HELPING LELAND’S GRANDMA

The house was small and dark inside, unkempt outside, slumped behind an overgrown hedge like a sleepy hitchhiker by a busy road. I delivered Christmas gifts to Leland (pseudonym), the 5th-grade boy I mentored, and his younger siblings. But his widowed grandma drew my attention. The elderly lady was cold, wrapped in a shawl, huddling near a little oil-fired heater, and wheezing badly.

I hate being cold. My heart went out to her.

It was an all too typical situation. The boy’s father was in prison, his sister and baby brother were children of two other men, his mother a classic example of chronic self-indulgence and irresponsibility. And everyone crowded into grandma’s little clapboard house, living off of food stamps and her meager social security.

The boy was my primary concern, my mentee from the Mentor Role Model program. We met consistently through about the first year of high school when he drifted away. I did everything I could to try and give him a leg up on a better kind of life. I guess the jury is still out on that. But his cold, sick grandma always comes to mind when I pass the now empty house. And the question always comes back: how could I have helped her without further enabling her debauched daughter?

The answer is, I could not.

You may have heard of toxic charity. Toxic charity does for others what they can and should do for themselves. It attempts to meet chronic needs with crisis-response methods and ends up incentivizing behaviors that created the condition in the first place. It also perpetuates the status quo between the rich and the resourceless. It makes the giver feel good while perpetuating dependency and fosters dishonesty to boot. It robs God’s image-bearers of the dignity that comes from the work God created us to do. That’s a bad situation. But recognizing it won’t keep grandma warm.

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I think what he meant was that, given our sin-nature, we will always have irresponsible people freeloading on their elderly parents. (I did confront the daughter, but that’s another story).

He also said, “You can do good to them anytime you want.” I think that means we cannot always solve the social pathologies that come from our systemic sin-nature, but we can, just for a little while, keep one or two widows warm and trust God to hold their sinning children to account.  

LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

Sonlight, the college vocal group I traveled with from 1981-83, was lost in New York City after dark. The passenger van was vibrating so badly that it felt like it might come apart. We stopped, and I crawled underneath to check the driveshaft, but without a flashlight, I could not see anything. I got back in the van, and one of the other guys figured out we were in Harlem and needed to make a few more turns to reach the expressway and head north to our hotel. We rounded a corner and saw a man lying in the street, suffering from a gunshot. No police cars yet. “We gotta get out of here!” we said. One more turn and we were on the expressway. Less than a mile later, the driveshaft let go with a loud BANG, and we were stranded.

That event sticks in my mind not only because of the location and time but mostly for the way our leader, First Baptist Church of Atlanta Worship Ministry Director, John V. Glover, handled the situation. Without losing his cool, he loaded all 12 kids into the equipment van and gave directions to the hotel. Then he began whistling as he stuck out his thumb. He’s whistling! I thought. He is not shouting, or cussing, or blaming anyone. He’s whistling. The fact that he did not seem worried helped the rest of us not to. Then a big two-tone Cadillac coupe pulled over, and a huge guy with a gray beard offered him a ride. I thought, “That’s it. The Mafia’s got Johnny, and we are never going to get out of here.”

My friend, Johnny, produced and directed the Atlanta Passion Play that ran for 35 years and played to over one million patrons. He has led choral groups for 60 years, produced and conducted more musicals than I can count, and mentored hundreds of young men and women into life and ministry. Via Facebook, his family helped us celebrate his 80th birthday this week with memories and gratitude for all he meant to us. He did it with legendary energy and positivity, but the leadership principles he taught us will be most valuable to you. Former FBCA Orchestra Director John Gage summed them up.

– It is more important to develop your spiritual life than it is to build your vocational/ministry life.

– Excellence is always critical and worth the time and effort.

– Collaboration is better than trying to do it all yourself.

– Trust those you hire, but help them develop as well, and they will become a valuable asset to your ministry.

– Give guidance but get out of the way and let your employees take responsibility for their areas of expertise.

– Pray first.

– Be creative but not at the expense of comprehension.

– Love your staff and let them know you love them by investing time in them.

– Family is more important than work.

– Always allow your boss to make the final decision after stating your case.

Johnny’s impact on me is immeasurable. I learned to trust God in impossible situations when he showed up the next day after spending all night in a truck stop getting our van fixed.  I courted my wife of 36 years backstage in the Civic Center during the Passion Play, and three years later, he performed the ceremony. I received the confirmation of my call to ministry in response to a challenge he gave Sonlight on the way home from a Jamaica trip. I memorized Romans 6 on that same trip because he challenged us to do it, and I still teach young men facing temptation to do it today. I learned to speak to churches on those Sonlight trips and what to do when the accompaniment tape breaks. And I participated as he took a few professional musicians and hundreds of average singers and molded us into a powerful community of praise. The list could go on, but most of all, Johnny became one of three key men God put in my life as mentors in those days to replace the father I lost when I was fifteen. I will never stop being grateful for him. So, Happy Birthday, Johnny! And here’s to another 80!