I had not planned to make this post. It is an excerpt from a sermon I preached today. However, thanks to a friend, I learned that yesterday would have been Roberto Clemente’s 78th birthday and posting seemed important. The text is Ephesians 5:15-20.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met in Pittsburgh this summer. For some of those who attending, this marked the first time they had journeyed to the city built around three rivers. For me, it marked something of a homecoming. As I child, my family lived for about eight years on Neville Island about five or six miles from where the Ohio River begins in Pittsburgh.
Much has changed over the years since my family lived there. But when I walked into the Westin Hotel, I knew that I had returned home. There on the wall hung a picture of Roberto Clemente—the hero of my childhood who has remained my hero through the years.
Clemente hailed from Puerto Rico and played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 years. One of the first Hispanic players, he played in the face of prejudice—he faced jeers and slurs. People who had only one language mocked him for speaking English—his second language—poorly. Because of the prejudice against Hispanic players and because he played in the small market town of Pittsburgh, Clemente never received the acclaim as a player that he deserved until late in his career.
And he deserved acclaim because he could play. He won twelve Golden Gloves for his defense. He had one of the strongest throwing arms that have ever been seen. He ended his career with 3,000 hits.
The people of Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh admired Clemente for his athletic ability but even more we admired him and we admire him for the way he lived his life off the field. In the words of Ephesians, he “made the most of his time.”
Clemente engaged in humanitarian work in Puerto Rico and in Pittsburgh alike. He demanded respect for himself and the people of Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. He worked for people who lived in poverty and responded to the needs of his sisters and brothers. He reached out to children and provided them with opportunities to develop their own athletic talents. In 1973, Clemente was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the first Presidential Citizens Medal. In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Baseball has named its annual award for community involvement after Clemente.
A massive earthquake hit Managua, Nicaragua on December 21, 1972. The quake devastated the city, with thousands either dead or left homeless. Clemente organized relief efforts in Puerto Rico. When he learned that some of the aid had ended up in the pockets of the leaders and had not reached the people of Nicaragua, Clemente decided to deliver the next shipment personally. On New Year’s Eve, he stepped into a DC-7 plane along with the supplies and headed for Nicaragua. Not long after takeoff the plane suddenly lost altitude and crashed somewhere into the waters off Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never found.
I tell his story this morning, because the United Nations has designated today, August 19, as World Humanitarian Day. The day marks the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. That bombing killed 22 people present to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. The UN chose the day to pay tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello and the other individuals who died in Iraq and others who gave their lives while seeking to serve sisters and brothers in need.
It is also a day to give thanks for those individuals and groups who continue to help people around the world, regardless of who they are and where they are. It is a day when we remember that we all can make a difference when we show that we care and do something for someone else. In the language of the church, this is a day to invite, to challenge us all to make the most of our time by loving others as God in Jesus Christ loves us. Of course that is not just a task for a day—it is a calling for a lifetime.
On this World Humanitarian Day, I give thanks for the life and witness of Roberto Clemente. I advocated for an end to violence against women and for the strong regulations on minerals that fuel conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places. And I made a financial gift to efforts to address leukemia. Tomorrow I will need to find other actions.
See you along the Trail.