike, was about so much more than athleticism.

 

Bartali was already famous for his racing success when the dark clouds of Nazism and Fascism began to shadow his world.  Because of his standing as a national sports hero, though, he could have easily avoided the politics and suffering around him and waited out the war.  But Bartali loved what was best about his country and humankind too much to avoid engagement.  And when a friend asked him to become involved in the Italian Resistance, he agreed…aware that his choice would put not just him in jeopardy, but potentially his wife and newborn son as well.

 

He began using his cycling workouts as a cover for his new calling.  He’d don his racing jersey with his famous name emblazoned across the back and ride hundreds of miles between Florence and Rome carrying secret messages and documents to the network of safehouses, churches, and convents in the resistance.  This included counterfeit identity documents which Jews were able to use to hide their true identities and avoid deportation to concentration camps.  His fame allowed him to ride without harassment by the fascist police and the Nazi soldiers, who didn’t want to face the potential public relations nightmare.

 

In addition, Gino Bartali also hid a Jewish family in an apartment he’d purchased with his cycling prize money until the end of the war.

 

In 1943, one of the Italian resistance groups was discovered, and Bartali was brought in for questioning by the fascists.  He was interrogated and threatened with death, but admitted nothing and was eventually released.  Soon after, he literally pulled a number of Jews to safety by attaching a wagon with a secret compartment to the back of his bicycle and riding for the Swiss Alps.  He told patrols that stopped him along the way that it was part of his new training regimen.

 

Gino Bartali was a remarkable athlete who cycled for Italy…but even more for humanity.  And that’s what made him not just a true champion, but an eternal champion.

 

He is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Irena Sendler:  The Ghetto and the Glass Jar

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Irena Sendler was a social worker, and personally responsible for saving 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

In 1939, 450,000 Jews were rounded up in Warsaw by the Nazis and crammed into a tiny section of the city, behind seven foot high walls, and Sendler knew that time was precious.  As the head of the children’s bureau of Zegota, a social service program responsible for monitoring the threat of typhus in this newly established ghetto, she was given unlimited access by the Nazis in order to insure “sanitary conditions.”

What the Nazis didn’t realize was that Zegota was also the cover for an underground resistance movement committed to saving Jews from death, and Sendler was at the heart of this effort.  For nearly five years, using health inspections as an excuse, she entered the ghetto again and again and smuggled infants and children to safety;  in coffins, burlap sacks, tool cases, wrapped packages, and even beneath the floor boards of an ambulance.

And as parents gave their children to Sendler, she collected names.  New identities had been created for the children, but she wanted to make sure their original identities were not lost.  She buried this list of names in a glass jar in her backyard in case she was arrested.

In 1943, the Gestapo did finally catch Sendler.  She was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to death.  However she was able to escape, and went into hiding.  As soon as the war ended, she dug up the jar, grabbed the list, and went to work trying to re-connect the children she’d saved with their families.

In gratitude, Israel made her an honorary citizen in 1991.

Irena Sendler is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

The Mystery Men of Advent

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Who were the magi?  What were the magi?  We read about them every Advent, but what do we really know about these mystery men who appear ever so briefly in the Christmas story, and then fade back into the fog of time never to be heard from again. On this Feast Day of the Epiphany, I’d like to take a closer look.

They’ve been described as ‘wise men’, and ‘kings’, and ancient historians believe they were from a priestly caste in Persia, in the Zoroastrian tradition.  Historically, magi studied the stars as astronomers, were adept at interpreting dreams, and were often charged with the duty of choosing the king.

Tradition tells us there were three magi in the Gospel narrative, based on the fact that three gifts were brought to Jesus.  And the gifts they brought prophesied about the mission of Jesus.

The magi brought gold, symbolizing kingship—a clear statement that these ‘king makers’ somehow recognized that Jesus was in fact a King, albeit the King of a different kingdom.

The magi brought frankincense, a gift representing Jesus’ priesthood since frankincense was used in temple worship and accompanied the meal offering.  Jesus is the Great High Priest, who would offer His very life for the salvation of humankind.

And the magi brought myrrh, an ingredient in sacred oil used to anoint the Tabernacle, high priests, and kings.  Myrrh was also used as an embalming agent.  Jesus, the King and High Priest, was born to die.

Many sermons could be preached on the significance of the three gifts, and should, but I want to return to the givers of the gifts for now—the three mystery men of Advent, mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel.

They were outsiders;  from a different country, from a different culture, and from a different faith tradition.

Yet, somehow they were looking for the Messiah, and they didn’t miss the sign when it finally appeared.  They saw the star, understood what it meant, and journeyed to find Him.  When they found Him, they knelt before Him and gave generously.  And when culture, in the person of King Herod, asked them to sell Jesus out they refused.

You think maybe there’s a message in any of this for us?  Or better, a challenge?

Nestled comfortably in the fullness of faith, do we still search for Him?  Do we still look for signs of His presence among us?  Do we honor Him with our hearts and our material gifts?  And when our culture of death asks us to betray Him, do we stand fast in our beliefs?

I pray that, like the mystery men of Advent, we too look for Jesus, love Jesus, and honor Jesus with our lives—and not just at Christmas time.

Heroes You Should Know:  Vasili Arkhipov

 

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“The man who saved the world” is a pretty impressive title.  But that’s exactly what Vasili Arkhipov did.  Arkhipov was second in command on one of the Soviet Union’s four B-59 attack submarines, sent to Cuba in October of 1962.  Arkhipov’s submarine carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear—and as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

 

Each of the captains had been given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes as long as they had the blessing of their on-board political officer.  The only other officer with veto power was Vasili Arkhipov, who was in charge of the submarine flotilla.

 

Because the submarines had been so deep under water en route to Cuba they did not receive radio transmissions from Moscow about the United States’ naval blockade of Cuba.  So on October 27, when eleven U.S. destroyers and the USS Randolph located the submarine Arkhipov was on and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface and identify its self, Soviet captain Valentin Savitsky mistakenly believed war had begun. He and the political officer on board wanted to respond by launching their nuclear torpedo.  Arkhipov forcefully disagreed, arguing that no direct order had come from Moscow and such a response would be catastrophic.  He suggested the sub surface and find out for sure what was going on.  A heated argument reportedly ensued between the three men in charge, but Arkhipov held his ground against the other two officers.  Eventually, he prevailed.  The submarine surfaced, was told by the Americans to return to the Soviet Union, and a nuclear war was averted.

 

It is believed that Arkhipov’s position eventually carried the day because of his prior heroism.  You see, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had been present at another near-catastrophic nuclear disaster!

 

In July of 1961, the K-19 nuclear submarine Arkhipov was on, complete with a nuclear missile, sprung a leak in the reactor coolant system and was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown.  Engineers on board the sub built a make-shift cooling system and were able to contain the overheating reactor. But the first-responders, along with many crewmen, died of radiation exposure and in response the crew of the K-19 almost erupted in mutiny.  Arkhipov himself was seriously irradiated, but stood by his captain, was credited with helping to quell the revolt, and was later awarded a medal for valor.

 

Arkhipov would go on to serve another twenty years, retiring as a Rear Admiral.  He died in 1998 at the age of 72, and his exposure to radiation on the K-19 was cited as a contributing cause of death.

 

A man who was in the right place at the right time—twice!  And the world should be very grateful.

 

Vasili Arkhipov is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.