When I was 4 years-old, my family ventured down our street to join the neighbors for dinner. I tripped en route and my arms, apparently glued to my sides, did not extend and I fell–quite literally–flat on my face. Dad scooped me up, removed the embedded rock, cleaned my bloodied face, and gently shifted my nasal cartilage to its original position. I still have a cross-shaped scar on my forehead and a crooked nose to remind me of my clumsiness–and his compassion.
As a child born into a low-income family, Dad learned to be compassionate toward those who lacked finances and resources. When he was 10 years-old, his dad died suddenly, earning his mom the title of ‘Single Parent’ (to six boys) and the social stigma that came with it in the 1950’s. Between poverty and childhood trauma, Dad’s empathy for those in need began to swell. As he entered his teen years, he found tangible ways to support his mom, working long hours to contribute to her light paycheck and doing his best to stay out of trouble.
After high school, Dad scraped together enough money for college and seminary to prepare for mission work with the Warao people of Venezuela. In preparation for this remote jungle culture and language, both he and Mom traveled to Costa Rica for linguistics training. During that year, Dad volunteered at an orphanage, where he connected with a boy named Ronny. Charmed by Ronny’s addictive smile and heartbroken over his traumatic story, Dad graciously challenged a stubborn, misguided mission board that ignorantly insisted, ‘You cannot adopt a child with black blood.’ Compassion defeated injustice (as it often must–even in Church culture) and that beloved boy finally became his son.
While living in Venezuela, Dad built lifelong relationships with the Warao people. He got to know them while casting nets and pulling up fish, paddling in homemade canoes, and sharing stories around open fires. He learned their language and customs and humbly respected their ways. They welcomed him as their Bible teacher, mentor, and maybe most of all, as a trusted friend, willing to help carry their pain. On one particular occasion, he stood with a devastated Warao couple on the banks of the Orinoco and watched their tiny wooden box full of dreams and a baby, float away from their broken hearts. It was their seventh.
After nearly a decade in South America, our family returned to the States. Eventually, Dad got a job teaching at a small Christian school, where his compassion moved through the classroom and down the halls. He encouraged those who struggled academically, welcomed those on the social fringes, and adapted his teaching style to those with different abilities. He was quick to speak Grace and unafraid to speak Truth to power–to be a voice for the ones who most needed an advocate.
After years of serving in the school setting, Dad carried his compassion into chaplaincy work, where he specialized in palliative care. He helped countless patients and families navigate the tumultuous road of grief and loss. Rather than comfort the distraught with empty cliches or religious platitudes, Dad found meaningful ways to be present, to create safe spaces for devastated humans to be their messy, broken selves.
Dad’s compassion extended beyond humans, too. He was a magnet for wounded or stray animals, helping countless critters who may have died otherwise. On one occasion, he let us kids keep an emaciated, oil-soaked kitten that my sister found stuffed inside an exhaust pipe–right outside our dentist’s office. We named the cat Lucky, of course. (Unfortunately, that 9 Lives thing is a myth because Lucky lived with us for only a few months before he was hit by a car. #tragicirony)
Another time, Dad provided foster care for a Basset Hound named Charlie, whose owner had recently died. When the clock struck bedtime, this four-legged, floppy-eared orphan couldn’t bear to sleep alone so Dad slept with him on the couch to keep him from howling in grief all night.
Whether connecting with the Waraos, offering support for struggling families, or tending to wounded animals, every area of Dad’s life was (and is) marked with compassion–particularly his parenting.
Without judgment, he listened to my impossible questions about God and life and truth. He assured me that my doubts were okay and I wasn’t alone.
He was the one to whom I cried, “No! Oh my god! No, no, no!” the night I learned of my brother-in-law’s tragic and sudden death.
He listened to me rail against God and offered no easy answers–only a quiet understanding palpable through the phone.
He endured my rants against *Christian* institutions who believed burnout was a sign of ‘good ministry happening’. As a recovering people pleaser, I’ve appreciated Dad’s assurance that saying ‘no’ is vital for overall health and sustainable work.
My dad never really fit the stereotypical man. He doesn’t have a knack for car mechanics or construction and he never played organized sports. (Although, I’ve heard him tell people that he caught the javelin in high school.) While those skills certainly have value and I respect those who are competent in them, I didn’t learn them from my dad.
I did however, learn compassion.
He taught me to notice the lonely, the weak, and the beauty that blooms in those populations–if I’m willing to see it.
He taught me to weep with those who weep, to lean in to the ache of another.
He taught me that there is no script for grief but we can choose to be present and tangibly support those left in its wake.
I close with a few excerpts from letters that my dad has written to me over the years. His empathy is woven through his words:
As your dad, who can only love with an imperfect love and who can only view an incomplete picture, I would control your life in such a way that you would be shielded from all hurt and pain. I keep reminding God (as if He needs reminding) that you’ve already had enough. I know He hears me and I know that you are the ‘apple of His eye’. And no matter what He allows, He will be our shield and defender, our rock, our shelter in the time of storm. I am praying for you now and in the tough days ahead.
May you strongly sense His everlasting arms.
~Dad (July 1997)
Remember that it is alright to carry your doubts to the Lord. He’s heard them many times from most of His children. He will not be shocked or angry. (November 1997)
Just want you to know that as always, I will be praying for you every day. I’m asking the Lord to give you peace about the present and the future. You will know the next step when it’s time to take it.
We miss you already but are content to know that you are serving the Lord so faithfully.
How we love you! (May 2000)
As your dad, I want to ‘fix’ what is broken but as a disciple of Christ, I have to leave that up to my heavenly Father. Please know that you are loved beyond words, by us and by all who know you–and by Him. Words will come as the numbness wears away.
For now, just know that we are with you.
Dad (October 2008, just days after our miscarriage)
I wish I could say or do something to ‘fix it’ but we all know how futile that attempt would be. There have always been times when I wished I could ‘rescue’ those I love from the injustice of life. I realize that statement implies that I have doubts about God’s goodness, His fairness or His love, yet I have learned through these many years that in spite of my doubts, I can still trust Him. Trust does not demand complete understanding.
We love you & Glendon more than life and we cherish our times with you and the kids.
Dad (July 2013, during a very difficult summer)
This weekend, despite the miles between us, I’m celebrating my dad and the compassion he brings to our family–and our world. I treasure this gift and I hope to use it well in my own life.
What characteristic do you most appreciate about your dad or male role model?
What is one meaningful memory about him that you’d like to share?