Making Ourselves Gifts to God

One spiritual author has very wisely and rightly said, “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.” In other words, having been fashioned unto the image and likeness of God, we share in the infinite and admirable traits of our Triune God.

Consequently in sharing our God-given talents, we are truly enriching other people and so fulfilling our God-assigned mission. In the words of another perceptive author, “The past is history, the future is a mystery; the present alone is ours — a precious and invaluable gift.”

On my recent stint in the U.S.A., I learned that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did mean the adoption of a new set of skills. As a consequence, the U.S. veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are bringing their leadership lessons home, where they are needed the most, and bringing about a most remarkable and praiseworthy change for the better.

For instance, John Gallina and Dale Beatty were best friends who joined the North Carolina National Guard while they were still in high school. They served in Iraq together, and they nearly died together on Nov. 15, 2004, when their Humvee was blown up by an anti-tank mine. Gallina was driving, and Beatty, a staff sergeant, was riding shotgun.

So violent was the explosion that the Humvee was propelled 200 ft. through the air and landed upside down. Gallina was catapulted from the ill-fated vehicle and knocked unconscious, suffering a traumatic brain injury, multiple cuts and bruises, a damaged back and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Beatty, the only one inside, was trapped and crushed.

On regaining consciousness, Gallina’s very first question was, “Where’s Dale?” No one would tell him. Later he learned that Beatty had been medevaced to Balad and then onto Walter Reed Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland, where his left leg was amputated just below the knee.

This is how Beatty himself described the dreadful ordeal: “I woke up in Walter Reed and they gave me a choice: I could either spend the next two years in therapy, trying to save my other leg — but I’d never walk without pain again — or I could opt to have the limb amputated. Without hesitation I told them to cut it off the same place they’d cut the other one.”

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the road, God calls a butterfly.”

The local homebuilders association in Statesville, N.C., offered to build Beatty a house on his family’s land, simple in style and basic in amenities, but specifically designed for a double-amputee. Beatty actually helped to build it, and he found that the days he spent hammering nails were better than the days he didn’t. So he called Gallina, who had a background in construction, and asked him to join him.

Gallina promptly and willingly agreed. “We were trained in the military never to leave a fallen comrade in the field,” he said. “But do we bring them home just to leave them alone? That doesn’t seem right.” And so, the two friends decided to form an organization to construct handicapped-access projects for other veterans. They called it Purple Heart Homes.

Their very first project was to build an extension and wheelchair ramp for Vietnam veteran Kevin Smith. Gallina said, “He had been crawling in and out of the house for 40 years, relying on the help of a neighbor to go shopping. Those Vietnam guys represent around 32 percent of all veterans, and they didn’t get anything like the support we get. You know, for someone like me to have something to focus on, to have a reason to be here, makes all the difference, and there are so many people who need help.”

“What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.”

Undoubtedly the aftermath of any war is dismal, depressing and even heart-rending: suicides, addictions, domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, veterans who are jobless and homeless. But in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there is another side that has not been told. Like John Gallina and Dale Beatty, other veterans have come back and decided to continue to serve their country and so make a difference.

For instance, Marine sergeants Jake Wood and William McNulty started Team Rubicon, which sends elite teams of former colleagues to organize the logistics in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes.

Cut from the same cloth is Army captain Wes Moore, who has started a mentoring program for first-time offenders between the ages of 8 and 12 in Baltimore, and who travels the U.S. giving motivational speeches to high school students. And Silver Star recipient and former Marine captain Brian Stann devotes his spare time to running an employment agency for veterans.

“What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.”

So the returning veterans are bringing skills that seem to be on the wane in American society, qualities the U.S. really needs now such as deliberate decision-making, a rigorous commitment to hard work, a morale-boosting optimism, entrepreneurial creativity, a resolute and unwavering patriotism.

The secret was aptly framed by Lt. Col. John Nagl, a former Army officer and currently the chairman of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), “World War II was fought by companies. Vietnam, by platoons. The current wars are all about small teams who have to interact with the local Iraqi and Afghan populations. That has required a different kind of soldier.”

It has been scientifically proved that altruism enhances both health and happiness. In other words, shifting the focus from self to others and helping them through volunteering can increase a person’s sense of purpose and improve both physical and mental health.

The crucial difference lies in the fact that the person does not expect anything in return, but selflessly intends nothing short of the best for the recipient. More specifically, volunteering one’s time, talents and resources markedly reduces — even eliminates — stress, favors a better adjustment to the changing circumstances of one’s life, engenders a sense of achievement that repels both hopelessness and depression, enables a person to better cope with the recurring challenges of life, promotes better physical health and notably contributes to longer life expectancy.

Volunteering one’s time, talents and resources furnishes opportunities to socialize and make new friends. And this can be positively beneficial to people who are retired or elderly and at risk of physical decline, inactivity and social isolation, or of feelings of being unproductive and unwanted.

For instance, in Australia a large proportion of volunteers are active in sporting clubs. They may serve as coaches, and this means increased physical and outdoor activity. Similarly, former alcoholics who support and mentor alcoholics attempting to break their addiction are less likely to relapse.

“What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.”

An American study found that the more frequently people volunteered their time, talents and resources, the more their well-being increased. Again, volunteering one’s time, talents and resources improves a person’s sense of self-worth and purpose, the best antidote to depression. It enables people to translate their spiritual values into concrete action, and it earns the spontaneous and heart-warming gratitude of those who are the fortunate beneficiaries. All of which markedly contribute to a person’s physical and mental health.

As Art Buchwald and John Ruskin said, “The best things in life aren’t things.” TP 

Father Valladares is a Catholic priest currently serving the archdiocese of Adelaide, South Australia. This is his 45th year in pastoral ministry — the first 19 were spent in the service of the archdiocese of Bombay (Mumbai), India. A graduate in Psychology, he went on to secure a Master’s Degree in Educational and Counseling Psychology and a Doctorate in Marriage Counseling. For 10 years he taught undergraduates at St. Andrew’s College, Bombay, India.