I just got an email from a former teacher from Mississippi State. Jimmy Abraham was by far one of the best teachers Kevin and I ever had. In his class, we had to learn hundreds of facts about MSU, as we were part of a student recruiting organization called Roadrunners. We called prospective students, wrote them letters with actual pens and paper *gasp*, and gave campus tours to students and families. While we received grades for the things that could be tested, we also received grades for things like writing “special letters” to people in our lives–paper, envelope and postage provided by Jimmy. It couldn’t have been easier. It was easy at first…grandma, mom, brother, first grade teacher. But by the end of the semester, figuring out who to write each week made us dig deeper. Who besides our immediate family had made an impact on us?
One letter I wrote was to a man named Archie Morgan. He started a day camp for inner city children called Camp Providence, located on the grounds of Providence Methodist Church. It was in that old one room church, with wooden floors and no air conditioning, where a bunch of youth group kids from Mississippi threw their bags, lived and slept for a week in the middle of a stifling hot South Carolina summer. The accommodations, according to us high schoolers, were substandard, and we loudly voiced our opinions upon arrival. We proclaimed that it wasn’t safe or sanitary. The showers were crawling with spiders. We took 30 second showers to get out of the bathroom as soon as possible, screaming the whole time about insects that were sharing our space. We were convinced we were in the throes of hell.
The camp counselors, mainly college kids, hopped in 15 passenger vans early in the morning and headed into the city of Anderson, South Carolina. They drove to houses that were literally falling apart, dirty and unkempt. When they honked the horn, kids raced out to board the van. I went along one day to pick up the kids. I was terrified and carsick, and the stench of unwashed children and teenagers didn’t help matters.
When the children arrived at Camp Providence each day, their excitement was overflowing. Their daily activities consisted of devotional time, arts and crafts, music time, waterfront activities, and most importantly, lunch, as it was likely the only meal many of them would receive that day. As fellow campers, the church youth group was expected to participate in any and all activities with the children that attended. The first three, I could do that. Bible? Music? Beaded necklaces? Sure. It was the water activities that I despised. I don’t particularly like lakes, rivers, or oceans. Give me a highly chlorinated pool any day, but murky waters were not my thing. Nonetheless, I was “highly encouraged” to jump off the pier and play with the kids. I was in the water long enough to splash and quickly paddle over to the ladder and climb out, as fish eagerly tried to nibble my legs. I was still convinced I was in the throes of hell. As much as I hated jumping in that water, I continued doing it if only to try to cool down. We were all sunburned and filthy.
Throughout the course of the week, I met many children at the day camp. Impoverished children from broken homes. These didn’t understand the concept of two biological parents living together in a home. Kids (who were actually 17 years old and much bigger than me) who were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. They were the biggest huggers. Children who grew up in a life of drugs and alcohol abuse. Guns and profanity were their norm. Children who were a burden and in the way. They were either giddy from the attention at camp or completely uncomfortable and withdrawn.
Every day, we did the crafts and sang the songs and jumped in the water and ate the cheap lunchmeat sandwiches, warm from the heat of the day. Some of us were disgusted, and some ate ravenously, hoping that seconds were available. Every day, through the work of Archie Morgan, my heart softened and considered the children. The children whose paradise of South Carolina was considered my hell.
It’s not just the sheer amount of work that it took for Archie to keep this camp up and running. The fundraising, the coordination of meal programs, the maintenance of the property and the vans…it was a lot of time and energy. There was also the fight just to keep the camp open. You see, the old church property was situated across the street from a beautiful golf course. I can only imagine the offers of a buyout that Archie refused through the years, insisting on keeping the camp open. The true cost though was the pain of losing “his kids,” the ones who simply disappeared one day and didn’t show up on the van. Did they move? Did they choose crime or drugs? So many factors would have pointed to shutting the place down. Yet he didn’t.
At the end of our week, our church youth leader had us write about our time there. Some excerpts from mine include:
If I had it to do all over again, I have no doubt that I would have come.
I could say that this has been both the best and the worst week of my life.
I wish that I didn’t feel so sad, but they’re not going to be easy to forget.
I have really learned about myself and the “real world” this week.
I left Camp Providence broken. I cried for days and begged to go back, and after I made arrangements to leave my summer babysitting job, my mom and stepdad drove me back to Camp Providence and dropped me off to volunteer for two more weeks. At some point I had to drive the huge van and I backed into a light pole, much to the delight of my passengers. I asked them to keep it quiet and prayed that no one would notice. I grew closer to God in many ways during my time there.
Now back to Jimmy’s email. Jimmy has always been a lover of stories and life lessons. Every week he had something profound do share with us. Several of us usually left class in tears. Today’s email was no different. Here is what Jimmy shared.
LIVE A LIFE THAT MATTERS
Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else. Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance. It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed. Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear. So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire. The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away. It won’t matter where you came from, or on what side of the tracks you lived. It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant. Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured? What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave. What will matter is not your success, but your significance. What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught. What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example. What will matter is not your competence, but your character. What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone. What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you. What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what. Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Now these words probably would have evoked a tear from my 20 year old self, but now they mean everything. Everything. I pray that every day I am modeling this for my kids and for everyone that I encounter. Life is not about what; it’s about who. Let us have hope, and let us all live a life that matters.
Thank you, Jimmy, and thank you, Archie for valuing people and teaching a bunch of self-centered kids to do the same.