At this time of year when our world is torn apart by warfare, I have been focusing on ordinary acts of kindness and compassion by people I call “Everyday Boddhisattvas. Each day I comb the Houston Chronicle for heartwarming stories, often hidden on back pages behind headlines about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine or about atrocities by Israeli soldiers who have slaughtered thousands of innocent Palestinian children while seeking revenge in Gaza for killings, rapes and hostage-taking by Hamas.
During our last IMH Monday night meeting of 2023, I will share some of the uplifting tales that bolster our sense of hope as we prepare to enter the New Year.
One headline reads “Frugal Caretaker Leaves $3.8 Million to Stunned Town.” In Hinsdale, NH, Geoffrey Holt worked as an unassuming caretaker of a mobile home park. He wore threadbare clothes and drove around town on a lawn mower. His mobile home was mostly empty of furniture, without a TV or a computer.
Holt died at 82 years of age in June of 2023, with a secret. He was a multimillionaire. And he gave it all away to his community of 4200 people. His will had brief instructions: “[I leave] 3.8 million dollars to the town of Hinsdale to benefit the community in the areas of education, health, recreation, and culture.” The town’s claim to fame is the nation’s oldest continuously operating post office, dating back to 1816. Now a committee of townsfolk is deciding how to allocate the unexpected windfall. One proposal is to buy a new ballot-counting machine in honor of Holt, who voted regularly. The town administrator declared, “Hinsdale will utilize the money left very frugally as Mr. Holt did.”
Another headline says, “Surgeon General Honors Uvalde Priest.” Father Eduardo Morales was born and raised in the rural community of Uvalde and never went far from home. As the pastor of Uvalde’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, “Father Eddie” shepherded his parishioners and their extended families. In May of 2022, when a shooter killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, Morales offered safe spaces, support, and guidance to grief-struck Uvalde residents. During the two weeks following the shooting, he presided over 11 funerals, sometimes two in one day.
In 2023, in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington D.C., Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy presented Father Eddie with a Surgeon General’s Medallion, the highest honor a U.S surgeon general can award a civilian. In his tribute, Murthy noted that the event celebrated “those whose extraordinary acts of service, sacrifice, and compassion have advanced the mental health and well-being of their communities. Together we acknowledge the past, look forward to a brighter future, and applaud those who model kindness, love, and service.”
Next is a story titled, “Soldier Denied Wake is Honored Years Later.” More than 70 years after a South Texas funeral home refused to host the wake of a Mexican American soldier killed in combat, Private Felix Longoria was honored during the 2022 opening of a new exhibit hall at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Back in 1944, 24-year-old Longoria enlisted in the Army. He left behind his wife and young daughter and his job as a truck delivery driver to train for war at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. After three weeks of fighting in the Philippines, he was fatally shot by a Japanese sniper in June of 1945, just months before World War II ended. After years of bureaucratic delays, the soldier’s remains were repatriated in 1948 to his tiny hometown of Three Rivers, Texas, halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. A national uproar erupted when the owner of the town’s only funeral home turned away Longoria’s widow. Surviving soldiers from his combat unit persisted until their brave companion was given the honor that he merited.
A related headline reads, “Project for Housing Veterans Opens First Houston Facility.” In 2023, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation repurposed a 161-room hotel into permanent residences for homeless veterans and invited actor Dennis Quaid to host a grand opening. The non-profit’s $10 million housing project places approximately 130 unhoused veterans in rooms and provides services to help with PTSD, substance abuse, financial struggles, and other challenges. A senior advisor to the foundation board stated, “This could only be possible through the generosity of the American people. We get $11 a month from literally thousands of Americans. [I]t’s low-dollar donors, it’s corporations, it’s everybody in between who steps up and does what they can….” Tunnel to Towers aims to create Veterans Villages in high-demand areas across the nation. The foundation has communities in California, Arizona, and now Houston. It plans to start similar projects in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and several other states. The board advisor commented, “We need to go where the [homeless vets] are: it’s not fair to ask somebody to move hundreds or thousands of miles to a facility. We have to go where [they] are and where they’re most comfortable. Relocating people is not in our plan.”
