When I was a little girl, my grandfather shared with me his love of learning and the natural world. He would teach me how to garden at his home and tell me what he knew about the plants and animals in our little backyard ecosystem. He would take me to our local natural history museum, and he would read my favorite books to me repeatedly. As a young child, I didn’t fully understand the gift my grandfather was giving to me. This shared love of learning and the natural world would become a foundation upon which I would build my own environmental ethic. It provided a set of values that continue to give me a sense of purpose and hope when I look at a world that appears to be deteriorating.

It seems there is an endless stream of tragedies,  a sense that societies and the planet are digressing. As a mother of four, it has been hard to maintain a sense of optimism when I think about the world that my children will live in as adults. What will they have to endure? With the threats of pandemics, gun violence, climate change, and social turmoil, it’s easy to feel hopeless. But as I lean into these gifts that my grandfather shared with me—I find that I do have hope for the future.

I have a sense of hope that the natural world that sustains us will continue. Human beings are certainly threatened by climate change and the environmental degradation that we’ve inflicted on the planet, and there’s no doubt that countless other species are threatened by our actions. However, one thing I have come to understand in my meditative time outdoors is that our natural world has endured through the ages; it has metamorphosized and recreated itself countless times.

The Earth is always changing. When I find fossilized lifeforms that existed in the shallow sea that once covered Texas millions of years ago, I feel somewhat small in the scope of time, and it gives me hope that life will endure. But, I surely want to see humanity endure as well. That is why I find my peace in sharing my love of learning and my fascination with the natural world with my children and other young people, in my volunteer service and academic work.

Engaging young people with the natural world and instilling in them a sense of wonder about it provides me with the ultimate sense of hope. It seems trite to say that children are the future, but there truly is no future for humanity if we don’t raise children to respect each other and the world around them. When I see a child engaged with the natural world—in awe at butterflies and tiny flowers, wriggling earthworms, curious grackles—I see a child that is open and empathetic. I see a child who can advocate for the natural world. I see hope. That is why I continue to promote for environmental education for young children. I find such great inspiration from my peers and fellow volunteers who work to restore and conserve the natural world. Especially those who are  clever and skilled at engaging young children. Their dedication gives me hope!

I have an immense love for this community of volunteers who I am honored to work alongside. These beautiful people inspire me and give me hope every day. I have seen so much dedication from educators, volunteers, and people working in environmental and educational advocacy in my community that I am filled with hope—a hope that we can write a new narrative for our planet, one community at a time.

I have hope because there’s no other choice in my mind. I don’t want my children to grow up in a world without butterflies and songbirds. I believe hope is something we create. We write our future through our actions, and hope is created through those actions. Through the collective efforts of strong communities of committed people, hope becomes something very tangible.

I’m an environmental anthropologist. I am also a Texas Master Naturalist, because I am a deeply committed steward of the land. We’re all part of our local ecosystems and the global biosphere. And so, I volunteer to do my part and help others make connections to their environment. I’m certified in Native Landscape Management through the Native Plant Society of Texas. I am also active in environmental education. I have four amazing children who inspire me every day. Finding my place in the world has been an adventure with both bright and dark moments, and I feel it’s a great honor to be able to serve others and share my time as a volunteer.

One Thing I Know, by Melissa Johnson

Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline. . . We have to practice it every single day. — Mariame Kaba

In February, I participated in a conference with the ZZMUSA (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, USA) Mission Network.  Our theme was “Persevering Through Pain, United in Christ.”  While planning for the conference, all of us—Americans, Zambians and Zimbabweans—were thinking about the trauma we have experienced through the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, we had all suffered, but we were hopeful that God was bringing us through because we were all going through it together. We were united in our faith.  But none of us knew the events that were on the horizon–Ukraine, Buffalo, Uvalde, Boston, Chicago and rulings by the US Supreme Court.

