Heroes You Should Know: Bill Porter

 

 bill porter

“We work to become, not to acquire.”

-Elbert Hubbard

 

Bill Porter was born with cerebral palsy, in a world that is forever underestimating the power of the human spirit.  Fortunately, his parents did not.  They valued their son’s dignity, as well as the dignity of work.  So when the time came for him to get a job Porter got busy looking.  He never considered going on disability an option, although he certainly met the medical requirements. He had great difficulty walking, struggled with chronic pain, and spoke with a speech impediment.

 

His greatest obstacle, though, was not his physical health, but the perceptions of would-be employers.  So after years of hearing the message that he was unemployable, he naturally chose to be a door-to-door salesman.  I kid you not.

 

The Watkins Company in Portland, Oregon gave him a chance, and that’s all he needed.  For forty years Porter walked seven to ten miles a day, five days a week, knocking on doors, cold-calling potential customers, selling a variety of home care products…for forty years.  That in itself is worthy of celebration; the fact that he became the company’s top salesman is icing on the cake.  Bill Porter will tell you on his website that at almost 80 years-old now he is no longer able to walk his route, but is still working and growing his business thanks to the internet.

 

What better time than Labor Day Weekend to consider the strange confusion that exists for many about work; that it is a curse, a burden we must all bear until we finally reach retirement and can afford to stop working.  But the virtue of industriousness redefines (or better, reclaims) what work really is.

 

Industriousness says that work is about starting and finishing tasks with diligence.  With diligence?  At first this sounds a bit compulsive, but consider what diligence means; “to love, to appreciate, to choose after careful consideration and attention.”  Love through your work, appreciate through your work,  and carefully consider and attend through your work.

 

The virtue of industriousness is about working to become, not just to acquire.  And the virtue of industriousness insures that our work, in both our professional lives and in our personal lives, will give us a sense of dignity and true self-worth.  

 

Bill Porter did not have to “work,” in the narrowest sense of the word.  He could have sat at home and collected disability checks.  He had several built-in excuses.  But he understood that he needed to work, not to survive but to thrive.  So do we all.  Work is the arena where all virtues can be developed, where we can change, and where we can change the world.

 

If you’re seeing work as a 40 hour a week grind, and part of a 40 year prison sentence, consider the industrious life of Bill Porter.  And then truly get to work!

The Angel of Nanjing

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The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China is believed to be the most common location in the world for a suicide to occur. So it is there that 48 year-old Chen Si heads every weekend, to try and save lives.  This is not his job, but it is his vocation.

There was a time when in the not-too-distant past that the Chinese government would have forbid him from intervening as he does, but not now.  And Chen has prevented over 300 suicide attempts in the past twelve years and is now known as the “angel of Nanjing”—a chain smoking, heavy drinking angel who struggles with his own demons.

He wrestles with depression, his outreach has strained his marriage, and his own friends don’t want to talk about his work anymore.  But he doesn’t stop.  He can’t stop.  This all started with the suicide death of a neighbor, an elderly man Chen was planning to visit but didn’t.

So now every weekend he arrives at the bridge, usually by 7:30 AM, armed with emergency pamphlets explaining where people can get help, and business cards with his personal cell phone number.  Sometimes Chen walks, sometimes he rides his motor scooter.  But always he’s watching.  He’s become an expert at picking out the most desperate figures looking down at the brown water of the Yangtze 230 feet below.  Even so, he’s witnessed over 50 people jump to their deaths before he could reach them.

Chen’s style of intervention depends on the person he’s trying to save.  He can be gentle, speaking like a therapist to those who have not yet decided, but he can also be aggressive when necessary—as in the case of a person who’s already on the other side of the railing.  And his efforts are not always appreciated.  He’s been physically attacked and beaten by would-be jumpers.

Chen Si’s care doesn’t end once he’s gotten the suicidal people off the bridge.  He rents an apartment where they can rest for a few days and receive crisis counseling.  He often phones people he’s saved for weeks afterwards to check up on them.  He’s even spoken to creditors, trying to lessen the financial burden many he saves are under.

His ultimate hope is that the government will make more of an effort to curb the growing suicide epidemic in China where more than a third of the world’s suicides now occur.

There is a Chinese saying, “The prosperity of a nation is everyone’s responsibility.”  For Chen that means being a weekend lifeguard on the Yangtze River Bridge.

