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What Makes A Hero?

On May 28 our country celebrated Memorial Day, a day we honor courage, selflessness and sacrifice. On that day we honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for us in our country’s wars. The VA gives a number of over 650,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in battle over the course of our history. These are huge and heartbreaking numbers.

I can’t imagine the courage it must take to be in the situation in which these men, and more recently women, found themselves. To know people are shooting at you and trying to kill you – that is not an experience we grow up with. However, they somehow found it in themselves to keep going. These were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances I can’t even begin to imagine.

As we went to barbecues and street fairs and picnics last weekend, I hope we took time to remember those who stepped into hell on earth for us, because to do so took extraordinary courage.

Why do heroes matter?

Author Scott LaBarge says that heroes help us define the limits of our own aspirations – we aspire to be like people we admire. Admiring heroes makes us step into our own potential for love, service and healing. They remind us what is best in us.

I spent time wondering about heroes, about heroism. Not just those who died, but other heroes who live and have lived among us, who show us the heights to which we can rise even in ordinary life. We likely will never be in battle, but many heroes have never been in uniform or held a weapon.

They have not been called on to run into enemy fire, but they have been called upon to make a choice, to stand up or stay quiet, and have somehow found the courage and character within them to do the extraordinary.

I came across so many stories of people famous and not so famous, who were just going about their business, raising their families, living their lives, not expecting that they’d be called upon to make the great moral choices that cause us to admire them today. I realized that these choices don’t always come with fanfare and an announcement. Sometimes they come quietly, bit by bit, moment by moment, woven into the fabric of your everyday life.

I think of men like Oscar Schindler. You may have seen the Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List, and we acknowledge his extraordinary and courageous achievement in saving 1200 Jews from the Nazi death camps. But what struck me also was his ordinariness, that he was like so many others in that time and place. He was well off, well connected, and had an investment in doing nothing, in saying nothing, in keeping his head down. He ultimately found that he could not.

He came from a working class background, and trained as a mechanical engineer. In 1939 he was given management of a factory in Krakow, Poland, after the factory had been taken from its Jewish owners, and he ultimately bought the factory, which had a largely Jewish work force. As the Nazi atrocities progressed, he came to realize that the goal was extermination of millions of innocent lives, and he could not stand by even while thousands of others did so.

Schindler was well connected to the Nazi party. He was a believer, one of its most loyal members. He socialized with high ranking members of the party, including Amon Goth, the commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp.

By early 1940, he began to see more clearly the inhumanity and overwhelming evil of what was being done around him and in his name. He wrote,

“Thank God, I was brave enough at that time to take the necessary action as a result of what had become so painfully clear, bail out and save what was left to be saved.”

The movie tells the stories of the efforts he made to save his Jewish workers and their families, including bribes, lies, pleas, anything he could do to shepherd these people to safety. He was reviled, excluded and hated for his sympathies to the Jews, placing his own life in danger.

He ran through the fortune he had built up, ultimately dying destitute. He never wavered in his commitment to save as many as he possibly could from the Nazi killing machine. In 1962, Oscar Schindler was honored by the State of Israel’s Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

What characterized Oscar Schindler, and others who put themselves at risk to save others? First, his courage to put others first, despite danger to himself. He kept going,  doing what he knew to be right, in the face of obstacles, doubt, fear, persecution, ridicule, and sometimes despair. He didn’t give up.

Leo Tolstoy wrote:

“There is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light burning in the heart of man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.”

I have spoken before about Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary working in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Since 2011 a civil war has been ongoing between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People Liberation Army – North, seeking more self-determination and economic improvement for the people of the area. The Sudanese government has killed countless men, women and children in the area, and has banned all journalists and humanitarian aid. Many children die after stepping on landmines or playing with devices that turn out to be explosives.

Dr. Tom, as he’s called, has defied the ban and remains as one of two doctors based in the Nuba Mountains for a population of over half a million.  When I spoke last year he was the only doctor on site. He’s been there since 2008 after spending 7 years in Kenya in different mission hospitals. His equipment is limited. He says he’s practicing Civil War – era medicine, but it’s better than nothing. He survives carpet bombing and shrapnel, and is on call 24 hours a day. He earns $350 a month. His hospital typically has over 300 patients in it.

One of the rebel leaders, a Muslim, says simply “he’s Jesus Christ.” He said that because Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see, and helped the lame walk, something Dr. Tom does every day. He says his greatest reward is the peace he receives from serving people in need, and he is exactly where he wants to be.

He said in a recent interview that “My inspiration to serve is based on the directives given by Jesus in the Gospels. He directed us to “serve the least of his brothers and sisters” and “sell all you own, give the money to the poor and follow me.” I take these literally and do my best to follow them.”

This call took him to danger and deprivation among the poorest of the poor. But his courageous journey has led to the easing of suffering, and to hope, for thousands in the region and, as he says, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. Dangerous and difficult as it is, he is following his soul’s high adventure.

We have heroes closer to home. Those who stand up for what is right, despite personal or professional risk. They speak up.

Look at the young people today, standing up against continued gun violence. They see an injustice, violence upending innocent lives, and they say no.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” These brave young people refuse to remain silent.

We need to share stories of heroes, because by doing so we also share the values that inspire us. Scott DeBarge wrote that several years ago a poll of American teenagers was done by the administrators of the Barron Prize for Young Heroes, and they found that only half could name a personal hero. Superman and Spiderman were named twice as much as Gandhi, MLK, or Abraham Lincoln. Of the teens that answered, over half named a sports star, a musician, or a movie star.

What is the takeaway here? We too often confuse celebrity with heroism, and cheap success with real value. It’s not that our kids wouldn’t choose real heroes – it may be that they don’t hear us telling their stories.

Let’s celebrate the heroes among us – the known and the unknown. Those whose heroic acts inspire us, and those who day after day work selflessly to improve the lives of others. Their courage, compassion and perseverance, in the end, uplift us all.

Rev. Melanie Eyre

Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister

Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center

Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance


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