Monday, February 29, 2016

Bob Fletcher: My brother’s keeper

In a day and age where anger too often separates and divides, it’s important to remember someone who used anger for good.

Bob Fletcher was a California agriculture inspector, working in Florin, California (in Sacramento County) in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast into relocation camps.  These families, many of whom had farmed the area since the 1890’s had no choice but to abandon their farms.  One of these farmers, Al Tsukamoto, approached Fletcher, who had earned the trust of the farming community because of his integrity and kindness.  Would this agriculture inspector, an employee of the State, become the steward of two large farms owned by soon-to-be relocated families?  Tsukamoto told Fletcher he could keep all the profits and live in the main house in exchange for paying the mortgages and taxes, and managing the work.

Accepting this responsibility, meant that Fletcher not only had to quit his secure job in the middle of a world war, he’d need to face the long-standing bigotry in the region toward Japanese-Americans---deeply entrenched enough that Japanese-American children for decades had been required to attend segregated schools.

Fletcher disagreed with the President’s decision, and was angered to see injustice and fear institutionalized.  So he not only agreed to save the two farms, and risk personal loss by leaving his job and becoming a target of the bigotry in his community, he only took half the profits.  The other half he deposited in accounts he set up for the families so they’d have working capital when they returned.  Further, he and his wife lived in the bunk house, instead of the main house, out of respect for the rightful owners.

For three years, Fletcher worked 90 acres and averaged 18 hour work-days.  And when the families were finally allowed to return to their farms, and store owners would refuse to fill their orders, Fletcher would make the purchases for them.

Mr. Fletcher would eventually buy his own parcel of land in Florin, raised cattle, worked as a volunteer fire fighter, helped start the Florin Water District, eventually became the Fire Chief, and lived to the ripe old age of 101.  Like so many heroes, Fletcher never considered himself to be one.  “I don’t know about courage…it took a devil of a lot of work.”

Yes, I imagine propping up humanity does take a lot of work.

Bob Fletcher is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mildred and Richard Loving: If Loving You is Wrong

A man and woman fall in love, and decide they want to marry.  Sounds like an everyday occurrence, no?  No.  Not if the man was white and the woman black in 1958 Virginia.  Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter knew this, so they travelled to Washington D.C., to avoid the anti-miscegenation law in their home state that prohibited a person classified as “white” from marrying someone classified as “colored.”

This anti-miscegnation laws had been in effect since Virginia was a colony, and had never been challenged. 

After their marriage, the newlyweds returned home to their small town of Central Point, Virginia without fanfare to start a family.  But acting on an anonymous tip, police raided the Loving home one night and found them (not surprisingly) asleep together in the same bed.  Mildred presented the officers with their valid marriage certificate, and that was taken into evidence as proof of the Loving’s illicit act.

Richard and Mildred were charged with the crime of cohabiting as a married interracial couple, a felony punishable by a prison sentence of one to five years.

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty, and sentenced to one year in prison.  The judge agreed to suspend their prison sentence for 25 years if they moved to another state.  Mildred and Richard agreed and moved to Washington D.C. 

But after five years of frustration about not being able to travel back home to see their families in Virginia, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy for assistance.  He in turn referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed a motion in 1964 to have the case vacated based on the 14th amendment (citizenship rights, and equal protection under the law).

However, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the anti-miscegnation law---that people of different races should not, must not be allowed to marry, and to do so would be a crime.

Thankfully, the Lovings refused to accept this judgment and filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States.  And on June 12, 1967 love won.  In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court overturned the Lovings’ conviction, and dismissed the Commonwealth of Virginia’s argument.  Further, the Court concluded that anti-miscegnation laws were inherently racist. 

The ruling forced seventeen states (all the former slave states plus Oklahoma) to remove the prohibition against interracial marriage.

Richard and Mildred would go on to have three children, and live peacefully in Virginia until 1975 when Richard was killed by a drunk driver.  Mildred never remarried, and died in 2008.

In the United States, June 12th, the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling, has come to be celebrated as Loving Day…the day love won.

Mildred and Richard Loving are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Jason Brown: From football to farming

Professional athletes are often held up as role models for our youth, and on occasion they actually should be.

