True visionaries certainly look ahead as they walk through life. They are always thinking of the steps in front of them that take them to their desired destination. The goal, of course, is in front of you, but I submit that looking back can be useful too. While your future is in front of you, the lessons you learned and the people who have shaped you are behind you. They must not be forgotten, as they are vital to the person you are now, as well as the person you strive to become.
I had a ton of heroes growing up, but they were mostly disposable. I greatly admired the football genius of Joe Montana, the fluid poetry of motion that was Ryne Sandberg on a baseball diamond, and the sheer hurricane of personality and brutal ring efficiency given to the world by Muhammad Ali. Those athletes captured my attention, but the one that captured my imagination was Larry Bird. He was all I ever wanted to be…until I grew up and realized that both he and the others I mentioned were limited quantities of contribution to the worlds they represented. In terms of how lasting their contributions to the life of a little boy in Arkansas were, they were indeed disposable.
I am now a man in his 40s with a family, a job, and bills to pay. Every hero I had growing up is either retired or dead now, and while I can still relive their former glory on the internet, they simply have nothing further to offer that is of any use to me. I came to a point in my life where I began seeking heroes with a more lasting influence, and I have been blessed to find them. Here are just a few:
Bishop Imad Al Banna was the acting archbishop of Basra Province, Iraq when I served there in 2009. Needless to say, it took a lot of courage to be a Christian of common stature in a province that borders Iran to the east. Al Banna was a very public figure there, as he was not only the priest for that area, but he also owned two pharmacies and a school that provided services to the entire population, which is 97% Muslim. The previous archbishop fled Iraq for fear of his life at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but Al Banna resolved to stay no matter what and provide the services and ministry to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Though he endured much personal tragedy as a natural course of being who he was in the place he was in, he never lost his smile or his resolve to serve the people of Basra.
Pakistani Recycling Christians: I was tasked with doing a journalistic piece on the burgeoning recycling program in central Iraq, and I made the mistake of trying to conduct the interviews on a Friday, which is the Muslim day of rest. The day was not a complete loss, though, as I was able to meet with the director of the plant (an American). As we were talking, I noticed that there were four gentlemen who were clearly not American that were attending to the office that day. One approached me and, as he spoke absolutely no English, flashed me a 1000-watt smile and began making hand motions toward his mouth as though he were drinking something. The director grinned at the puzzled expression on my face and let me know that the gentleman was offering me a cup of hot Chai tea. He also warned me that it would be culturally rude for me to refuse, so I readily accepted. As he and the other three men were frantically bustling about, preparing my tea and cutting into a pound cake, the director told me their backstory.
“These four men are from Pakistan,” he said. “They were forced out of their country and found refuge—and a job—here.” I asked why they were exiled from Pakistan, and he said, “They were lucky. By all rights they should be dead right now for the ‘sin’ they were forced out for. That ‘sin,’ mind you, is Christianity.”
I was bewildered. I said, “I may be completely uneducated on this subject, but I was under the impression that there weren’t any Christians in Pakistan.”
“Well, there probably aren’t now,” he said. “Because these guys are here.”
They were not only living their faith in Iraq, of all places, but they were also working hard to improve the environment and enterprise of recycling programs of Iraq—and making American soldiers feel welcome in their area.
All of these men are heroes of mine. I have never seen them again since I left Iraq in 2009, but I will never forget the courage, resolve, and joy they all contributed to the world around them.
Athletes entertain us and amaze us with their physical gifts, but those perish over time and the people that had them fade into the collective memory of websites devoted to reliving the past. People like Bishop Al Banna and the Pakistani Recycling Christians, however, have given something to this world that can never perish: they have given inspiration.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.