Being a Texas girl, Uvalde hit too close to home. I had no words, no hope, only anger, grief and anxiety. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t stop crying. It seems like the horrors and barbarity just keep coming.  What helped was the realization that we are in this together.  My travels and my life in Zambia have taught me that we are more alike than we are different. So many of us are stuck together in our anxiety, grief, horror and lack of answers.  Slowly I realized I couldn’t just sit with my grief. 

One of my favorite authors who has brought me through some of my hardest times is Anne Lamott.  In a blog post she wrote after Sandy Hook, she said, “There were no answers that day, the next day, the day after that. But then slowly, life began to make sense again. Life, death, rebirth—the ultimate truth. Hope returned against all odds, eventually, because love is bigger than any horrors and barbarity that the world throws at us. We will have hope again, because of this love.” She said that talking and sticking together was the answer.

So, I started searching for those people I could talk to, people whose actions for justice I could join, people I could pray with. I found groups that are working to stop gun violence and I joined with them.  My daughter and I attended March for Our Lives here in Atlanta, and as we stood in front of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with hundreds of other likeminded Atlantans, as we listened to the prayers and songs that were lifted, as we walked, chanted, yelled, and cried, I felt hope starting to return. 

A few days later I did phone banking for Moms Demand Action.  We were calling three states—Texas, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  I have done political phone banking before, so I expected there to be rude people who would slam the phone in my ear.  It didn’t happen.  I was shocked.  Almost every single person I spoke with agreed to support our cause for commonsense gun laws.  Almost every single person agreed to let me transfer the call to their legislator.  I was especially surprised by the people I spoke with in Texas. They were just like me, looking for some hope. They seemed excited to talk to me and to talk to their legislator with the hope of making a difference.  At the end of my time making these calls, my hope was back, and I realized that love is bigger than the horrors we are facing. 

Rev. Garikai Gwangwava, a pastor in Zimbabwe, wrote a song for the ZZMUSA conference.  A song about hope and perseverance.  His lyrics say, “One thing I’m sure, I will never give up for I know my God lives on.  Because He lives I can face tomorrow.”  Please, please – go to YouTube and search for Rev. Garikai and listen to his song!

One thing I know: I will never give up, and I know that the way I can continue finding hope is by sharing love.  Protesting, making phone calls, welcoming strangers at church, feeding the hungry.  Find ways you can show love.  Be patient with yourself.  Plant a garden.  Make a donation.  If we keep showing love, hope will flow back into our hearts.  And as Mariame Kaba wrote, “Hope is a discipline. . . . We have to practice it every single day.”

Melissa Johnson is a Texas girl, a daughter, wife, mother of three and grandmother of two.  She currently works with the CCAP Zambia Health Department as a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-worker.  Melissa works to facilitate the development and implementation of health education programs that have been identified to improve maternal and child health, to address feminine hygiene and reproductive health issues of girls and women, to raise awareness about nutritional needs of children and adults, as well as communicable and non-communicable diseases.

What Gives Me Hope, by Michael D. Kirby

I was once an optimist, and I still am about a few things. 58 years of living, 58 years of two steps forward and one step back (and vice versa), and 7 years of regression at a national level have tempered my optimism, but not my hope.

Indeed, perhaps now my hope is even stronger than it once was. Those riding high hope only for things to remain as they are, only more so. Those who can see a vision of the future that is neither here yet, nor easily obtainable, must live on, must find inspiration to go on in the hope they find and nurture in themselves and others.

For me, the Gospel is hope—the proclamation that in the end, love wins; shalom/wholeness/a just peace is the divine design for humanity, and seeking it, co-creating it with God and one another, is the aim of a life lived on the Way.

So, my hope is found in memories of the times that love has prevailed in the past and my past, and in a shared vision of the future we are striving toward. That is where my hope of the mind is found.

But I’m also a singer, and there is no more hopeful place for me than music—a place where every emotion can be lived and shared and relived and reimagined. Even in the anguished minor chords of a Good Friday anthem that speaks of loss and violence and endings, there is hope, because we know the chord will resolve in the soaring joy of Easter fanfares. The rehearsal of despair and hope in song exercises those places in our heart and spirit and grows empathy. I feel it in hymns and anthems, though I could say something similar about some show tunes or other signpost musical moments in my life.

