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People Who Helped Me Understand Life’s Battles

Johann Christoph Arnold - Excerpted from Escape Routes. Available FREE in e-book format.

Precisely because I do not have the beautiful words I need, I call upon my acts to speak to you. - Daisy Zamora

I often think back to people who have stretched me to understand life's battles in a more fundamental way. Not that we should hold them up as heroes, or attempt to emulate them; still, in looking to those who have gone before us, I am certain that each of us can gain confidence to travel the path that we ourselves feel we must walk.

Che Guevara
Years ago, I wouldn't have picked Che Guevara as an example of someone whose life gives hands and feet to rebirth. He was, to my mind, a cold-blooded man of violence. My prejudices dissolved after visiting Cuba and discovering that this man still lives on in the hearts of a new generation. It's been said that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. As I learned more about Che's life, I came to see his deeds as a sharp rebuke to Christians who claim to have left everything to serve their fellow human beings.

Che's dedication to fighting for the poor led him to abandon his position of power in Havana to join freedom fighters first in Africa and then in Bolivia. The words he wrote around that time, as he departed for the unknown in pursuit of his calling, still resonate today:

Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. Every day we must struggle so that this love is transformed into concrete acts that will serve as an example ...

As the Cuban young people we met spoke of what Che had taught them about self-sacrifice in service to the causes of economic and social justice, the words of President Kennedy came to my mind: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Jesus taught that not all those who say, "Lord, Lord" will enter heaven. The prize, he said, is for the man who loves his sisters and brothers so deeply that he will lay down his life for them. Che did exactly that. I have come to believe that he wasn't just a great revolutionary, but also, despite his shortcomings and his sins, a better follower of Christ than most who claim that label.

Dorothy Day
How should we live when we realize that God is present in everyone we meet? "The mystery of the poor is this," said Dorothy Day, "that they are Jesus, and whatever you do for them you do to him."  Founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy influenced me deeply. Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Dorothy's early years were marked by a whirlwind youth, which left her reeling from a broken marriage, an abortion, and a series of unhappy relationships.

In 1926 Dorothy had a baby, Tamar-an event that changed her. She turned to the Gospels, and found in them the beginnings of faith. She threw herself into what she called the "works of mercy," feeding and housing the homeless, speaking out against the evil of war, and marching against the death penalty. Dorothy's concern was the love of God, which she claimed is meaningless unless it finds expression in love to one's neighbor.

It is not love in the abstract that counts. It is hard to love.  It is the hardest thing in the world.  Have you ever read Tolstoy's Resurrection?  He tells of political prisoners in a long prison train, enduring chains and persecution for the love of their brothers, ignoring those same brothers on the long trek to Siberia.  It is never the brothers right next to us, but the brothers in the abstract that are easy to love.

Dorothy's words remind us that while it is tempting to try to change the world, our actions  often fall short of our ideals.  And thus she reminded her co-workers that it is the person next to us whose needs we can best attend to, and whose hurts we ought to heal first. To her, even the most modest attempt to solve poverty was valid, because it was better than doing nothing:

Heinrich Arnold
Like me, my father, Heinrich Arnold, worked on and off as a pastor. For him, faith was not something to be talked about, but something to be lived. Because he grew up in a household whose open door welcomed a constant stream of tramps, union organizers, and radicals, he identified with them from early childhood on. People came to him without any persuasion on his part. Once or twice complete strangers turned to him on a plane or train and unburdened themselves to him.

Recently Suzanne, a long-time friend, wrote to me about the first time she met him. A Harvard dropout by the age of twenty-three, Suzanne had already abandoned her idealist phase. An ardent atheist; all the same she confessed to feeling haunted by guilt over an abortion she had procured in the course of an affair. It was at this juncture that she met my father:

We go upstairs and into a shabby little office. He looks at me and says, "You need a cup of coffee." And the huge, good man goes through countless steps to create a cup of coffee. Next Suzanne-the-child-murderer was pouring forth words to the coffee maker. When I ran out of hideous things to say, Heinrich, for that was his name, said "Thank you for the trust."

Suzanne now says she credits that simple experience of coffee and a conversation with my father with being a catalyst for her rebirth.

My father was never prominent by worldly standards. But I have seen his legacy resurface in the most unexpected places. Why shouldn't it be the same for each of us? Why don't we dare to believe that the fruits of our faith will blossom in ways we never see, out of proportion to the small seeds we plant? And isn't the hope of the sower a small piece of heaven?

More by Johann Christoph Arnold

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