The greatest people on earth
Greatness comes in surprising places.
Through the years I have been fortunate to meet a number of well-known people, from world leaders to popular entertainers and respected ministers. Some of these "famous" people are truly great, others are incredibly talented and a few are simply popular.
So it’s not uncommon for people to ask me, "Who is the greatest person you’ve ever met?"
Of course, Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the greatest person anyone can ever meet. As I told Betty when we were dating, Jesus is as real to me as the flesh on my arms.
For this, I am eternally grateful. But the question generally denotes contemporary people those of us squarely in the realm of non-deity.
People want to know who has made a strong impression or significant impact in my life.
I can answer readily and it’s not anyone you’d typically suspect.
In my experience, the greatest people on earth are the missionaries and relief workers I have seen up close and personal. Around the world, they give their time, energy and sometimes their lives to help suffering people.
Their lives, commitment and sacrifices, along with the joy in which they do it, leaves me overwhelmed. (Of course, if you ask them that same question, their answer is not what you would suspect, but I’ll get to that in a moment.)
The first time Peter Pretorius took Betty and me to the mission fields in Mozambique, it impacted me forever.
Peter had been a wealthy tobacco farmer and professional race car driver, with a good life in the upper class of white South Africa. He had a beautiful wife, Ann, and several young children.
But when Jesus Christ changed their lives, they forsook their wealth and status to reach out to people that their fellow white countrymen disdained.
In the days of apartheid, the tribal suffering in the African wastelands was generally disregarded by the "civilized" ruling class.
But God broke the hearts of Peter and Ann Pretorius. They saw the starving Africans in Mozambique as the very "neighbors" that Jesus pointed out as "the least of these."
So they planted themselves in the midst of suffering. Soon, others joined them, like the beautiful Brazilian family I met: two little girls and a loving husband and wife living in a grass hut in order to serve the needs of others. In the midst of pain and poverty, they rescued lives and shared the matchless love of God not just in word, but in deed. I remember thinking, "What a sacrifice…what an example…what a Christian!"
Missionaries face all manner of inconveniences and hardships. One place we went, we literally had to push the missionary’s car to get it started! Yet, I have never known a missionary to complain. They don’t feel as if they are making a sacrifice because they know that they are in the center of God’s perfect will for their lives. They live with more grace, peace and contentment than most Americans.
The first time we went into Sudan with Franklin Graham, he told us we would see the greatest Christians since the Book of Acts. The people at the refugee camp had been brutally driven from their villages. They had witnessed horrible, inhumane acts. Yet, I watched them praise and worship God with more fervor and devotion that you’ll find in many American churches.
Dozens of Sudanese made references to someone that they loved greatly a man who was like a father or grandfather to them. We found out that it was a missionary who had made an incredible impact in their lives. He was so revered among the people that we asked to meet him. They smiled and told us that he had been dead for 50 years! The impact was so profound and genuine in their lives, that they still talked about the missionary as though he was in their midst.
Wherever we go — China, Romania, India, Angola, Croatia, Bolivia and many other places — we find people to admire. I mentioned this to Peter Pretorius one time, telling him that Betty and I thought that the missionaries were the greatest people we had ever met. His reaction, and Ann’s as well, really surprised me.
"James, let me tell you what we missionaries think," he said forcefully. "The people who recognize the need, whether it’s by watching LIFE Today or some other means, and then reach out to help, these are the greatest people on earth. They are the greatest examples of God’s love because even though they are unable to personally meet someone else’s need, they are determined in their hearts to make sure the need is met. They make it possible for missionaries to go into the fields of suffering with hands filled with possibilities and life. They are the great enablers."
Peter made me realize that regardless of how much the missionaries care, how much they pray, or how much they want to help, they are empty-handed without the support of others. In practical terms, it’s impossible for a missionary to hold a high-paying job or raise funds personally while they work to help others. Like the rest of us, they can only do one thing at a time. They would simply stand, weeping in the face of disaster with no way to alleviate the suffering, if it wasn’t for hundreds and thousands of others who give them the support, both financially and spiritually, that they must have to fulfill their mission.
Even here at home, this principle holds true. Just last weekend, I received a call from a church in Louisiana. As they returned from the evacuation during hurricane Gustav, the pastor called to say, "Just as with Katrina a few years ago, your truck filled with food and supplies got here first. We are now feeding all these people who have nothing to eat. Many places around Baton Rouge have been devastated, but you sent help. Can you send more?"
We did send more, because we are supported by so many others. Even now, we are preparing to send aid to the coast of Texas, should hurricane Ike live up to its expectations.
We can’t all give our lives to the mission field, as these wonderful people have done. Most of you can’t even visit from time to time, as Betty and I have. We are blessed to be the compassionate communication connection between those who suffer and those who help, but the real power comes when people around the world join with us to support people like Peter and Ann Pretorius. Truly, you are the greatest people on earth, serving as enablers.