When Sreejit Poole first suggested that I participate in this fascinating series, I declined. I eventually agreed, but I was concerned that I would have very little to offer on this subject. I’ve never considered that I walk with intention, but I have always known, generally, where I was going.
When I was a young child in Sunday School, we had to study Memory Verses each week. One that I remember was Corinthians 5:7 – “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” It sounded like one of those platitudes that would be hard to apply when I stepped out of the church, but I think that was because I was too young to understand it and too distracted by my own thoughts to listen to the teacher’s explanation. Still, it seemed a curious notion, to walk by faith, and I have never forgotten that verse. Later, when I was about 12 years old, my father helped put that verse in perspective.
My father was going to visit a doctor, in downtown Pittsburgh, for a check-up. I had the day off from school so he decided to take me with him. We parked in a cheap lot in section of town known as “the strip district.” The area was, and remains, a warehouse district filled with eclectic stores. Today, the “strip” is a tourist destination. In the 60s, it was a scary place but my father wanted to stop at one of those stores on our way home. My mother had asked him to skip the store and park near the doctor’s office. My brother and I had been to this store before with him, but times had changed. Pittsburgh, like many cities in America, was experiencing growing civil unrest. We hadn’t yet had riots, but anxiety was in the air. I was frightened. After we left the car, I asked him if it was safe.
You might think that would have been the time for him to say: “I would never put you in harm’s way” or “you’re always safe with me” or something fatherly and reassuring. That wasn’t his style. Instead, he said: “You’ll never be safe if you look like you’re scared. Wherever you are, walk like you belong there.”
My father dispersed wisdom in short bursts like that. Small things. Like the ‘given statements’ in a geometric proof, these things were offered as fact. Unquestioned and unquestionable. Other snippets of wisdom he put out there include:
“If you can read, you can do anything.”
“Whatever you decide to do, make sure you do it as best you can.”
And of course:
“You’re no better and no worse than anyone else.”
He always put that last one in that order.
These excerpts from his core values served to guide me on the various paths that my career and social interaction would follow. Those Sunday School teachers and my paternal grandmother defined the spiritual guard rails at the edge of those paths. The paths were always wide enough for me to have choices, but never wide enough to get into trouble without the conscious realization that I had given up the right to ask “why me?”
My father’s emphasis on reading was his way of promoting education. Promoting isn’t the right word, it was more like requiring. He wanted his two children to have the benefits of a better education than he had. The other tidbits were offered (also meaning required) because he also wanted us to deal well with any opportunity that education might provide.
Since those days of walking thorough a scary section of Pittsburgh at his side, his words have followed me into bars, arenas, restaurants, and meeting rooms. I’ve been in these venues as part of the wait staff, the general public as an invited guest. The combination of lessons I received while growing up have always remained with me.
Serving food to dinner guests at a fancy corporate retreat outside of Pittsburgh was, in many ways, no different than being served dinner after a business meeting in which I was a participant. Both situations required me to be comfortable in my own skin and to do the job I had been trusted to do well.
Walking into a sketchy bar in a questionable section of town, feels no more or less uncomfortable than walking into the lounge of a fancy hotel. In each setting, I want to earn the respect of person I sit next to. Besides, I was born in a questionable section of town.
I’ve learned that “to walk by faith” isn’t merely the fervent hope that God will protect me if I place myself in danger. To walk by faith requires an understanding of and the adherence to the tenets of that faith. Walking “as if I belong” doesn’t convey the right of intrusion, it compels me to try to understand the context of my environment. Being “no better and no worse” than others, reminds me that equality and respect start with me.
The boundaries those people established long ago define the “right thing” when I recall that we should always do the right thing. The right thing isn’t always the easy thing. The right thing isn’t always the thing that provides immediate gratification or the greatest long-term reward. I won’t tell you that I’ve always done the right thing. I have always tried. I have also failed often enough to learn that not doing the right thing has consequences beyond the immediate and on a scale that isn’t easily measured.
My father’s simple guidelines for getting through life keep me moving forward. The lessons that we should be guided by our faith in and our understanding of God’s word, keeps me from drifting too close to the side, or draws me back when I cross the line.
To walk by faith remains a goal for me. It’s not something I can point to and say “look at me as an example.” I am proud of the times I’ve been able to stay within those boundaries and I am grateful to the people whose lessons guide me to this day.
My grandmother was functionally illiterate, yet she successfully raised six children after her husband died in an accident at the beginning of the Depression. My father graduated from high school, fought in WWII and walked away from the mean streets where he grew up, with his head held high and the respect of everyone around him. I hope that when I get to the end of my journey, people will be able to say something similar about me.