December 5, 2020 — 19 Kislev 5781
We all know the old Jewish teaching that if you save a life, you’ve saved a world. We all know that each human on this earth is created in God’s image. We are all holy. And yet, all too often we forget the magic, the unique brilliance of every person around us. All too often, we see people only for the functions they perform in our lives. We see grocery delivery people and mail carriers, we see clerks and landscapers, we see employees and teachers, but we forget that within each person is a whole world of wisdom, life experiences, and love.
Today I want to share with you the story of someone you may have seen but may not have seen.
Drake Thadzi was born in 1964 in Lilongwe, Malawi. The country had just been liberated from British rule and was settling into a new totalitarian state led by President Bandas which would last for the next thirty years. There were death squads that would kill dissidents and everyday citizens had to carry id cards to prove their affiliation with the proper political party before they could ride the bus or access groceries. Drake’s mother was murdered in front of his eyes and he became a fighter out of necessity. At that time, boxing wasn’t a sport, it was a survival tactic.
At the age of 20, Drake was selected to represent Malawi in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That journey opened doors he had never imagined before. He spent the next 14 years travelling the world as a professional light heavy-weight boxer. He can tell you stories you wouldn’t believe. Stories about intrigue and high-end parties, stories about racism he had to endure and adventures he still dreams about. In the course of his career, he would fight 40 times, winning 30, drawing one, and losing only 9. He once even beat the three-time world champion, James Toney at the Foxwoods Casino.
Somehow, Drake finished his boxing career and found an unlikely job at the Linwood Memorial Park in Randolph. He loves the Linwood Memorial Park. He loves it so much that he lives on the grounds. He loves it so much that when he was planning his wedding, he got married on the grass overlooking the cemetery. He thinks Linwood is one of the most beautiful places in Boston. He doesn’t understand why more people don’t come to visit his beautiful home.
And Drake loves his work. If you go to Randolph, and if you talk to Drake, you’ll learn that he remembers every single person he’s ever buried. He remembers stories of people, their families, their hopes, and their dreams. He can direct mourners to family plots and will sometimes come up to ask after someone in the community when he hasn’t seen them in a while.
Drake is a big teddy bear. He has the most wonderful laugh and is completely incapable of telling a joke. He will inevitably blurt out the punchline early, and then he’ll laugh as if he told the whole joke right from the start. He’s terrified of heights, but when a friend suggested he learn how to fly, he jumped at the opportunity and is now just a few hours away from his pilot’s license. He is gentle and sweet and dreams of retiring in Alabama, where he’s in the process of building what the other guys describe as a mansion you wouldn’t believe.
Drake is there for us in our hardest moments. We come to the Linwood Memorial Park after inexplicable loss, the world around us recedes and we are super focused on the people that journey with us. But for me, there is something deeply comforting about knowing that Drake is always there. It’s so powerful to know that Drake is watching over our loved ones, and watching out for us, and that he’s now fighting to save the legacies of our loved ones and to protect their resting places.
I hope that the next time you find yourself at Linwood Memorial, you’ll take the chance to see Drake out and to talk with him about his life. He is one of the most delightful people I know! But more than that, I hope that we will all us this time while we’re in quarantine to seek our the people who we see, but have never really seen. The people who are immeasurably helpful to us, but whose stories are glued to the periphery of our awareness. What would our world look like if we took the time to see everyone in our midst? What would happen if we asked deep questions? If we shared deeply? What stories would come to light?
And maybe you’re sitting there thinking, this is all very lovely, but I’m in my living room, it’s the middle of a pandemic. I haven’t met a new person or seen someone outside my family off a screen in ten months. What can I do about this now?
I hear you. You are absolutely right. And yet, I think that if ever there was a time where we felt unseen, if ever there was a time that we couldn’t really see one another, that time is now. But just because it’s gotten a little harder, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are small ways we can see one another better.
Let’s make one small shift. We all have a “how are you” reflex. When we’re on the phone, on a ZOOM call, on the street (pre-COVID), the first thing we do, is ask “how are you?” It’s a question with no real answer. We don’t expect anyone to say anything except “fine thank you, how are you?” It’s not a question that deeply gets at where people are at. What if, instead of just “how are you?”, we started each conversation with a unique question that elicited an honest reflection and unique response?
What would happen, for instance, if the next time you called a service center to fix the internet or to schedule a medical appointment, you asked the call operator how their day was going? What would happen if you left a note for your postal worker, sharing a bit about yourself and asking about them so that you could get to know each other?
And there’s more. It’s not just important to see those people in our lives who we sometimes overlook, it’s also super important to engage people who are different from us. Who in your life thinks very differently about the world than you do? Who can you reach out to, who can you build a friendship with, who will push you to think differently?
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared the following reflection in a recent TED talk:[As a young man,] I was self-obsessed and thoroughly unpleasant to know, until one day I saw across the courtyard a girl who was everything that I wasn’t. She radiated sunshine. She emanated joy. I found out her name was Elaine. We met. We talked. We married. And 47 years, three children and eight grandchildren later, I can safely say it was the best decision I ever took in my life, because it’s the people not like us that make us grow.
It’s the people who are not like us that make us grow.
I have to confess; I cannot tell you how many times I stood next to Drake at the Linwood Memorial Park without truly seeing him. Sometime ago, maybe three years, I was standing at a grave with David Deckter after a funeral. The family had just left to go to shiva and I was standing there waiting for the grave to be filled. David Deckter looked over at me and asked, “do you know Drake?” I smiled and replied, “yes, we’ve met before.” “No,” David Deckter said, “have you gotten a chance to really know Drake?” and then he asked Drake if he’d shared the story with me about his time in Germany.
If it wasn’t for David Deckter, I would never have learned Drake’s story. If it wasn’t for David Deckter, I would never have gotten to know him, never have seen beyond his role. Now I look forward to seeing him every time I go to the Linwood Memorial Park.
Each one of us is surrounded by brilliance; by incredible people with incredible stories. Let’s not wait for others to introduce us. It’s amazing what you can find when you open your eyes.