God sells us all things at the price of labor.
— Leonardo da Vinci
My grandfather, Floyd Pace, was a good man. As I wrote in the very first print edition of Weld, he was a carpenter by trade, a farmer by inclination and a doer of good deeds and right things by nature and habit.
What Papa was not for some substantial portion of his life — including the first dozen or so years of mine — was a churchgoing man. I never asked him why, and as I think about that now, I’m certain that it was at least in part because even to my young eyes, he was considerably more Christ-like than most of the self-professed Christians I encountered.
In fact, when he began to attend church regularly with my grandmother, the thing that struck me was that, other than leading the blessing of the food at family gatherings, there was no outward change in him. There was no need for it; he was the same strong, gentle, humble, hard working, happy, loving person I’d known since the day I was born.
Of course, that meant that there wasn’t much need for change in the inner man either. But, Papa being Papa, he didn’t see it that way. When his natural proclivities toward devoutness without ostentation, piety without sanctimony and service without the presumption of reward led to his unsolicited selection as a deacon by his fellow members of that little country church, he was both deeply honored and thoroughly convinced they’d mistaken him for a much less sinful man. He told my mother he didn’t think he could accept it.
“I don’t deserve this,” he told her. “I’m not good enough.”
“Daddy, they made you a deacon because they know how much you love the church,” my mother replied. “They don’t expect you to be a saint.”
Frankly — and while freely admitting my bias — I’m not sure he wasn’t. Regardless, he accepted the charge as deacon and remained one until he died. I feel safe in saying that, as with his embrace of the Lord, his elevation to that position of responsibility could hardly have increased the level of his devotion to the church or his demeanor toward all with whom he came into contact. He was a good man, and he did what good men — good people — do: Strive every day to be better than they were the day before.
So it should be with all of us as we set the bar of expectations for ourselves, for our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens, and for our community. We should look for the things that need doing and do them. We should cultivate and nurture a sense of ourselves as part of a much larger whole, and yet understand how the words and actions of one can have untold impact on the lives of many. We should recognize that credit and blame are but the two sides of a worthless coin, and that lasting value is rather the product of enlightened aspiration, unsparing self-criticism and shared accomplishment. We should demand excellence and reject mediocrity. We should be willing to let our reach exceed our grasp and let the knowledge that we fall short on a daily basis be motivation for redoubling our diligence rather than an excuse for the acceptance of defeat.
In this, in all of this, we need leaders. I am not — necessarily, anyway — talking about elected officials, though it would be very nice if the kind of people I’m about to describe were to become elected officials.
First and foremost, we need leaders who lead, people who are willing to stick their necks out to help make things happen. Risk — calculated, not reckless — is the currency with which opportunity is purchased, and real leaders understand that. If you’re having a hard time getting your head around that concept, it’s because what generally passes for leadership in these parts is instead merely the ability to get away with seeing a parade coming, jumping in front of it and claiming to be the drum major.
Real leadership takes vision and courage — the vision to see opportunities to strengthen the whole by increasing the value of all of its constituent parts, and the courage to say and do things that might be unpopular in the immediate term, but will pay dividends over the long run.
In this context, courage may also be defined as the willingness to be wrong — or, to put it more correctly, to be free from the fear of being wrong. “It is common sense to take a method and try it,” Franklin Roosevelt said at the height of the Great Depression. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” That is the essence of leadership, and the very attitude we need if we intend to secure the brightest possible future for Birmingham.
Where are these leaders I speak of? My friends, they are all around us. Each and every day, I encounter people who love this community, who want to be a part of its growth and development, who are filled with the spirit of innovation and imbued with the desire to make a difference. They are engaged by the notion that good things are happening, that Birmingham is better today than it was yesterday and will be better tomorrow than it is today. You know them as well as I, and we must make it our purpose to seek them out, to encourage and support their vision, to instill in them the courage that will make it possible for them to step up and lead us forward.
Many, if not most, will protest. They will say they are not good enough, not worthy of the mantle of “leader,” not well enough versed in local affairs, not possessed of the fortitude necessary to withstand and rise above the inescapable rough-and-tumble of public life. It is our job to dissuade them of this notion, for they are the good people we need.
We don’t need saints. We just need people who care. People who are willing to serve. People who are devoted not to their own glory, but to that of Birmingham.