A Lesson in Kindness From Jimmy Carter

I was sad to hear last week of Pres. Jimmy Carter’s diagnosis with metastatic liver cancer. While his prognosis has not been released, it cannot be good. The cancer has already spread and he is 90 years old.

But I’m reminded of the legacy that Carter will leave behind as he enters the twilight of his life. It’s a legacy of standing up for what’s right on the world stage and extending small kindnesses when no one is watching.

A Lesson in Kindness from Jimmy Carter

I first learned of Jimmy Carter when I was a child. My grandfather was good friends with Lester Maddox, a renowned segregationist, who by happenstance was elected Lieutenant Governor of Georgia in 1966. But prior to his political career, Maddox ran a restaurant on the south side of Atlanta, where my family often ate lunch with my grandfather on Sunday afternoons when I was growing up. Each time we arrived at the Pickrick Restaurant, Maddox was always at the front door greeting people.

Everyone except African Americans, of course.

For some reason he kept a pick handle over the cash register, and one day when a group of African Americans tried to integrate his restaurant, he took the pick handle down and used it to keep them away.

The Pickrick soon became a rallying site for segregationists and Maddox began handing out and then selling pick handles. He was a bit of a clown, which is why he was friends with my grandfather, but I was enamored with his new celebrity although I didn’t understand the background of it.

At the time, Jimmy Carter was a young senator from south Georgia speaking out against Maddox and segregation. When he ran for the position for Governor of Georgia in 1966 – the same year Maddox was elected Lieutenant Governor – he was elected.

I first met Carter when my school’s singing group was preparing for a tour of Europe. We went to the Governor’s office in order to be tapped as his “ambassadors.” Clearly, somebody knew somebody. I still have that picture somewhere. I had long hair, but so did Carter. After all, it was the early 70’s.

When Carter ran for President in 1976, my father was living in Jacksonville, Florida. He went to hear Carter speak at a Kiwanis meeting, and when Carter heard he was from Georgia he came over to him and said, “Bill, it looks really good.” At the time Carter only polled 2% of the vote. Somehow he actually won.

Over the years I have met Carter a number of times, mostly after he opened the Carter Center in Atlanta. While I realize that many people see him as somewhat arrogant and hard to read, I have one memory that will always stick with me. In 1992, the Church Health Center was on the verge of celebrating its fifth birthday. It just so happened that at this time, Rosalynn Carter was here in Memphis for a speaking engagement. I arranged for someone to pass her an invitation for her husband to speak at our event. Who knows? Maybe he would.

A few weeks passed. Finally, I received a handwritten note from Pres. Carter:

Carter Note

It reads:

What you are doing is great! Under Dr. William Foege’s direction, The Carter Center will soon launch a nationwide effort to build on concepts like yours on churches and health.

I can’t attend your anniversary, but we’ll be learning from the video tape and your example.

Best Wishes,

Jimmy Carter

He did not have to do that. But it was personal, it was handwritten, and it was warm. I framed it and it has hung on my wall ever since. His note reminds me of how one small gesture can mean so much.

I have actually spoken at the Carter Center a couple of times. One of the original five interests of the Carter Center was to emphasize the link between faith and health. President Carter actually cares a lot about this idea.

So while I would never say I actually know the president, I do think he has been a part of my life in more than a casual way. He is a very good man. He is complex but he cares deeply about his faith and his country. There is much we can learn from him, and my prayers are with him and his family during this difficult time.


Walking the Walk: Why the Church Health Center Is Committed to Staff Health

Every day at the Church Health Center, we help people experience the life well-lived.

For some, that means receiving care at our clinic. For others, that means working with a personal trainer on our Sports Court to get the best out of their workout. For our youngest visitors, it means learning in Child Life how to establish healthy habits.

It is important that we not only tell people what they should do but show them that we are trying to do the same thing: live healthy lives. Our staff has many of the same health challenges as our patients. In order to help our staff along the way, a number of years ago we began a staff health program. Over the years we have worked hard to make it both enticing for our staff to participate and to present an effective program.

Of course, that is all easier said than done.

Walking the Walk

We have made a number of tweaks to the program and are still looking for the right process. We’re making strides because we have 84% of our employees currently participating. That compares to many companies that believe they are doing well if 25% participate in their staff health program.

Although living a healthy life is its own reward, the truth is that incentives help sweeten the pot. The Church Health Center’s staff health program includes incentives that strike the best balance of personal motivation, financial rewards, and coaches who can help show the way. I am a believer that you need all three. The program needs to be flexible enough for everyone’s needs.

This past spring, our staff was challenged to drink eight glasses of water a day. Maybe the Communications department had a little too much fun with this challenge.

This past spring, our staff was challenged to drink eight glasses of water a day. Maybe the Communications department had a little too much fun with this challenge.

Our program works like this. People set goals for themselves at the beginning of the year. We use an electronic log that allows staff to record their exercise, their eating habits, and their spiritual care. Along the way, we measure their exercise capacity, their flexibility, and a number of blood components such as cholesterol and blood sugar. People earn points as they achieve their goals and log their activity.

Based on a 500 point scale, people earn either a hundred dollars or a day off from work for every hundred points they achieve.

It is so important for us to be able to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I took this seriously myself a year or so ago and lost almost 25 pounds. Happily, I have been able to keep the weight off while also doing routine exercise. A number of our employees have far more impressive results than that. Major weight loss and lifestyle changes have been logged and continue to evolve.

Our goal is to make living a healthy life the norm for anyone who is a part of the Church Health Center. To do so requires daily devotion to the task. It cannot be a fad and it cannot be done for the rewards. At the end of the day, true results are motivated by the desire to nurture the bodies God has given us. This must be the overriding thought when you are having a bad day and the chocolate cake is sitting right in front of you or you just want to blow off taking a walk. None of us are immune to falling into the pit or what John Bunyan in Pilgrims Progress called “the slough of despair.”

It is why we also set out free fruit bowls around the Center for when people need a snack. We encourage everyone to take advantage of their free membership to the Wellness Center if they do not have an easy place to exercise. And our employee health staff is just a phone call away to help you recommit to your goals. It is not easy, but it is doable.

Every year, we look at our aggregate numbers to see how we are doing. All in all, we are making progress. I still have a goal of 100% participation but I am told that is not reasonable, although I am not sure why. I do, however, believe we can commit to offering to our staff the chance to adopt healthy behaviors whenever someone is ready to make the change. I strongly believe that this is one of the best ways to find our path toward God. It will never be that we always feel connected to God, but we can always be moving toward God. Sometimes that might mean we are just literally walking on the path when our minds are distracted but our bodies and our spirits are one and if either is aimed in the right direction, it is of God.