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

Heroes You Should Know:  Andrew White

 

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Six weeks after being assigned as the priest to Coventry Cathedral in the West Midlands of England, 33 year-old Andrew White began experiencing balance and eye sight problems.  He was hospitalized, and on the same day that his second child was born, Fr. White received the news that he had multiple sclerosis.  So, he did what any human being would do—head for war- torn Iraq to serve as a pastor, a peace-maker, and a leader of inter-religious dialogue.

In the eighteen years since, he’s earned the title, “Vicar of Baghdad.”  Fr. White has been involved in everything from mediating the release of Muslim and Christian hostages to facilitating communication between Shia and Sunni leaders, to founding The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME).

FRRME provides medical care and emergency supplies to persecuted peoples in Northern Iraq and Jordan, including Christian and Yazidi refugees.  White’s organization works with the United Nations and other churches to ensure the food and medicine actually gets to those who are most vulnerable.

Because the Jordanian government does not allow refugees to work, FRRME is also providing shelter for 500 Iraqi families in Marka (a suburb of Amman), and education for 175 children.

Fr. White’s peacemaking efforts also include The Jerusalem International School for Reconciliation (JISR), a summer school program that teaches Israeli and Palestinian youths about new methods of reconciliation.

Along the way, White and his wife have also adopted five Iraqi children.

But like any true ministry, he has suffered.  White’s life has been threatened numerous times, and he has endured hijackings, a kidnapping, torture, and he’s had to travel with bodyguards for years.  In 2014 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered White to leave Baghdad, due to increased security risks.  Yet he remains near, in Jordan.

Fr. White has been recognized by several international groups for his reconciliation work, including the ICCJ Prize for Intellectual Contribution to Jewish-Christian Relations, the International Sternberg Prize, the Tanenbaum Peace Prize, the William Wilberforce Award, and the Anne Frank Award (presented by the Dutch government).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

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

Heroes You Should Know: Kate Munger

 

 

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When asked about the inspiration behind her Threshold Choir, Kate Munger first recalled a happy childhood, where her loving mother would often sing lullabies to her and her four siblings each night at bedtime, and to campfire songs with her fellow Girl Scouts as an eight year-old.  But as its name reveals, the Threshold Choir is about more than happy times.  And Kate remembers facing down her own fears by singing for the first time at the bedside of a dear friend who was dying of AIDS. That was in 1990.

 

In March of 2000, Kate gathered fifteen friends at a home in El Cerrito, California—fifteen women who believed that for too long our society had distanced itself from the reality of suffering and death, and that compassion should have a voice.

 

And the first Threshold Choir was born.

 

Within a year Kate had founded chapters, always made up of volunteers, in Marin, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma Counties.  And today there is a network of over 125 a cappella Threshold Choirs—connected typically though the internet and consisting mostly of women’s voices—comforting those at the threshold of time and eternity in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Cambodia.  Their mission is simple, and profound.

 

“…To sing for and with those at the thresholds of life.”

 

The word ‘threshold’ is associated with crossing over or passing through, but Kate also chose the word because the threshold is the place through which one passes from outside to inside—to join with others.

 

Threshold Choirs sing to those in a coma, and those who are dying.  But they also sing to newborns and children in hospitals, and women who are incarcerated.  Whether it be the beautiful voices, the songs, or the gift of presence, the fruit of this work is peace and love.

 

The Threshold Choir’s repertoire consists of some 400 songs, and includes everything from spirituals and hymns to lullabies and soft pop songs that are fifty, sixty and seventy years-old.  They can even work in an occasional Beatles ballad or a less raucous version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” if there’s an interest.  Kate reports that family members and friends will often join in.

 

“We like to think of our work as kindness made audible.”

 

Making kindness audible—“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

 

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

Heroes You Should Know: Christian de Cherge

 

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Father Christian de Cherge was the Prior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, and his tragic martyrdom was presented in the movie Of Gods and Men.

But he is a hero for how he lived, not how he died.

Born into a French military family, Christian first met Islam when he was five and his family was stationed in Algeria.  He was moved by the prayer life of the Muslims around him, and his mother taught him to respect their search for God.

