343: Stirring Story of an Ordinary Hero — and More on Inaugural Spirit

THIS IS Interfaith Heroes Month (and you’ll be surprised by the connections made with the upcoming King holiday). AND this week we also are providing spiritual resources on the inauguration.

Here are just some of our stories on this historic transition:
    PRAY WITH OTHER AMERICANS: We’ve commissioned an inclusive inaugural prayer by the Rev. Marsha Woolley that you can share with others.
    DR. PRATT REDISCOVERS LESSONS OF INAUGURAL PRAYER: George Washington might have established a great model.
    NEWS: First woman named to preach at the National Prayer Service in D.C. on January 21.
    SPIRITUAL ACTIVISM: Read about four major groups’ spiritual activism surrounding the inauguration.
    DISCUSS AMERICAN VALUES: Dr. Wayne Baker welcomes daily reflections.


This story began with a ReadTheSpirit reader — Susan Baller-Shepard of the Spirituality Book Club and the Spirituality Book Club Blog — talking with us about connections she sees between our Interfaith Heroes profiles this month and other real-life heroes she has encountered in her own work around the world.
    One of those heroes, she said, is Peter Hesse, an author and activist on behalf of some of the world’s poorest people. I asked Susan to describe why she thought of Peter as a hero. She wrote back:

    Peter is a wonderful, amazing, heroic, funny, stubborn person. He is from Duesseldorf, Germany. I met him at the World Spirit Forum in Switzerland, and I helped edit his book “Vision Works” about his 25-plus years initiating Montessori pre-schools in Haiti and training more than 700 teachers there. He was on the ground floor for the Global Marshall Plan Initiative and he’s in India this month with an international Montessori conference.
    Peter impresses me with his concrete action to change the world. I’ve met people in other global circles who talk a lot about positive change for the poor in the world, but it’s talk and not action. Peter is a person of action, and I appreciate that.
    You can see more about his work at www.solidarity.org

THEN, intrigued by this man and this story, I asked Susan to write us a short story about Peter that would illustrate why she regards him as such an inspirational hero. She sent the following reflection:

The Beauty of Contradictory Heroes

    On November 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht— in Duesseldorf, Germany, a Jewish woman’s life is saved by a Nazi officer, when he stands in front of her house, in his brown uniform and simply says to those bent on destruction, “Not here.” The woman and the soldier are the paternal and maternal grandparents of my friend Peter Hesse.
    Peter is a blustery 71-year-old with a heart that can’t quite keep up with his energy level. In the past 25 years, Peter has initiated 50 Montessori pre-school programs in Haiti; trained more than 700 teachers. He survived the bedlam of his childhood in wartime Germany: the secrecy of his half-Jewish father hiding in the woods, the danger of playing with ammunition as a child, the incredulity of watching planes crash into the Rhine River. Peter’s early life experiences have given him a tolerance for the chaos involved in trying to start and maintain schools in the shifting climate of Haiti.
    Peter is an unlikely hero.

    As I prepare a study guide to go with his new book “Vision Works,” Peter tells me I am making him sound too sweet. “I am not that nice,” he says.
    I don’t envision a perfect hero. In Patristics class, I learned about antinomy, the notion that truth can be present in opposites, like the Chinese and Korean view of yin and yang. Or, physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another truth.” Mother Teresa had doubts; Martin Luther King Jr. may have had affairs; Mahatma Gandhi had a temper; Emily Dickinson wanted her poetry destroyed upon her death. We as human beings are walking contradictions, and while I don’t expect a perfect hero, I do expect a human one.
    The thing is, my friend Peter did not go to Haiti to help anyone. He went there on vacation, in 1980, for the cadence music, now called zouk. In the midst of his enjoyment, he realized he could not leave without finding ways to ease the misery he witnessed there. He is still finding ways.

    Peter is 8 when World War II ends. He sees that people cannot get across the Rhine, because the bridges have all been destroyed. He takes his father’s dinghy, unbeknownst to his parents, and people pay him to ferry them across the river. Sixty-three years later, he still is ferrying people across great divides, providing education and training to people who would otherwise go without.
    But, he’d say I make him sound too sweet. He’d say, “I was never a saint.”
    I never expected him to be one.

(For more about Peter Hesse’s work see www.solidarity.org)

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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