After a stellar collegiate career at North Carolina and four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, 6’3”, 320 pound Jason Brown signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2009 and became the highest paid center in the National Football League.   As one of the best linemen in the game, he’d seemingly reached the pinnacle of his career at 26.  But it didn’t give him the satisfaction he desired. And three years after his record setting contract, Jason chose to walk away from the game. 

He was not injured, he was not in trouble, he was not out of options.  But he’d reached the conclusion that seven seasons of football, too much time away from his family, and life in the spotlight had distanced him from his values.  Brown, a deeply religious man, felt God calling him to something else…something totally different. Even a new contract offer from his hometown Carolina Panthers could not tempt him to stay.  His agent told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life, but this gentle giant disagreed.

And Jason Brown, professional football player, became Jason Brown, farmer.

Farming.  Not the typical second career for a multi-millionaire, let alone one who had no prior experience farming.  O.k., so he’s going to be a ‘gentleman farmer’, right?  Own the property and hire laborers to do the dirty work?  No.  Jason is out there on a tractor, and occasionally on his knees working as hard as any of his crew.  And here’s the real kicker---he’s not even doing it for the money.  He sees this as a ministry opportunity.  Again, not typical---but you’ve probably figured out by now that Jason Brown is not typical. 

After he’d decided to make a difference for the good in a profession he knew nothing about, Jason threw himself into this new venture with as much passion as he had his football career.  He began by watching Youtube videos, and then talking to farming friends in Louisburg, North Carolina, where he’d decided to open “First Fruit Farm.” 

Here, on his 1,000 acre property, Jason has committed himself to the mission of eliminating hunger in North Carolina.  He donates the first fruits of every harvest to local food pantries.  And in his very first harvest he gave away 46,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers. His motto is, “Never stop giving, never stop loving, never stop growing!”

In explaining his decision to leave football for the farm, Jason smiles, “When I think about success I think about a life of service.”

From success to significance…

Jason Brown is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina.  And at age 12, his master hired him out to business associates in Charleston where Smalls worked in a hotel, and later as a lamplighter.  But his real love was the sea, so he found a way to work on the docks, then as a rigger and a sail maker, and eventually as a wheelman (basically a pilot, although slaves were not allowed to hold that title).

Although a slave, when the Civil War began Smalls was assigned to serve on the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate transport.  And on May 12, 1862, the three white officers of the Planter decided to spend the night on shore.  Smalls, and seven other enslaved sailors, decided to steal the ship and sail it to freedom.  So, dressed in the Captain’s uniform that included a straw hat, he sailed out of the harbor, and then stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up his wife, children, and the families of the other crewman who were hiding there.  Having learned the secret Confederate codes and signals, Smalls, sailed the Planter past five different Confederate forts that guarded the harbor without ever being stopped.  And by morning, flying a white bedsheet as a sign of surrender to avoid being fired upon by Union ships, Smalls was home free.  He turned the ship over to the United States Navy, along with the valuable cargo that included canons, artillery pieces and ammunitions earmarked for Confederate forts, and the secret Confederate signal book.

For his exploits, Smalls was celebrated in Union newspapers and was invited to a private meeting with President Lincoln.  There, he was able to persuade the President to allow African-American men to serve in the Union Army as soldiers.  When Lincoln agreed, Smalls joined the Army.   He was later transferred to the Navy where he would be named the first black captain of a vessel---ironically the same one he’d commandeered two years before, the Planter, now a ship in the Union Navy.  By the end of the War, he had been involved in 17 different battles.
Now if he did nothing else for the rest of his life, Robert Smalls would be a hero.  But there was more.

After the war, Smalls returned to Beaufort and purchased the home he’d been a slave in.  And in an amazing act of charity, he allowed the aged widow of his former slave master to live there with him and his family until her death.

Smalls would go on to become a successful businessman, opening a store where former slaves could work, and was elected to the South Carolina State House of Representatives and State Senate, and finally the United States House of Representatives where he would serve for five terms.

This legend of a man would die at 75 years-old in the same town he was born in as a slave.  But because of his life Beaufort, South Carolina, and indeed America, had become a very different place.