Hope is the song that rises from the midst of unspeakable oppression in pleading and proclaiming spirituals; hope is the all-too-brief, yet gentle tinkling notes of a briefly thawing ice-bound brook on the first warm day of March; hope is a black President rising at funeral for a black pastor/politician and his friends slaughtered by white nationalism to sing Amazing Grace, (written by a not-quite-reformed-yet slave trading white pastor to a tune he learned from enslaved people); hope is a chorus of trans and queer teens singing “This Little Light of Mine” in rap cadences; hope is the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus joining with the Chicago Children’s Chorus to sing Sondheim’s  Still Here over the megaphone hatred of homophobic protesters.

“My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.”

Michael D. Kirby is entering his eighth year as senior pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church (www.northminpres.org) in Evanston, Illinois. A Texas native, he was an attorney for 12 years before attending Columbia Seminary, graduating in 2003. He is active in the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus and serves on the board of directors of Presbyterian Homes of Northern Illinois. He has served on the Permanent Judicial Commissions of the Presbytery of Chicago and the Synod of Lincoln Trails.

“Hope in the Taste of Life” by Tobias Kroll

My life is countercyclical. I’m told the 1990s were a time of oblivious optimism and celebration. If so, I had no part in that. I was a deeply wounded and disturbed young man, stumbling along deserted city streets, trying to make sense of it all.

Fast forward to 2022, and the tables have turned. Things are falling apart faster than the eye can see, yet I am happy and fulfilled. Trust is waning in our institutions, our past and future, even our neighbors. Yet here I am making friendships, forging bonds, extolling our common virtues and the (ever-lacking, always unfulfilled) promise of America. It may just be my turn to share what it’s like to keep up hope when hope itself seems lost.


I like my food spicy. But not too hot. Mild spice enhances the natural flavors and brings them to the foreground. Overdo it and heat overpowers flavor. If you put too little spice, of course, you get the opposite—a bland absence of taste.

I believe that’s what Jesus means when he exhorts us to be the salt of the earth. Bring out life’s flavors by the way you live. Taste it all, the sweet and the bitter, the good and the gory. If you become bland like the Pharisees, you miss the point of life—but the same is true when you overpower it with concupiscence. Salt is a greedy little substance: it sucks the living water right out of things. Taste life, but don’t stuff yourself with it. Take until you are filled and leave the rest.


I live by three different kinds of hope. The first we might call ultimate hope. This is the hope we are taught in religious faith: that all our sufferings will end eventually, that our tears will be wiped away and our weeping will be no more. Of course, this promise may come true only in the afterlife. Thus, to hold on to it, you must be comfortable with a considerable amount of uncertainty.

Since I have journeyed from wretch to healer in less than three decades, I can testify to the truth of penultimate hope. This is the hope that we may heal before our demise, that grace works in this life and not only in the next. It does, I proclaim, for it has healed me. And I see it work in so many things: in the passion of my students to help and do good; in small transcendences of partisan stupidity; in the simple gift of birds singing on a fresh summer morning.

But in this life, there are no guarantees. What is mended today may fall apart again tomorrow. In the realm where the morning grass withers before the setting of the sun, nothing is eternally secure.

Because this is so, I sometimes ask myself: what would happen if things began to fall apart for me? Would I still be going around trying to mend them? Or would I become aggrieved and bitter, and get sucked into the vortex of destruction?

God only knows. And because of that, I still hope.


This brings me to my final hope. I’m not sure if it should be called hope at all: for it is, truly, a hope-less hope, a gaze into the future that does not need the future to turn out a certain way. It is hope-less, mind you, not hopeless: it is devoid of material expectation, yet filled with grace and not despair. How can this be?

