“Whoever wants to be first should be last, and servant of all.”
How do you know when you are doing a good thing?
Does it matter whether you know or not?
Can you take your own ego out of the equation, and let it be pure gift?
Deogratias was from Burundi, a Tutsi son of a cow herder. He was a good enough student to go to medical school in his home country. When the intertribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda spread into neighboring Burundi, the violence and upheaval put an end to his schooling. He saw members of his family taken away, friends who died in the violence. Whole families massacred. Other friends gave him a way to come to America, on a business visa, so that he, too, would not die. He stayed in New York, homeless, speaking no English, only French and his tribal language, Kirundi. He slept in Central Park, found a job delivering groceries for a local supermarket, and somehow, by the grace of God, found his way to Saint Thomas More Church.
Life is a chain of unexpected events, and it was such a chain that caused Deo to be taken under the wing of a woman in that church who spoke French, and who made it her personal mission to help the shy and traumatized young man. After a number of false starts, she found him a place to live – as the guest of a couple in Soho, the Wolfs. They encouraged him, helped him learn English by reading books in the New York Public Library, helped him apply to Columbia University, kept him in their home for his schooling. Others helped as well. The professor who realized that the reason why Deo’s examination in chemistry was wrong was because he still thought in French syntax instead of English, so he would write the names of compounds backwards – chloride hydrogen instead of hydrogen chloride – and who them re-graded his exam from an F to an A-. The other professor who allowed Deo to use his own books. Another who helped him when he was gripped with a deep depression, a symptom of post-traumatic stress, what Deo called gusimbura, or remembering and grieving the awful things that he had seen.
A chain of people doing good, for no other reason than they thought that it was the right thing to do, to help this fellow with the French accent from Central Africa.
They didn’t know his full story – his occasional telephone calls back to a family member in Burundi caused him to believe his whole family had been killed, and it was only after several years that he actually discovered his parents were still alive, and spoke to them. They, too, had thought he was dead, and struggled to comprehend who it was they were speaking to.
That chain of people didn’t all know that he had spent quite some time sleeping in Central Park, looking for safe spots that were reasonably well sheltered, because the squats that he had been offered in shuttered tenements were too dangerous and dirty.
That chain of people didn’t all know the nightmares that caused him to fight off sleep, nightmares filled with slashing machetes and dead children.
What that chain of people saw, though, was someone who hungered to complete his education – he had always wanted to be a doctor, to cure people of the diseases he had seen as he grew up.
They saw Deo needed their help to do that.
Something compelled them to give him that help. Some, like the Wolfs, gave him an extraordinary amount of help over several years. Some, like the chemistry professor, gave him one thing that he needed at one moment in time. But they all gave him help.
It’s a funny thing – when people ask for help, we often go through a mental exercise of evaluating their true need. We get calls at the church office almost every day, asking for assistance. Sometimes I will take these calls when I’m in the office. The need is great in these difficult times. I find myself wondering “is this person really in need or are they going to use money for something like alcohol or drugs?” We tend to give things like gift cards to Giant or Safeway rather than cash; we help out on utility bills by paying the bill directly to the utility rather than handing them the money to pay it themselves. And it’s probably wise stewardship to do that, because sometimes these folks will use cash for drugs or drink.
But as I look at the Gospel this morning, I hear a very simple sentence: “Whoever wants to be first should be last, and servant of all.”
It doesn’t say “servant of all that we’ve decided are worthy of our help.”
Maybe we worry too much about evaluating those in need, and not enough about being servants. Maybe we try to measure what we’re doing – is it important enough, will people be impressed, is this something extra special, that will make me look extra-special as a result - instead of simply giving, doing, serving.
That’s really what was going on among the disciples when Jesus chastised them. After all his teaching about the cost of discipleship, about how tough the road was going to be if they would truly follow him, they got hung up with how it would make them look, which one would be the best, which one would be remembered as the most important disciple. And once again, they needed him to school them, to finally understand what it was all about. That the last thing they should strive for was to be the one who got all the accolades, that it was really about making yourself humble, a servant, without an eye to how it would reflect on you… to be willing to serve a little child as if she were Jesus, with all the focus and attention and love you have, because if you couldn’t do that, nothing you could do would be worthwhile.
Those people who helped Deo didn’t know, as they lent a hand, that he would graduate from Columbia, from Dartmouth Medical School, and go back to Burundi to found a series of medical clinics to help the war-ravaged people who remained there. They didn’t know that his story would be turned into a book that is climbing the NY Times bestseller list. They didn’t know their names would be in the book…they simply did the work of being a servant to this man who appeared to be the least of God’s creatures, an unknown African homeless man who wanted nothing more than to go to school to be a doctor. They didn’t stop before they did what they did and say “I wonder if this guy is really scamming me. I wonder if I should help him, or if he’ll make a fool of me and steal my money.” They simply did the work of being a servant, as Christ tells us, without questioning, without worrying about what comes next.
Sometimes good stewardship of that which the Lord has given us is to respond to God’s abundant generosity by giving generously, perhaps even ridiculously generously. When you see a beggar on the street, give him a twenty dollar bill instead of a quarter. If you see a young single mother in the checkout line ahead of you searching through her purse for enough to cover the groceries, don’t sigh with impatience – tell her “it’s on me” and shoo her off and pull out your credit card. If someone asks you for help in their job search, don’t say “I’m too busy,” stop, think a minute, and tell them the names and phone numbers of three contacts you have that might be helpful.
And while you’re at it, try engaging them in conversation.
Part of the miracle of Deo’s story was those conversations, first with Muhammed, a baggage handler at JFK airport who brought him from the airport into Manhattan and gave him a corner of the squatter’s apartment to sleep in, with Sharon who spoke French and discovered part of his story and his dream. Another part was the series of conversations Deo had with Charlie Wolf, who ended up housing Deo and helping to pay for his education. Sometimes the most generous thing you can do is to acknowledge another person’s humanity in the midst of their need, to treat them not as someone to be judged or dismissed, or worse, offered condescending charity. Instead, remember Christ asks you to be “a servant to all.”
After all, he was the best example. He served all of us by dying on the Cross to save us. If he had stopped and said “does she really deserve this? Is she going to live up to all I hope for her? Will she squander this gift I give her?” he might not have done that.
Oh, and one more thing?
Deogratias, the doctor from Burundi?
His name means “Thanks be to God.” It is something we should say every day. Something we should model, by being servants to all, every day. And then it won’t matter who is first or last, who is the greatest, because the greatest of all has made himself a servant for us. Thanks be to God!
Deo’s story can be found in Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains (New York: Random House. 2009).