John's Speech to Suffield Academy Alumni and Students
Monday, April 14, 2008
I am honored to be selected to receive the 2008 Suffield Academy Leadership Award for humanitarian service. I am both humbled and amazed to stand before you this day, and I see my presence here as a sign that indeed redemption is possible. At one point in my cheqered past at Suffield I felt that the possibility of graduating with my class looked very slim. I’ll spare you the details but my contemporaries and faculty of the day I am sure remember me well; which brings me to my first point I want to convey. You will be remembered in your life and possibly beyond for your extra-ordinary deeds. Those deeds are either noble and good or they are unjust and wrong, abnormal and noteworthy, inspiring or shocking, altruistic or evil, Godly or inhumane. Society remembers the Mother Theresa’s and the Adolf Hitlers, the Martin Luther Kings and the Idi Amins. To the students and indeed all of us here today, I challenge you to live above the norm. Be passionate and not passive. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Don’t settle for mediocrity. A life of mediocrity and complacency is a life wasted. Strive to do your best.
I recently returned from Uganda, Africa. I have traveled to Africa many times in our mission to help orphaned children. Each time I go I am faced with situations and realities that reduce me to tears. I have shed many over the last 15 years. First, when our three children were killed in an automobile accident in 1992. I didn’t think the tears would stop. By the grace of God and with our faith in Jesus Christ, my wife and I moved forward from that place of grief to start Hearts of the Father Outreach, for which I am receiving this honor today. Point # 2, I would like to convey, is don’t ever be ashamed of your faith in God. Without God in my life, I would not be here today and people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln might never have made it into the history books.
I am sensitive to the fact that at Suffield Academy we are from diverse backgrounds, countries and religions. I remember as a young boy growing up in Suffield, living on Main Street, my older brothers were attending the school. I would ride my bike down Main Street, delivering the Hartford Times newspaper to many faculty members, Gordy Glover, Dennis Kinne, Joe Connors, Mason Nye to name a few. I would watch the Suffield sports events when I finished my route. Back then, Paul Sanderson used to recruit a few African boys to play soccer. Charles Thomas who was from Gambia was probably the first African that I ever met, and my folks used to invite him over for some holidays. I don’t know what religion Charles practiced, but Gambia is mostly a Muslim country. My folks set an example for me which I follow to this day. Point #3: Don’t judge people who are different from you. We have social differences, economic, racial, educational and religious differences to name a few. None of these should cause us to separate or divide, for we are all human beings worthy of respect and equal in value in the eyes of God. We are diminished as people when we allow prejudice and arrogance into our lives and judging leads people, government and societies into all types of evil.
Let me digress for a moment and paint a picture for you of the world that I have seen since I began this Outreach to the children. I have seen a world where 75 % of the people make less than $2.00 per day. I have held the children many people see only on TV, the ones whose stomachs are bloated because of worms and the children dying of aids. I have comforted many parents whose children have died and who go back to comfortless mud huts which has no electricity or running water. I have cried seeing mothers who are too weak to care for their malnourished children. I have been out in the night in Kampala and Kiev in Kitale and Ouagadouga where children wander sniffing glue to escape the realities of their lives, but are dying a slow death. Where little girls 10 years old and less have become prostitutes for food, where children are savagely beaten by police for not being home even though they have no home to go to.
I am saddened by the weak efforts of many Christians and I am sorely distressed, even anguished over the apathy of our country in the face of this reality. In Africa alone, there are over 50 million orphans. That is the entire population of children under the age of 18 in the United States. Yet the problem is not insurmountable. If everyone who has the means would reach out and help just one child, every child would be rescued. Sponsor a child for less than $1.00 per day, less than the cost of a cup of coffee. I want to challenge the students here to look closely at your lives and your goals. Are you different than everyone else? Be different, not average. My daughter who is here with us is from China. We have talked about being different and how that sometimes is not comfortable, but I am not talking about looks or countries, I am talking about actions. As I encourage her and now you, be different. Be a leader, and not a follower, a shepherd and not a sheep, an example to others through your actions. Show love and compassion, demonstrate selflessness, not selfishness. Take a year between college and prep school and go and serve in a third world country. Choose a career that furthers diplomacy and peace. Sacrifice money and artificial happiness for something truly worthwhile and meaningful. Even though I have wept many tears since 1992, I have also found great joy and profound peace in knowing that what I am doing is making the difference in the life of a child. You too can make a difference. If enough people help just one child, children are part of a village, and villages are part of a region and regions are part of a country and countries a continent.
Three weeks after 9-11, my wife and I were in Israel. At the time the hostility and hatred between the Jewish people and the Arabs was intense. I remember asking God what could be done to break down the walls of hatred. The answer that I got was, “Sow seeds of love into the lives of children”
Make a difference in your life, step out of the boat, get out of your comfort zone – give yourself to others. Ask God to help you and direct you and someday you might be standing here getting an award. One thing I know, if you give your life to help others at the end of it you won’t be sorry.
I will close with a quote from my Year Book caption – It is from J.R. Tolkien who was a Christian and author. “All that is gold does not glitter and all those who wander are not lost. Don’t chase money as a life goal. You might gain success but you won’t find fulfillment. Rather ask God to lead you on an adventure" Go out into the world and serve others and your life will be rich.