351: Readers tell us about unusual Interfaith Heroes … like Clint Eastwood, E. Stanley Jones and Irena Sendler!

your head still spinning from this amazing week?
    Readers are asking for a chance to catch their breath and — as the Rev. Rodger Murchison put it in an email to us this week — to “ruminate” on all that is unfolding around us.
    We’ve published a lot about King Day and the Inauguration this week. Check the links on our site to read more about those milestones. And, if you’d like to talk about your thoughts with other readers, Dr. Wayne Baker has been welcoming reader comments all week at http://www.OurValues.org
    But one of the truly unique treasures we’ve been sharing this month is our Interfaith Heroes series. On this page today in our weekly ReaderRoundup, we want to share with you three readers’ voices that we think are inspiring — well worth a moment to ruminate.


    Why? Because it may close soon in theaters near you and you’ll miss a terrific, spiritual gem.
    Now, the danger in writing about this film is that we could away too much. Basically, movie trailers for “Gran Torino” give the impression that this is an ultra-violent shoot-’em-up action film. While there is some tragic violence in the movie, it’s hardly what you may be thinking.
    The Rev. Rodger Murchison, a Baptist pastor from Augusta, Georgia, followed our recommendation of the film and went to see it with his wife. He wrote: “My wife Margaret and I had a movie date night and saw ‘Gran Torino.’ WOW — what a powerful statement. Thanks for suggesting that we see this movie.
    “I am ruminating over what a powerful statement it makes about life, hope, grace, sacrifice, grief, regret, the issues go on and on.”

    Again, we won’t publish “spoilers” here, but I think one could make a case that Clint Eastwood’s character in that movie is truly a fictional Interfaith Hero.


    One of the real surprises this year in the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month is the inclusion by author Daniel Buttry of the Rev. E. Stanley Jones in this honored list of heroes. As he wrote the chapter on Jones, Buttry knew he was surprising readers.
    The other surprise for many readers may be that such an old-school preacher — surely forgotten now by most younger Americans  — remains a guiding light to many key religious figures to this day.
    The Rev. Dr. John Harnish, pastor of Birmingham First United Methodist Church in Michigan wrote to us this week about Jones’ enduring inspiration:

    I had heard of E. Stanley Jones when I was in high school but during my student days at Asbury College I was introduced to the man and his writings.  He came to preach at his alma mater once while I was a student there and I read his recently released autobiography, “A Song of Ascents.” Then we heard of his stroke and finally his death. I remember the memorial service held on the Asbury campus in the auditorium where he had worshiped and where he had felt the call to mission service in India. Later I read his last book, written in his 88th year, after a stroke, “The Divine Yes.” I still consider it one of the most powerful personal witnesses to the faith I have ever read. Forty years later it continues to be an inspiration for my personal journey of faith.

    Those early contacts led me on to what I consider to be his most important book, “Gandhi: A Personal Portrait.” In a day when we are rapidly moving into a more religiously diverse interfaith society, Jones’ relationship with Gandhi models the ability to hold a Christ-centered faith, but do it with a Christ-like attitude toward others. On balance, his book “The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person” provides a powerful word for the Christian Church and gives insight to one of Jones’ favorite themes, the Kingdom of God.
    In many ways Jones was either a contradiction in terms or a man before his times. He was evangelical in his theology, but ecumenical in his vision for the “federated church.” He would raise his three fingers to represent “Jesus Is Lord” and still value and respect Gandhi’s life and faith. Deeply rooted in the American Methodist tradition, he became a global Christian whose heart was literally buried in India. For me, he represents the best hope for the Christian Church today as we seek to balance the call to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” with an appreciation and respect for the other religions of the world.
    Though his writing is in some ways simplistic and obviously cast in the style of his generation, I believe his life and work has an important word for our day. For me, he continues to be the greatest missionary of the Methodist movement and a man who can continue to teach us how to walk (to borrow from his book titles) with Christ on the Indian Road, with Christ on the American Road and with each other the global road we travel today.

    Thank you Dr. Harnish for adding to our reflections on this great hero! You can read the full E. Stanley Jones hero story by Dr. Buttry here.
    (Dr. Harnish is the author of “The Orders of Ministry in the United Methodist Church” and the Lenten devotional booklet “The Sanctuary for Lent, 2009.” He writes a weekly e-mail “Monday Memo,” which can be found at www.fumcbirmingham.org where you can also listen to his weekly sermons.)


