The Buddha taught the importance of having spiritually uplifting companions, people who challenge us to grow into our best selves and who help to keep us on the right path. I’m incredibly fortunate that my career in Student Affairs has allowed me the opportunity to get to know many wonderful, inspiring people. One woman, however, stands above the rest.
First, some backstory. I came to Student Affairs in a roundabout way. My original career goal was teaching, and I pursued that for some years before finding my way to the position I have now. My academic training is in World Religions, and from the earliest years of my graduate school days back in the ’90s, I’ve had a passion for interfaith work. A cornerstone of my own spirituality is service. I’m a Unitarian Universalist whose views on social justice are heavily inspired by the teachings of Judaism. To me, the spiritual path cannot exist without caring for others.
My work in Student Affairs requires me to plan and organize service opportunities for our students (and sometimes, even for staff). This was not part of my original job description. I was hired initially to serve as Spiritual Director, but when my role was later expanded to include service, I was delighted. I was nervous, too, admittedly, but at my core I was delighted. The intersection of faith and service made tremendous sense to me, and I knew that it would provide all of my students — secular as well as religious — an opportunity to connect and learn about each other by coming together around our shared values.
It was in this capacity that I met Ms. Arnetha Gholston-Habeel.
2011 was my first year organizing service events on my campus, and the first year of the President’s Interfaith & Community Service Campus Challenge. I was partnering with a colleague in our Dining Services office to host a large-scale on-campus event that would address poverty and hunger. We knew we wanted to partner with a homeless shelter, but kept running into roadblocks with one after another. Finally, someone turned us in the direction of the . I am forever grateful that they did. To borrow from Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Ms. Arnetha, as she is known, is RTW’s Executive Director. less than a year before she and I met, choosing to open doors in one of Chicago’s most poverty- and gang-troubled neighborhoods: Washington Park. Their goal? To serve veterans, the homeless, and anyone in need, and to give the young people in their community job skills and better opportunities.
What makes their story so inspiring to me is the depth of their commitment to this vision. Ms. Arnetha, an ordained Christian minister, and “Doc”, who is Muslim, live their faiths to a degree that humbles me. In order to open and operate RTW — which stands for “Remake the World” — they sold their home and cars and cashed in their pensions, and gave up their well-paying jobs to devote themselves full-time to this, their calling. The center, which still receives little to no public or private funding, relies upon donations of food, clothing, and other items to meet the needs of the community. Each day, their tiny kitchen serves as many as 300 free hot, nutritious meals to the hungry and homeless. In 2013 alone, their clothing program provided over 62,000 pieces of clothing to people in need. Those are staggering numbers, especially when one realizes that every meal, every item of clothing, every single thing that the center needs each day that is not provided via donations has been made possible by Ms. Arnetha and her husband. They live full-time now at RTW, having sold nearly all they have to fund their work.
The Bible teaches,
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Yet, how many of us would be so willing to literally give up the shirt on our back to someone in need? It’s an incredible thing to consider.
Before RTW opened its doors, two or three hungry, homeless people in the Washington Park neighborhood died each year of food poisoning contracted from scavenging in dumpsters. Since RTW opened? Not a single person in Washington Park has been lost in such a way. When I learned of this, I was reminded of a Jewish teaching, one that is also found, with different wording, in Islam:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
– Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a
Saving lives — there is no more profound or fundamental form of service than that!
I was so moved by everything that RTW does and the impact that they’re having in the community that it was easy to commit to a long-term and regular partnership. My office now works with RTW multiple times each year. With every project, more of my students fall in love and admiration with RTW, and Ms. Arnetha and I become closer friends. Our relationship has moved far beyond its origins. To her, I’m “Sister Lynne”; to me, she will always be “Ms. Arnetha”, for my respect of this amazing woman is so great that I could never imagine referring to her as anything less, even though we feel each other to be family. We bolster one another, each of us giving the strength and emotional support needed to see us through the hard days that inevitably come with the work we do, and we love each other immensely.
She is my sister, my friend, my teacher, my role model. She defines for me what it means to be a person of faith, and she exemplifies selfless giving. She is the standard by which I judge my own service, and all that I aspire to be.
Together, we will remake the world.