The answer is in the parable of the salt. Life itself may be unending, but in this life, all things must wane and wither. The point is not to hold on to them—not even to healing, not even to fulfillment—but to taste them. To truly bite into the fruit of life and let the sweet and bitter juice drip over you and stain you. Don’t overstuff yourself and throw it all up, but do not shy away from the mess either. Hope-less hope squints in the setting sun and knows it does not know what the new day will bring, or if there will be a new day at all. All it has is this day, and its hope is that if this day has been tasted, in the day to come this will have been enough.

Tobias A. Kroll, Ph.D., grew up in Germany and has been on a multi-faith journey all his life. Raised both Catholic and Protestant, he has explored atheism, 12-step spirituality, and Buddhism, and he has learned from Indigenous traditions and from Taoism, as well as from the Hindu religion of his wife. Now back in the Protestant faith of his baptism, he is a professor in the health sciences in Lubbock, TX where he teaches speech-language pathology and works on integrating spirituality into patient care. Tobias attends a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) and explores Protestant spirituality at https://medium.com/@tobias-a-kroll

Hope Now, More Than Ever! – The Prelude

I met Madeleine L’Engle decades ago. A year shy of college graduation, I had joined my childhood family on a visit to the Big Apple. Alongside our tourist itinerary, I made a side appointment to see the legendary author of A Wrinkle in Time, a favorite novel of my youth.

We met in the library of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she worked for nearly 40 years. When I look back now, I see how gracious she was to schedule time for a young man she didn’t know. As light streamed through the room’s windows, we discussed the metaphor of IT in her Newberry Award winning book, an evil force trying to consume inhabited worlds throughout the galaxy. In her narrative, Earth is already “partially dark.”

“IT is still a metaphor for the condition of our planet,” said L’Engle, her eyes tinged with sadness. “A reality yet to be determined.”

I recently recalled that moment while having coffee with a friend. His view of our world, especially our troubled country, has grown increasingly grim. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “seriously endangered,” he says we are at 11. He enumerated the reasons.

  • Climate change with its droughts, wildfires, and decimation of species.
  • The erosion of a woman’s reproductive rights.
  • The insurrection of January 6th and the conspiratorial assistance of Donald Trump – fascism raising its ugly head in America.
  • Racism cloaked in a cultic combo of the American flag and Christian cross.
  • Mass shootings and the unwillingness to restrict access to military-style weapons.
  • The widening chasm between the rich and poor.
  • Pollution of the earth through rampant consumption.
  • Pollution of our minds through predatory news streams.  
  • Continued wars fueled by nationalism, bigotry, and greed.

I agree with every element of his analysis. However, I felt compelled to ask him the question at that core of my new project.

“What gives you hope?”

For many of us, that query has taken on the weight of a Zen kōan. It demands deep reflection, a wrangling of our minds. And, to plumb the Buddhist notion even further, are some of us attached to notions of hope that no longer have realistic meaning in our chaotic world?

I think we can all agree that hope is like oxygen to our souls. Many writers have said so, and these quotes are some of my favorites.

  • Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. – Emily Dickinson
  • The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. – Barbara Kingsolver
  • Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic. – Laini Taylor
  • Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them. – Vincent McNabb
  • Hope is the most powerful force in the universe. With hope you can inspire nations to greatness. With hope you can raise up the downtrodden. With hope you can ease the pain of unbearable loss. – William H. McRaven
  • Hope is the fuel within all human souls. Eliminate hope — nothing moves, nothing grows. – Richelle E. Goodrich

We need that tune, that sheltering roof, that light, that grace, that power, that fuel! Perhaps now more than ever!

I am blessed to know some thoughtful and soulful people around the world. Many of them, like me, are struggling to get hold of hope. I also know that we are better together, that our mutual encouragement is one of the greatest benefits of living in community.

So, as I struggle with my own visions of the future, I have turned to members of my extended human family to ask, “What gives you hope?”

