Monday, May 5, 2014

One Man At A Time

One month ago I attended a five-day event in Colorado for college course in leadership skills I have been taking for about a year.  By this Monday I will have completed the course.  As I have been looking back on all I learned for the past year about leadership and all its dynamics, one takeaway stands out from my experience at Colorado that I would like to share with you.

This was from the lecture our professor wrapped up the entire event with.  This was the last message we heard just before we had our last moments to say farewells and head to the Denver airport for all our flights. In the final lecture, everything we had learned so far was basically summarized up and then we were giving a less informative and more emotional approach to the event to remind us why we were there.

The following is the part that hit home for me the most.  I am not prone to tearing up often especially in public places, so when I do cry it means I am very emotional...and this really got to me.  I will explain why in a bit.

The professor read us an excerpt from a book called From the Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf:

"Leaders work in wondrous ways. Some assume great institutional burdens, others quietly deal with one man at a time. Such a man was John Woolman, an American Quaker, who lived through the middle years of the eighteenth century. He is known to the world of scholarship for his journal, a literary classic. But in the area of our interest, leadership, he is the man who almost singlehandedly rid the Society of Friends (Quakers) of slaves.

It is difficult now to imagine the Quakers as slaveholders, as indeed it is difficult now to imagine anyone being a slaveholder. One wonders how the society of 200 years hence will view "what man has made of man" in our generation. It is a disturbing thought.

But many of the eighteenth century American Quakers were affluent, conservative slaveholders and John Woolman, as a young man, set his goal to rid his beloved Society of this terrible practice. Thirty of his adult years (he lived to age 52) were largely devoted to this. By 1770, nearly 100 years before the Civil War, no Quakers held slaves.

His method was unique. He didn't raise a big storm about it or start a protest movement. His method was one of gentle but clear and persistent persuasion. Although John Woolman was not a strong man physically, he accomplished his mission by journeys up and down the East Coast by foot or horseback visiting slaveholders — over a period of many years.

The approach was not to censure the slaveholders in a way that drew their animosity. Rather the burden of his approach was to raise questions: What does the owning of slaves do to you as a moral person? What kind of an institution are you binding over to your children?

Man by man, inch by inch, by persistently returning and revisiting and pressing his gentle argument over a period of thirty years, the scourge of slavery was eliminated from this Society, the first religious group in America formally to denounce and forbid slavery among its members.

One wonders what would have been the result if there had been fifty John Woolmans, or even five, traveling the length and breadth of the Colonies in the eighteenth century persuading people one by one with gentle non-judgmental argument that a wrong should be righted by individual voluntary action. Perhaps we would not have had the war with its 600,000 casualties and the impoverishment of the South, and with the resultant vexing social problem that is at fever heat 100 years later with no end in sight. We know now, in the perspective of history, that just a slight alleviation of the tension in the 1850's might have avoided the war.

A few John Woolmans, just a few, might have made the difference."

So as us young adults come of age and head off to college, careers, jobs, and families, we must never underestimate the impact we can have on our world.  We may look at what is happening in our world today and feel like any change we tried to bring about would be grossly overruled.  But as John Woolman's story shows, even one small individual can have an incredible impact on a society.  We may start to feel like anything we do can't make much of a difference - because, after all, there always seems to be someone more intelligent, more skilled, or more talented than us.  But as John Woolman's story proves, you don't need great intelligence, skill, or talent to change your world.  You just need to put to action what you have been given by God.

The part of this story that haunts me the most is the final thought of what might have been if only a few more had been willing to do what John Woolman did.  It is chilling to ponder the possibility that a mere dozen men or women could have prevented a civil war, decades of slavery, and social problems that still exist today.  To put that in today's perspective, we may feel like we couldn't make a big difference in our world if we stepped up and took action...but we have no idea what might happen otherwise.  We have no way of knowing what could be prevented in the coming future if just a few of us decide to take courage.  To step down and do nothing might have disastrous consequences beyond what we can imagine.  We need to take action for the time and place we are in with the trust that God will lead us to where he needs us to be.

The point isn't so that we will be remembered as heroes decades or centuries from now.  Many of us will change our world and never be recognized for it.  The point is we do not want to waste what God has given us.  God chose the time and place all of us were born in for very specific reasons.  If we spend our days wishing we had had it better, we will squander the purpose for which we were born in the first place.

In summary, we must never, ever live under the presumption that the world wouldn't know the difference if just one of us did nothing.  Because the world certainly knows the difference if men like John Woolman had done nothing, and what could have been if just a few more had taken action.

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