Robert Smalls is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Monday, February 15, 2016

James Harrison: The Man with the Golden Arm

James Harrison is a typical 79 year-old man in most every way.  A widower now, he likes to spend time with his daughter and grandson, take walks, and collect stamps.  But just below the surface, literally, he is very unique.  He first learned this at age 14, when he needed to undergo an emergency surgery to remove a lung---and then needed roughly three gallons of donated blood over the next three months of recovery.  In gratitude he made a pledge to give blood himself as soon as he could.  He says it was the second most important pledge he’s ever made, behind only his marriage vows.

So at 18 years-old, James started donating blood.  It was then that doctors realized his blood contained very rare antibodies that could fight Rhesus disease, which caused women to miscarry or give birth to brain damaged babies. At the time, this disease was affecting thousands of babies in Harrison’s native Australia alone.  So, he agreed to undergo further tests in addition to giving blood, and sure enough doctors were able to use James’ plasma to develop a life-saving Anti-D vaccine. 

Since then, Harrison has donated plasma on average once every three weeks---possible because one can give plasma more often than blood.  That’s more than 1,100 donations over the past 61 years, and counting.  And what does that mean in lives saved?  Doctors estimate that Harrison’s generosity has saved over two million babies---including, ironically, his own grandson Scott, when his daughter Tracey ended up needing the vaccine herself.

James loves to travel around Australia in his camper, but always knows where the nearest donation center is so that his giving routine isn’t affected.  Although he holds the world record for donations, Australian law says he’ll need to stop giving at age 81.  Harrison is disappointed that he’ll fall short of his goal of 2,000 donations but is hoping others will step up when he is no longer allowed to.

In 1999 Australia awarded him the Medal of the Order of Australia for his incredibly consistent generosity, but for Harrison the knowledge that he’s saving lives is all he needs.  “I’m in it for the babies.”

So, the next time you hear about a quarterback or a pitcher with a “golden arm,” remember the man who has truly earned that nickname!

James Harrison is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Richard Kirkland: “The Angel of Marye’s Heights”

Richard Kirkland was a young man of eighteen when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861.  He was assigned to the 2nd South Carolina infantry and would survive some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including the First Battle of Bull Run and Antietem.  But it was at the battle of Fredricksburg that Kirkland’s courage and humanitarian actions guaranteed him a lasting place in American history.

There, at Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862 Kirkland’s unit withstood a fierce Union attack, and by morning of the next day hundreds of Union soldiers lay wounded or dead on the other side of the great stone wall the Confederate soldiers had used for protection.  Both sides listened helplessly to the cries of agony from the wounded, but no one dared to do something about it.  At some point, however, Kirkland approached Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw and requested permission to help the Union soldiers.  At first Kershaw refused, stating that Kirkland would almost certainly be shot by Union soldiers.  However Kirkland insisted, and eventually was granted permission.  However, Kershaw forbade him using a white handkerchief to signal the Union army not to fire on him. 

Quickly Kirkland gathered all the canteens he could find and filled them with water.  Then, as his unit watched, he left the safety of the wall and ventured out onto the battlefield to care for the wounded.  Again and again he went back to refill the canteens and then return to the battlefield and the wounded.  He also brought warm clothes and blankets to the soldiers, to combat the frigid winter temperatures.  No one from either side fired a shot as this amazing scene unfolded.

For two hours Kirkland worked tirelessly and alone until each and every one of the Union soldiers had been ministered to.  Six weeks later the great poet Walt Whitman, who at the time was working in a Washington D.C Hospital as a nurse and a war correspondent reported being told this story by a Union soldier who had been wounded at Fredricksburg.

Kirkland continued to distinguish himself for bravery at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was eventually promoted to Second Lieutenant.  However, less than a year after he became “the angel of Marye’s Heights”, Kirkland was shot and killed at the Battle of Chickamauga.  He was 20 years-old.

In 1965 a monument was finally erected in front of the stone wall at Marye’s Heights, memorializing Kirkland and his singular act of compassion there….given not to enemies, but to brothers.  He embodies for all time the “better angels of our nature.”

Richard Kirkland is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.