Over the next few months, you will hear their responses, arising from diverse perspectives. My hope is that their words will cause you to wrestle with the same question. I also hope that when you get hold of something central to your existence, you will share it with friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, even your enemies.

Hope now, more than ever!

Detritus (or Clothing by the Pound, Not the Ton)

I’m waiting my turn at the Goodwill Clearance Center on San Antonio’s south side. This is the last stop for unsold items. Their odyssey began in foreign and domestic factories, then on to retail stores, closets and drawers in countless homes, and now to the bins before us—a downward spiral of detritus. It’s a scavenger’s paradise with purchases offered by the pound, where an average pair of shoes costs about a dollar. As workers wheel in the flatbeds of jumbled objects, we wait for the go signal like we’re standing at the starting line of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Suddenly, I have a vivid memory.

I was with a group of community organizers in Mexico, working to build a children’s center on land that had once been part of el dompe, Tijuana’s municipal landfill. We had journeyed deeper into the wasteland to witness the daily activities of pepenadores (garbage scavengers) who comb through the mountains of refuse—entire families retrieving metal, glass, wire, cardboard, even food scraps. Rumbling garbage trucks continued to arrive in convoys, the air thick with clouds of acrid smoke.

The week prior, I had taken a load of my own junk to a landfill outside Los Angeles. As I surveyed this scene just a few miles from the California border, it struck that the economic status of a culture is certainly evident in its midden, its piles of artifacts that will entice future archaeologists.

I heard some children laughing and saw that they were hitting something back and forth with large sticks. I smiled and looked closer at their play object on the ground. It wasn’t a ball; it was a dog skull picked clean by maggots.

Back to that moment at the Goodwill Clearance Center. The staff shouts a go signal and we swoop in to look for treasures. For my part, I’m in search of used shoes or jeans, since my own pairs of both are worn and threadbare.

Why choose this place for my shopping spree? Call it a quirky conviction. I hear so many people bemoan the scientific reality that global warming has changed our weather patterns, leading to droughts and placing scores of animal species on the brink of extinction. The problem seems so enormous that it begs the question, “What can Ido as one measly individual?”

Surely, we can vote for political candidates that espouse green principles. We can volunteer with local organizations that work to protect our environment. AND, we can examine our own lifestyle choices, making those small changes that, when combined with the similar choices of others, have the potential to make an impact.

We can cultivate native plants in our yards, offering waystations for pollinators. We can convert sections of our water thirsty lawns to xeriscapes. We can buy more fuel-efficient vehicles or make the switch to electric. We can analyze our consumer habits in all areas, asking “how much is enough?”

Which brings me to clothing. For decades, my family and I have purchased 80% of our attire from thrift stores. Our motive is more than just saving money. It is based on our knowledge that the garment industry is one of our planet’s primary polluters. We also know that the U.S. exports roughly 700,000 tons of unsold secondhand clothes to developing countries. That tonnage suppresses local industry, with one estimate in Kenya showing that a secondhand garment costs five percent of a new one. Local industries simply can’t compete. The sheer amount of this textile waste ends up accumulating in these foreign locales. For instance, on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, lies a 30-foot mountain of rotting clothing articles, many of them with name-brand tags once worn in the U.S.

Back to my scavenger scramble in San Antonio. It’s a lucky day for me. I find more than what I’m looking for, and I admit to a bit of indulgence. I go away with a used pair of Vans and Adidas tennis shoes, plus a pair of khakis just my size.

Total cost: $5.25.

Clothing by the pound, not the ton.

Help a Friend Realize His Dream!

I met Gus IRAGUHA through one of my colleagues. Though we live worlds apart – Gus in Kigali, Rwanda, me in San Antonio, Texas – we discovered our common passion for photography, I suggested that we collaborate on a project called Beautiful Rwanda! – Beautiful Texas! Here is a link to that effort.

