Champions and Heroes, Gratitude at the Nursing Home

We were getting the teenage group ready for caroling at the nursing home. I asked the young men “What do you want? What do you want in life, in 10 years, in 1 year, for Christmas?”

The boys proclaimed their dreams and aspirations. “A Bugatti! A million dollars! Graduate Highschool!” Etc., etc.  

Being thankful, or having an attitude of gratitude, does many things for us but here are a couple of noteworthy benefits. Thankfulness helps us consider:

1) what we have (instead of focusing on what we do not have) and

2) the perspective of other people, look at life through someone else’s shoes. 

I passed around a picture of a young black boxer on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his red-gloved fists held high and asked “What do you see in this picture?”

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1942, was an American professional boxer. To this day he is widely considered one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Clay was a rising star during unfortunate times of racial tension and discrimination. With his keen athletic ability and unique personality he persevered through the challenges of the times to be a World Champion Heavyweight boxer several times over.

Ali is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year six times. He has been ranked the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. He was also ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, and the third greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN SportsCentury. (Source Wikipedia) 

Then I passed around a second picture of a handsome, young, black soldier and asked “What do you see in this picture?”

Vernon Baker was born in 1919. Both of his parents were killed in a car accident when he was 4. So, he and his 2 sisters were raised by their grandparents. His Grandfather taught him how to shoot a rifle and hunt food for the family. Unfortunately his wheelchair-bound Grandmother had severe anger issues leading to such high tensions that Vernon ended up in an orphanage.

He graduated High School and worked on the railroad for awhile, afterward working several other small jobs. Eventually he decided to try to join the Army, again, in an age of tragic racial discrimination. The first time he tried, he was told they didn’t need any more blacks in the Army. So, he tried again at a different recruiting station and was accepted.   

Baker rose through the ranks due to his determination, intellect and leadership abilities. Eventually shipped to Italy during WWII, 2nd Lieutenant Baker led a platoon in a suicidal assault (1945) that helped drive the German Army out of northern Italy. During the assault, Baker single-handedly took out three machine gun nests, two observation posts and two bunkers in addition to helping take other enemy positions. He also discovered and destroyed a network of telephone lines that connected the German positions. The fighting was fierce though and Baker called for reinforcements. Tragically, his white commander deserted him and his men during that battle and reported that Baker was dead. However, Baker eventually made his way back to base to report that 19 out of the 25 men in his platoon died in the assault. He was then given a second all white platoon which he led back into battle to win a decisive and monumental victory in Northern Italy. Germany surrendered a month later. 

Baker received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s 2nd highest honor for courage on the battlefield. He deserved more. 

Thankfully, in the early 1990’s, the Army commissioned a study to learn why no black soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest commendation for battlefield valor, in WW2. The deeds of a dozen black World War II veterans were forwarded to an independent Army review board after the study was completed. The panel affirmed the Medal of Honor for seven black soldiers in 1996. By then, Baker was the only survivor. 

Baker captured the nation’s heart in 1997 when President Bill Clinton draped the Medal of Honor around the tearful soldier’s neck. Baker is the only living black WWII veteran to receive the Medal of Honor.  This recognition finally came 52 years after Baker led the famous suicidal assault in Northern Italy.

 Baker became a symbol of the selfless sacrifice and courage of all soldiers but especially black soldiers. 

He was invited to return to Italy in April 1997 by the Italian government. In village after village, people turned out to honor Baker and celebrate the soldiers who freed them from the brutal Nazi occupation. (Source “World War II hero Vernon Baker dies” by Ken Olsen, Spokesman-Review, July 14, 2010)

 Regardless of your perspective, these are lives that helped shape world history! I choose to be thankful for them.

 We should realize the love that God has for us and be thankful. But I want to be clear about the difference between being thankful for a gift and actually receiving a gift. For example I can be thankful for a gift but leave it wrapped, unopened with my name on it and therefore, not truly receive it. The word thanksgiving in Greek is eucharistias. The Eucharist is a Christian ceremony where we drink some grape juice and eat some bread. The grape juice represents Jesus’ blood and the bread represents His broken body from when He died on the cross to pay for our sins. The Eucharist is not necessarily for people who are only thankful for what Christ did, but The Eucharist is for people who have truly received the gift of salvation by trusting in Jesus, that his life, death and resurrection have paid for our sins.   

What you see is not always what is actually there. You can see the church buildings around you, maybe have Christian family and friends and say you are thankful for Jesus. But that is not salvation. Salvation is trusting Jesus as the Truth, the Way and the Life, the one who gave it all for you to be freed and redeemed from sin. Only by having a relationship with Christ can you truly be thankful for Him. My prayer is that you will be thankful and receive this gift. 

Now back to our stories of Ali and Baker. What you see is not always what is actually there. For example, again, you see the adults here right now around you. But what you have around you is actually the very Jesus Christ who died to pay for your sins and mine.  

I passed around a close-up picture of the wrinkled face of an old black man with hazy, lost eyes. I asked the boys what they see. Mohammed Ali died in 2016 at the age of 74. You see an old man. But what you have is a champion. Literally nicknamed “The Greatest.” 

I passed around a picture of a grey-haired, smiling elderly black man wearing a beanie and a thick jacket to stay warm. I asked the boys what they saw. Vernon Baker died in 2010 at the age of 90. You see an old man. But what you have is a warrior. He started off with everything against him, no parents and dark skin in a sad time of racism. But he defended freedom, met the President, was awarded the highest military honor for bravery in battle. Baker’s creed is worth repeating “Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going.” 

I encouraged the group “So, tonight as we go caroling for the residents at the nursing home, let’s be thankful for the life God has given us. Remember your dreams and desires you listed earlier? These people in the nursing home are no different.”

Remember thankfulness helps us consider:

1) what (or who) we have around us and

2) the perspective of other people, look at life through someone else’s shoes.

I told the boys “Be thankful tonight for an opportunity to bring some cheer to an elderly person who may have saved your great grandfather in battle, who may have taught your mother in school. They are champions and warriors who deserve love and attention just like you and me. When they see you coming to show them love.... may they see Jesus.”