As a twenty-three year old seminarian, de Cherge returned to Algeria in 1959 to complete his compulsory military service.  Technically a French soldier fighting against the Algerians, Christian formed an unlikely friendship with a Muslim police officer named Mohamed a father of ten.  They would take long walks together and discuss religion, politics, and life.  But on one of these walks the two men were ambushed by Algerian rebels.  De Cherge, dressed in his military fatigues, would have been killed on the spot but for Mohamed interceding and convincing the men to let the young Frenchman go free.  “I will pray for you,” was all de Cherge could say to his friend.  The next morning Mohamed was murdered for what he’d done.

From then on, Christian committed himself to peacemaking in Algeria.  He was a brilliant student, and the hierarchy had him pegged as a rising star in the Church.  But Christian wanted the lonely desert of Algeria, not Paris.  After ordination, he studied Arabic, Islam, and the Quran, and eventually had his request to return to Africa granted in 1971.

There, in Tibhirine, Algeria, in the shadows of the Atlas Mountains, he would become the Prior of the Trappist monastery.  For decades he and his fellow monks lived with their Muslim neighbors in peace.  His form of evangelism was to offer the locals employment, medical care, and literacy tutoring.  De Cherge also organized an annual interfaith conference to foster Muslim-Christian dialogue, and even invited Muslims to stay at the monastery as his special guests.

But as the relationship between the Christian monks and the Muslim community grew, the radical Islamist group GIA became more agitated.  Several times Fr. Christian and his monks were advised to leave, but after prayer and reflection they decided to stay as witnesses to the reality of the peaceful Christian-Muslim co-existence that had been established.

Just after midnight on March 27, 1996 twenty heavily armed GIA soldiers broke into the monastery and took seven of the monks, including Fr. Christian, hostage.  One month later, after the French had refused to negotiate, the extremists released a letter stating that they had beheaded the monks.

After news of her son’s fate reached Christian’s mother, she opened a letter he’d given her two years earlier, “to be opened in the event of my death”.  In it, he predicted that he would die at the hands of extremists, and then closed his letter by addressing his ‘friend of the last moment”—his murderer:

“…Yes, I want this thank you and this good-bye to be a ‘God Bless’ for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”

The cause for Fr. Christian de Cherge’s beatification has been opened.  He is a saint for our troubled times;  a true peacemaker who loved beyond human limits.

Christian de Cherge is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Faraaz Hossain

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20 year-old  Faraaz Hossain wasn’t thinking about becoming a hero on the evening of July 1, 2016, as he met two former high school classmates from Dhaka, Bangladesh for a brief reunion at their old hangout, Holey Artisan Bakery in the business district of Dhaka.  The three friends were home for summer break from studying in America—Hossain as a graduate student at Emory University, Abinta Kabir (age 18) as an undergraduate at Emory, and Tarishi Jain (age 19), a student at Berkeley—and wanted to catch up over some bagels and coffee.

 

But then seven heavily armed ISIS terrorists stormed the bakery shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and took Hossain and more than thirty customers hostage.

 

The standoff lasted for almost twelve hours, during which time the terrorists questioned the hostages about their religions and nationalities, and then reportedly told them that if they could not recite passages from the Quran they would die.

 

Muslims were separated from non-Muslims, and the terrorists had the staff cook meals for the Muslim hostages so they could eat before the Ramadan fast started at sunrise.  A group of women dressed in traditional Islamic hijabs were eventually allowed to leave, and then the terrorists told Faraaz that because he was Bengali and Muslim he too could leave.

 

Eyewitnesses report that Faraaz asked about his friends.   Because Abinta wasn’t Muslim and Jain admitted to being an American citizen he was told that they would have to die.  “Then, I’ll stay with them” was Hossain’s response.  Soon after 20 of the hostages, including Faraaz, Abinta, and Jain, were brutally hacked to death.

 

Faraaz’s brother Zaraif reported that the autopsy showed wounds consistent with someone who tried to fight back.  “Our mom has raised us to always protect and respect women.  And he (Faraaz) did so till the end.”

 

One can only speculate about why Faraaz chose to stay when he could have left.  Did he think he could somehow overpower seven men, armed with guns and knives?  Did he believe the terrorists would eventually let them all go free?  Or did he simply feel that he couldn’t abandon his friends, even knowing that it meant his own death?