Animal lovers will resonate with the following story titled “Willis Couple offers Hope with Horse Therapy.” At the Cherokee Outlaw Ranch in Willis, Texas, resident Ty Nordic is blending his passions for working with children and rescuing horses. His non-profit organization, which Ty launched with his wife, Amy, in 2022, “helps children and adults overcome challenges, fear, and abuse” through equine therapy at Nordic’s 27-acre ranch near New Waverly, Texas. In Nordic’s words, “We’re just trying to find people who have suffered different kinds of trauma, whether it be homelessness, neglect, or abuse. And we’re trying to provide a safe, rewarding, and fun environment for them to come out and enjoy a couple of hours here on the ranch, bond[ing] with some of the horses, and having something positive in their lives….” Nordic says, “I grew up with horses and had horses when I was younger… When we moved to Texas seven years ago, we found a couple of horses that had been neglected. [My wife and I] took them in because we had the property. And we decided that it was something that felt good. It felt right.”
Initially Nordic started the foundation to rescue horses. He now has rehabilitated and trained 22 horses for equine therapy. Eventually, his organization partnered with H-Town Dream Center, a Splendora nonprofit that provides housing and resources for women and children who have experienced trauma, often from domestic violence, human trafficking, and addiction. Nordic’s friend, Mason, is Development Director of H-Town Dream Center. He claims that cost-free equine therapy “allows these women and children to express their feelings and heal from past traumas, as well as build trust.” As they master horseback riding, “they learn compassion and empathy, enhance their communication skills, and boost their self-esteem.”
Another poignant story bears the headline, “Wildlife Recovery Center is Preparing to Rescue Thousands of Sea Animals This Winter.” The nonprofit Texas State Aquarium, which has been a popular tourist site since it opened in 1990, launched a $16 million Wildlife Rescue Center in Corpus Christi in March of 2023. This largest rescue center in Texas promises to “raise the aquarium’s education and conservation efforts to new heights just as climate change increases the potential for more large-scale rescue events.”
Responding after many sea animals froze to death during Winter Storm Uri in 2021, engineers at the aquarium created a rescue basket that can lift a ton of turtles at a time to relocate them in heated water tanks. One green turtle was so traumatized that she needed to spend a year in the aquarium’s hospital. Once she gained weight, her medical team introduced her to new food. Team members watched protectively as the turtle paddled around her personal pool, surfacing occasionally to take a bite of lettuce leaf or to nibble a slice of zucchini.
I’ll finish with a story titled “Interfaith Leaders are Lighting the Way.” On October 7, when news broke of Hamas’ gruesome terror attack on Israel, the first call that Rabbi Steven Gross received was from an imam. They cried together on the phone for the people killed and taken hostage, and for what was to come. Gross, the rabbi for Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism and a leader in Houston’s interfaith community, resisted divisiveness. He understood the complex challenge of mourning 1200 murdered Israelis while not condoning the aggressive actions of the Israeli government. He saw that we can weep for thousands of civilians slaughtered in Gaza without exempting Hamas from judgment. Gross knew that with both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim incidents increasing in the United States, that fear can cause us to turn inward, to isolate, and even to abandon friendships and relationships that once nurtured us. He didn’t want fear to crowd out the light of love.
Courageously, Gross reached out to Jewish and Muslim community leaders, who met to mourn, argue, listen, and heal while the war raged, paused, and started again. With his friend Shariq Ghani, the head of the Texas-based nonprofit Minaret Federation, Rabbi Gross decided to hold the traditional annual interfaith kickball tournament. When the tournament began, Muslims were mostly sitting with other Muslims, Jews with Jews, and Christians with Christians.
Partway through the event, news broke that a 6-year-old Palestinian boy had been stabbed to death in Illinois by his family’s Jewish landlord. Everyone stopped playing and bowed their heads in a moment of silence. By the end of the tournament, everyone was intermingling, taking pictures, and exchanging phone numbers. Shariq Ghani commented, “It’s easy to light a match. It takes a second. But creating peace and reconciliation, it can take years.”
As we go into the New Year, let us ask ourselves how we can be part of the light, contributing to a lasting light of peace.