Sunday, January 30, 2011

Manute Bol and the Beatitudes

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 30, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Zephaniah 2: 3; 3: 12-13; 1Corinthians1: 26-31; Matthew 5: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of the Year 2011]

Basketball fans in the congregation this morning will certainly remember a man named Manute Bol. He was born in Africa—in the Sudan (a country that’s been ravaged by violence and civil war for decades), and he played 10 years in the NBA for four different teams.

But, most important of all, Manute Bol was a very devout and a very charitable Christian.

He died tragically of a terrible skin disease last summer at the young age of 47. A week after his passing, Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, wrote a column about him that ran in the Wall Street Journal. Here is some of what he said:

[Often] sports journalists use the term “redemption” to praise the individual performances of NBA superstars. Thus, the Associated Press reported that Kobe Bryant "found redemption" after he won a title in 2009 without the aid of his nemesis and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal.

Manute Bol, who died last week at the age of 47, is one player who never achieved redemption in the eyes of sports journalists. His life embodied an older, Christian conception of redemption that has been badly obscured by its current usage.

Bol, a Christian Sudanese immigrant, believed his life was a gift from God to be used in the service of others. As he put it to Sports Illustrated in 2004: "God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back."

He was not blessed, however, with great athletic gifts. As a center for the Washington Bullets, Bol was more spectacle than superstar. At 7 feet, 7 inches tall and 225 pounds, he was both the tallest and thinnest player in the league. He averaged a mere 2.6 points per game over the course of his career, though he was a successful shot blocker given that he towered over most NBA players.

Bol reportedly gave most of his fortune, estimated at $6 million, to aid Sudanese refugees. As one twitter feed aptly put it: "Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals."

When his fortune dried up, Bol raised more money for charity by doing what most athletes would find humiliating: He turned himself into a humorous spectacle. Bol was hired, for example, as a horse jockey, hockey player and celebrity boxer. Some Americans simply found amusement in the absurdity of him on a horse or skates. And who could deny the comic potential of Bol boxing William "the Refrigerator" Perry, the 335-pound former defensive lineman of the Chicago Bears?

Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

During his final years, Bol suffered more than mere mockery in the service of others. While he was doing relief work in the Sudan, he contracted a painful skin disease that ultimately contributed to his death.

Bol's life and death throws into sharp relief the trivialized manner in which sports journalists employ the concept of redemption. In the world of sports media players are redeemed when they overcome some prior "humiliation" by playing well. Redemption then is deeply connected to personal gain and celebrity. It leads to fatter contracts, shoe endorsements, and adoring women.

Yet as Bol reminds us, the Christian understanding of redemption has always involved lowering and humbling oneself. It leads to suffering and even death.

It is of little surprise, then, that the sort of radical Christianity exemplified by Bol is rarely understood by sports journalists. For all its interest in the intimate details of players' lives, the media has long been tone deaf to the way devout Christianity profoundly shapes some of them.

I thought of Manute Bol’s story as I was reflecting on today’s 3 Scripture readings. For example, in the first, from Zephaniah 2 and 3, God promises to preserve a “remnant” of his people. This prophecy was written at a time when most of the nation of Israel had fallen into idolatry and serious sin. But “most of the nation” was not “all of the nation”. Some—a relatively small number—did remain loyal to the truth that had been handed down to them from Moses. They were the faithful remnant of their day.

No matter how bad it gets, God always has his “remnant.”

You might say that Manute Bol was a part of God’s faithful remnant in the modern world of professional sports. Jon Shields, the author of that article I just read from, would certainly agree.

May God help us to be part of his “faithful remnant” too—in our families, in our schools, in our places of employment, in all the settings and circumstances of our lives.

In today’s second reading, from 1 Corinthians 1, St. Paul says, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”

The “wise” of this world often become absorbed in the things of this world. And where does it get them in the end? Those like Manute Bol, who see the bigger picture, and who always keep in mind the ultimate goal of life, are often considered to be foolish and impractical—but I would say that they’re the ones who are truly wise.

So would St. Paul.

And then we have the Beatitudes of today’s gospel. Think of how some of these relate to Manute Bol’s life of faith and charity:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” (that is to say, “Blessed are those who know they need God”). Manute knew he needed the Lord in his life to fulfill his true mission, his true calling. He couldn’t do it alone or by his own power.

“Blessed are they who mourn.” Manute Bol mourned deeply for the sufferings of his Sudanese brothers and sisters. That mourning was at the root of his incredible charity.

“Blessed are the meek” (in other words, the humble). Manute Bol was deeply humble—to the point that he was willing to look like a complete fool to help those in need.

“Blessed are the merciful.” Mercy was evident in Manute Bol’s words to Sports Illustrated back in 2004: "God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back."

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” I read this week that Manute did whatever he could to help bring peace to the warring factions in his country. That, of course, should come as no surprise.

And finally, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.’ . . . ‘Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.” “Hey, look at that 7-foot-7-inch freak, Manute Bol—pretending to be a horse jockey; trying to play hockey; boxing William ‘the Refrigerator’ Perry!”

I’m sure Manute heard insults like those quite often—perhaps every single day.

Now please do not misunderstand me, I’m not canonizing Manute Bol today in this homily. I’m not declaring him a saint. That’s for God to do, not me. Manute was a human being and a sinner, as we all are. That means we should pray for him and for the repose of his soul—which is what we should do for all our deceased relatives and friends,.

But there’s a lot about his life that was good and worth emulating.

May God help us to do that and to live the Beatitudes faithfully in our own lives, so that we will experience all the rewards that they promise.