Monday, April 18, 2011

Everyone Is Significant: A Rite of Passage Lesson

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my father was that all people are significant.  Regardless of race, creed, social or economic standing, education, abilities or lack thereof, achievements or failures, age or what that person might be able to do for you – everyone is important; everyone counts; everyone has inherent significance.  Because of this, Dad taught me that I should be willing to listen to people, to treat them in a kind and dignified manner, to tell them the truth, to be willing to do them a good turn, and to act towards them as I would like them to act towards me.

It was a great lesson to learn. And my Dad taught it both by precept and by example.  I saw it in the way he treated his family, our neighbors, the people he worked with, and people he just met along the way.  He was a kind, empathetic and very sociable man.  He made people feel at ease and accepted.  In fact, he made them feel...significant.

I remember so well Saturday afternoons at Banner Tire in south Denver in the late 1960’s.  Banner was a service station and garage that my Dad managed. The business sold tires and wheels, offered tow truck service and operated a gasoline bulk plant that served other gas stations and a few ranches east of Denver.  I worked there during junior high school and part of my high school years too.  And the memory of a bunch of men sitting around the garage on a late Saturday afternoon is one of the most vivid of my life.  The guys were an eclectic group: an Eastern European banker, a retired insurance man, a nearby restaurant owner, the Mexican roofers whose place was up the hill, a mechanic or two…and my Dad and me.

Some of the guys would be sitting on folding chairs, some on tires or pop cases, some just lay down shop towels and sat on the hoist which was raised a few feet off the floor.  It was a great time -- late enough that everyone had pretty much finished their work for the day.  Well, except for me.  I still had to pump gas for the cars that drove up.  But the heavier work of the day was done and the men enjoyed an hour just sitting around and talking.

In the midst of this conversation was my father.  He was a terrific storyteller -- entertaining, witty and wise -- but he didn’t dominate the conversation.  Rather he orchestrated it.  He asked questions, transitioned into new subjects, and deftly handed off discussion points to others.  Sure, his stories sparkled when he got round to telling them and the other men treasured Dad, but a great deal of his contributions were other-directed.  “Russ, what did you end up doing with that old flatbed truck?”  “How’s your boy doing at the Academy, Tony?”  “You fellas are talking about close calls, you need to ask Mr. Garcia about what happened up at his place last night.”  Every once in awhile, he would even pull me into the action. “Oh, my boy had quite a run-in with that gal, too.  Son, tell ‘em about when she brought that Dodge in here with the ducks in the back seat!”

Sitting around these adults – being accepted by them and learning from them and watching them interact with one another – was a tremendous rite of passage for me.  And I will be forever grateful to them all for that.  But I am especially forever grateful to my Dad for teaching me that all of these men were unique and interesting and valuable.  Dad taught me a great deal of how to engage people, how to elicit the stories of their life, how to make them feel comfortable.  And how to develop a relationship that underscores for both parties their significance.

Of course, the original source for this lesson is the Bible.  For God boldly declares that Man – each and every person – is of infinite significance to Him.

* Every person is created by God.  They are “fearfully and wonderfully” knitted together in the womb by the omniscient Hand of Almighty God.

* Every person is created in the very image of God.

* Every person is beloved by God.

* Jesus went willingly to the cross to pay the penalty of sin for every person.  God wants to spend eternity in fellowship with every person He’s ever created.

* Every person is the recipient of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness and judgment.  The Spirit testifies of Jesus and makes clear God’s offer of salvation and redemption to every person.

In the light of these divine directives, we too should treat all men, women and children as important. Indeed, we should love all men.  Consider them worthy of honor.  Treat them with kindness and empathy.  Be willing to listen, serve and forgive.  These are all goals (and, we hope, hallmarks) of what Claire and I do in our work with Vital Signs Ministries. Whether it involves our services in behalf of the unborn or the elderly, we seek to underscore the significance of every person. And though we do plenty of things to reach the general public, our hopes of rebuilding a culture of life rests on treating with grace, respect and significance every individual we meet.

Thanks, Dad.

(Alva Hartford died in the summer of 1985, 6 days after sustaining massive injuries when his car was struck by a drunk driver.)