Pursuing our dreams can be challenging for any of us. For Gus, the economy of his native Rwanda—slammed by the pandemic—has made his quest even harder. He has been struggling for years to carve out a niche as a professional photographer. Sadly, his progress was halted when two men attacked him on March 22, 2022, beating him and stealing his camera bag with all its contents. I have established a crowdfunding campaign that seeks to raise the money to help him purchase new equipment. It is sponsored by the nonprofit Rwanda Joy, which has helped Gus and others like him rise out of their poverty and survive the trauma of Rwanda’s unspeakable genocide in 1994. View Gus’s photos here and watch his promotional video completed just before the vicious attack. Anyone who donates to this campaign will receive a high-definition digital download of one of Gus’s best photos. Your support is deeply appreciated!

Here are some of Gus’s own words about the meaning and importance of photography in his life.

Because we grow and change every day and landscapes do the same, photographing my native Rwanda keeps memories alive. It has given me the opportunity to see myself when I was a kid—only a few months old – and how I am today. I would like to see my Mama when she was young, but that is not possible because are no images and she is gone.

We are always growing and changing. The food we ate 10 years ago is different today. The language we spoke three years ago is different now. If I document Kigali today and look at it in 50 years, it will certainly not look the same as today.

Photography has an incredible impact on our social and family lives. It impacts our political life as well. It does this by keeping memories alive and creating a chronicle of time. Photos serve an important role in our daily lives as reminders, as indicators. Photography helps us in so many ways. That’s why I have dedicated my life to it. For me, it is more than capturing images; it is the creation of a narrative, a shared type of language that is understood between the photographer, the viewer, and the society or community at large.

Bill’s Miraculous Conversion

Many of us remember the cultural hysteria that surrounded the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Despite scientific evidence that the virus could only be passed through semen or blood, many people panicked. Those who contracted the disease became pariahs, what Time magazine dubbed a “new class of untouchables,” a prejudice that hampered their medical treatment.

Adding theological insult to injury, intolerant groups of Christians spread the notion that AIDS was a plague visited upon gay people and drug users for their sins. They dared to say such things while cloaking themselves in Christ’s teachings, an aberration that still exists in America.

I was serving a large urban church at the time. One of our vocal members (call him Bill for anonymity’s sake) embraced and espoused this theory of divine retribution. He proof-texted the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah, claiming that God destroyed those cities because of homosexuality rather than inhospitality.

Meanwhile, I knew that HIV/AIDS had touched many people in our congregation through their friends and relatives, but they were reticent to publicly ask for compassion. They feared the stigma rippling through our society.

I talked to these folks and asked a question. Would they be willing to join others in a “coming out” evening, a public forum to share their experiences in solidarity? It would be a chance to counter destructive stereotypes, appealing for greater understanding.

I was warmly surprised by how many agreed to participate. Among them was a nurse who had adopted a baby born with the virus.

On that night, the church was full. Even the unfounded scare of contracting the virus couldn’t keep people away. There was a bit of sensationalism, even titillation, about the way we had advertised the event, and I was fine with that if it stimulated new awareness.

One by one, members stood and shared their personal stories. Some admitted having to unlearn their own fears and prejudice; others spoke of their unrestrained  love for family members and friends who needed them during a time of crisis.

When the nurse spoke of how she had connected with her adopted daughter, Chloe, it was especially moving. The agency she dealt with could not find a suitable parent. Who would want to take a child with HIV into their home given the fear of contagion and the prognosis of a tragically short life?

Chloe was with her, and as she spoke the toddler got down off her mother’s knee and began to wander along the center aisle of the church. I noticed Bill in a pew near the front, his eyes locked on the girl, his posture stiffening. When she came alongside him, she stopped and looked up at him. Then she did something I will never forget. She crawled on his lap.

Bill’s body lurched. You could tell he wanted to stand, knock Chloe of his knees and run for the hills. But then she rested her hands on his shoulders and squared her face to his, their noses nearly touching.

Most people in the assembly were aware of Bill and his prejudiced views. A hush came over all of us. How would he react? Would he create a scene that would forever mar the harmonious tone of our event?