 

What we do know is that Faraaz Hossain was a brilliant and personable graduate student who, at 20 years-old, had a world of wonderful personal and professional options in front of him. And he could have left.  Some…perhaps many…would say he should have left.  He was destined for success.

 

Destined for success?  Faraaz Hossain was more than successful, he was significant.

 

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

Heroes You Should Know: William Kamkwamba

 

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If ever there was an example of creativity finding a way, it would be William Kamkwamba.

 

Born the second of seven children in a farming family in Malawi, he was forced to leave school at 14 when a devastating famine sucked the life out of his country’s soil and his parents could no longer afford the $80 annual school fee.  But William wasn’t about to stop learning, turning to the local library for educational material without missing a beat.

 

Early on he’d shown talent with electronics, having started a radio repair business to make extra money for his family.  Even so, when he built his first electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap at age 14 to power his family’s home—working only from plans he found in a library book—heads began to turn.

 

An international blogger heard about the young inventor, wrote about him, and the rest is history.  TED Global Conference director Emeka Okafor tracked down William and invited him to speak at the next conference about his windmill and his dream to build larger windmills to help his village.

 

Not surprisingly, a generous outpouring of financial support followed his presentation.

 

And as a result, William was able to improve his original windmill by incorporating solar power—and then adding this system to the new windmills he built.  He also developed a solar powered pump to help produce clean water, and a bio-gas digester that uses cow dung to generate gas for cooking.  His innovations have lowered dependence on firewood and overall deforestation.

 

William was also able to re-start his formal education as well, first as a student at the African Leadership Academy, and then at Dartmouth College where he graduated in 2014.

 

Somehow, he also found time to put his story into book form, with the internationally acclaimed The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

 

Named by Time magazine as one of the “30 People Under 30 Changing The World,” William remains committed to his country’s growth, and envisions building an innovation center in Malawi where other inventors can share their discoveries and their dreams.

 

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

D-Day and Us

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72 years ago today, more than 160,000 Allied soldiers stormed 50 miles of Normandy coastline, to strike a decisive blow for freedom.  60% of those men were killed or injured before they even reached the shore, and 10,000 would not live to see nightfall on June 6th—D-Day.

A few years ago, Jenni and I travelled to Normandy, and arrived in the small town of Bayeux late in the afternoon.  And because we were still a couple of hours away from dinner time, we decided to dump the suitcases in our room and set out on a walk.  Almost immediately we came upon a sign pointing toward the British war cemetery on the outskirts of town, and we decided to pay our respects.  There, just under 4,000 British soldiers are buried, having paid the ultimate price for freedom in the historic invasion.

Making our way slowly and reverentially through the rows of tombstones we noticed a still-fresh bouquet of flowers lying on the  grave of a twenty year old British soldier who had died the day of the invasion.  And as we drew closer, I saw a notecard peeking out from beneath the flowers, with the slightly smudged “17 June” visible.  The visitor had been there just a day before we arrived.  Who would be leaving a handwritten message on a marker that was 64 years-old?  My curiosity got the best of me and I gently lifted the bouquet to read the rest of the message.

“Sweetheart, I love you and always will.” 

Even now as I read these words I catch my breath;  the message was so simple, and so profound.  Of course there is much we don’t know about this love.  But we do know what matters most…that it endured.  Across the years and tears, the love endured.  But how?

How much time could these sweethearts have even had together?  He was dead, tragically taken, before his twenty-first birthday.  Yet, sixty-four years later she returned;  still feeling, remembering, and sharing what they had.  Reality is so much more powerful than anything Hollywood could dream up.

I think about that woman every time June 6th  roles around.  So many lives altered on that one significant day.  And how different would our lives be today if the Nazi’s had repelled the Allied forces, and turned the tide of the war?  What if evil had won?

The ‘greatest generation’ is almost gone, now, and as they slip into eternity I fear that fewer and fewer will fully appreciate the tremendous debt of gratitude owed to these heroes. This is why days like today are so significant.

We must be reminded to remember.

And ‘remembrance’ becomes a virtue when we both remember and then live differently, more gratefully and purposefully, because of the remembering…we honor those who sacrificed for the Good, and remind ourselves that freedom isn’t free…and that “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

May we never forget what happened on the beaches of Normandy on this day.  And the responsibility we carry to live differently because of this day!

It’s not JUST about you!