    Surely one of the most stirring hero stories this year is the amazing account of the work of Irena Sendler during the Holocaust. Reader Sheri Schiff was moved to write her own tribute to Sendler and the whole soul-stirring story of her life. Here are Sheri’s words:

    There is a Talmudic saying: He who changes one person, changes the world. A group of students in rural Kansas took that concept to their heart and soul. In the fall of 1999, a teacher in a Uniontown, Kansas, high school encouraged four of his students to work on a year-long National History Day project that would impact those students, other students who continued the program, their community and the world by telling the story of a true hero, Irena Sendler.
    Their teacher showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of U.S. News and World Report that said, “Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-1943.” Both he and the students thought that perhaps the article might be a typographical error since neither he nor anyone he knew had ever heard of this woman or her story. The students began their research and found a profound and moving story of determination, love and courage in the face of evil, horror, death and indifference.
    The students discovered that Irena Sendler, a non-Jewish social worker, went willingly into the despair of the Warsaw Ghetto, spoke with Jewish parents and families, and rescued their young children from inevitable death and destruction from the ghetto and the death camps that awaited them. Placing the young children in the homes of Polish families, convents and orphanages, she made lists of the children’s real names and identities, put the lists in a jar, buried the jars in a garden so that one day when the horror and terror were over, she could dig the jars up, find the children, and inform them of their true identity. The Nazis captured and tortured her, but the Polish Underground rescued her and she went into hiding.

    Living in obscurity in Communist-controlled Poland, her story was buried after World War II. The Communists considered her a subversive and her story was unknown worldwide even though she received recognition as a Righteous Gentile from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and support from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City.
    The Kansas community was inspired by the story of this remarkable woman. Uniontown is a mono-cultural community with little diversity and no Jewish community. The students wrote a play entitled “Life in a Jar” in which they portrayed the life and courage of Irena Sendler and inspired their town to sponsor an Irena Sendler Day.
    Their production of “Life in a Jar” took on a life of its own. Portraying the life of Irena Sendler, they have performed this program for numerous schools, houses of worship, clubs and civic groups all over North America and in Europe (250 presentations as of November 2008). Discovering that Irena was still alive and living in Warsaw, they would take a jar to every performance and collect funds for Irena and other Polish rescuers. They wrote and corresponded with her, discovered a Polish student who could translate for them, made a collection of her letters, and shared them with many other educational institutions and organizations.
    The Uniontown students turned their history project into a national cause and appeared on many media outlets and in numerous newspaper articles. They became knowledgeable on the Holocaust, World War II, and the Polish Underground. Their lives were changed forever. Their correspondence, research and project materials have been used in at least twenty colleges and universities in their curriculum. They raised funding to go to Poland, meet Irena, and study and follow her journey. In subsequent years, other trips to Poland have taken place, in addition to meetings with Irena and the children that she saved. Most were never reunited with their families; most of the parents of the children had been murdered in the Treblinka Death Camp.

    In addition to affecting their own community, the Jewish community of Kansas City became involved through funding opportunities and outreach to other communities in North America. Scholarships in Irena’s name were established to aid the Uniontown students who needed assistance with college tuition. The Milken Family Foundation produced a DVD and study guide that has been placed in more than 1,000 schools throughout the United States and around the world. More than 1,500 media outlets have presented articles about the Kansas students and the Polish hero. In 2006, an international Irena Sendler award was started. Schools have been named after her and books in Polish and German about her courage and bravery have been published. In 2007, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She passed away on May 12, 2008, at age 98.
    Although Irena did not seek recognition, her story spoke to the values of extraordinary heroism. Reaching out to a community that was not hers, saving children destined for “extermination” in a cruel and brutal environment, Irena risked her life and the lives of hundreds of others, including 25 other social workers that helped her in her task.
    As much of the world turned a blind and indifferent eye to the suffering and destruction of the Jews in Europe, I wonder how and why a comfortable, educated woman would become the inspiration for rescue and salvation for the doomed and the disenfranchised Jewish people of Poland. I marvel at her determination and her courage and hope that others find inspiration in her story and in the story of the Uniontown, Kansas, students who made her story their own.
    Irena Sendler saved thousands of children. In the end, it was children who saved her inspiring story from the shadows of history.


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