Then something happened that we least expected. Call it a grace-filled moment of conversion. Bill wrapped his arms around Chloe and gave her the warmest of embraces. There was a collective sigh of relief and some people even clapped.

Fast forward. Bill became a lead deacon in our congregation. He was a changed person, a man on a mission. Our church had an unused manse on our property and Bill led a movement to get it certified as the only approved daycare facility in our city for children born with HIV. He helped form a ministry that provided hours of respite care for men whose companions were suffering the end stages of AIDS. Our deacons would relieve them for a few hours so that they could run errands, get some air, decompress.

One of the last times I saw Bill was at one of these homes. I had come to say a prayer with a young man who was in his final hours. I saw Bill from behind as he was leaning over the bed. He was helping to change the sheets, getting his hands dirty in the real and compassionate work of loving another human being.

He turned and said, “Hi, Pastor Krin. I’m glad to see you.”

“Not as glad as I am to see you, Bill,” I replied.

Every Story Matters

(I once wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in South Texas, collected in the book 52: Weekly Readings for Your Journey. I often recall this installment published on Veteran’s Day. It reminds us that every person has a story, and that some of these stories are from veterans who were caught in the crossfires of history. As a vet myself, I think of all of them today!)

For years, CBS ran a program called Everybody Has a Story. Host Steve Hartman threw a dart at a U.S. map, flew to that city, flipped open a phone book, put his finger down and called that household. If the individuals were willing, he highlighted their life stories which were often poignant. Before leaving, he asked the participant to throw a dart at the map to pinpoint his next destination.

What a marvelous illustration in this seeming randomness! It shows two things. First, the struggles of being human are something we all share, no matter our age, race, or background. Second, our stories matter, especially when someone truly listens.

But listening is a dying art. We fixate on TVs, computers, smart phones. Wired with sound bite mentalities, we wish people would just get to the point. We formulate responses before others finish speaking, cutting our attentiveness to zero.

Paul Tillich famously said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” In our raucous world, people long for someone to hear them. Our open ears and hearts provide an oasis of acceptance, and as we practice this art, we find that the benefits are reciprocal. Our worlds expand in astonishing ways. Here’s an example.

One day a short man with a warm, tooth-gapped smile came to our church. His dark skin was deeply weathered by the elements. He let me know that he was homeless, sleeping in his car, and he wondered if I could help him with lodging and food. When I agreed, he said, “Thank you, sir!”

That’s when I saw the military bearing in his shoulders and heard the respect in his voice.

“Are you a veteran?”

“Yes, sir. I served in Desert Storm with the First Mechanized Infantry.”

What followed was a gripping story, a page of American history, and it was my privilege to hear every word.

Raised in New Jersey, William Milburn inherited his family’s tradition to join the military. He enlisted in the Army National Guard after high school, and when he got laid off from a factory job, he chose to go active duty. Eventually he was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas, assigned to the First Armored Division.

In August of 1990, William was a frontline tank gunner when the U.S. invaded Iraq. As he recalled those awful days, I could hear the roaring jets, the deep booms as William locked on to distant Iraqi targets and destroyed them. His traumatic memories still open fresh wounds.

“We saw trucks, jeeps and tanks with mangled, blackened bodies. The smell of death is horrible, pastor. I was a soldier, but as a Christian, any loss of life is terrible. I remember looking at one body draped from a jeep and thinking ‘man, that guy had a family.’ What was his story? It was war. I did my duty. But it was still so sad.”

William received bronze stars for his valor. I told him I couldn’t thank him enough for his selfless service to our country. I also invited him to contact me anytime, day or night, if he needed a listening ear. (Update: I’m happy to tell you that William is back on his feet, working hard as a certified nursing assistant, enjoying life with a new girlfriend.)

Today, think of this as you shop, work, or travel. Every person you see has a story, and often the people we pass over the quickest have the most mind-blowing tales of all. A homeless veteran taught me this lesson.

All I had to do was listen.