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“We live our lives like chips in a kaleidoscope, always parts of patterns that are larger than ourselves and somehow more than the sum of their parts.”                  -Salvador Minuchin

 

Here’s a commencement address I’d love to hear spoken gently, lovingly, and with real conviction to all graduates, at all graduations around the world:   at high schools, colleges, and graduate schools:

It’s about you, but it’s not just about you.”  I believe this message would be good for those in the audience to hear as well.

You matter.  You are special.  You are unique.  And so are the other 7.13 billion human beings you need to learn how to share this planet with.

One needs to be careful at times of great celebration not to get preachy.  Actually there’s no great time to get preachy.  But a commencement ceremony is a particularly strategic place to point out the wonderfully complex, inter-relatedness of life, and then to challenge any folks who might still be listening to try to think at least as much about others as they do about themselves.

We are, as Minuchin points out, like chips in a kaleidoscope…part of a pattern much bigger than we can even imagine.  We don’t get smaller with this realization, but our understanding of the world can get a whole lot bigger.  And this is a good start.

In truth, there is no such thing as an “independent” person, a self-made person, a lone-ranger.  You did not create yourself, you did not create the talents you’ve been blessed with, and you did not create the natural world you live in.  Yes, you have the opportunity and responsibility to develop the life and talents you were given, and embrace the world around you, but this doesn’t happen in isolation either.  You stand on the shoulders of others, who have sacrificed, struggled, and persevered in making your world better.

This is a ridiculously obvious insight, but insight has never guaranteed change.  And in a culture that is increasingly privatized, and thus increasingly splintered and alienated, it’s best not to assume about anything that’s important.

So what do we do with this insight?  We recognize the gift, we recognize the giver, and then we start saying thank you; thoughtfully, sincerely, and continuously.  Life is a gift, health is a gift, love and friendship are gifts, freedom is a gift, truth is a gift, beauty is a gift, work is a gift, play is a gift, triumphs are a gift, struggles are a gift.  And the opportunity to make a difference for the Good with all you’ve been given is perhaps the greatest gift of all.

Gratitude opens us up to all that is good, and to a deeper knowing that our world is not accidental, but Providential.  It’s about you, but it’s not just about you.  And you should be grateful for that!

Heroes You Should Know: Fe del Mundo

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Fe del Mundo suffered significant losses early in life, and they sculpted her future.  Three of her eight siblings died in infancy.  And when her older sister—who’d dreamed of one day being a doctor to the poor—died at age 11 of appendicitis, young Fe decided she would be a pediatrician.

 

A brilliant student, she earned her medical degree from the University of the Philippines in 1933.  And because of her giftedness the President of the Philippines offered her a scholarship to any medical school in the United States, to further her training.  Fe chose Harvard Medical School, and was accepted there in 1936.  When she arrived, she was surprised to be escorted to her room in the male dormitory.

 

It was then that she learned Harvard did not accept women to its medical school.  And Harvard learned that Fe was a woman.

 

However, because of her stellar record the head of the Pediatrics department decided to make an exception for del Mundo.   It would take nine additional years for the school to change its admission policies and begin accepting women.

 

After her studies at Harvard and at Boston College, where she earned a Masters in Bacteriology, Fe decided to return to the Philippines in 1941, just months before the Japanese invasion.  When the war began, she took a job with the Red Cross and worked with the children interned at the University of Santo Tomas.  In 1943 when the Japanese closed the camp, del Mundo headed up the Children’s Hospital in Manila and worked there until 1948

 

Growing tired of the governmental bureaucracy that seemed to limit the effectiveness of medical care, Fe sold her home and most of her belongings, obtained a sizeable loan, and founded her own 100 bed pediatric hospital that opened its doors in 1957.  One year later she ceded personal ownership of the hospital to a Board of Trustees.  Not having a home of her own now, del Mundo lived on the second floor of her hospital.

 

Doing pioneering work in the area of infectious diseases, and remaining active in the field of public health (she once created an incubator out of bamboo for rural clinics without electricity to use), del Mundo practiced medicine for eight decades—passing away just short of her 100th birthday.

 

Shaped by early losses, this remarkable doctor, innovator, and humanitarian turned tragedy into triumph, and in the process made the world a healthier place—in mind, body, and spirit.

 

Fe del Mundo is hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.