John, the Good Luck Man
At a time of gun violence and fear, a wandering troubadour for love and good fortune might just be seen as a security risk instead of a missionary.
After attending a meeting at which Middle School students shared their opposition to gun violence, I found myself reflecting on a remarkable person I knew as an undergraduate. John, the Good Luck Man, as he was affectionately known, visited my college campus everyday, rain or shine, to share his joy and optimism with everyone he met. Thinking of John in this context left me overcome with nostalgia for a simpler if imperfect world we inhabited before Columbine, one that retrospectively and selectively seems more innocent than I appreciated.
John was more recognizable to my classmates than any faculty member on our rural campus. Each morning at 7, this kind and eccentric man scaled the steps to the academic quad, wearing a black trench coat and high round-toed work boots as his vestments. With both hands in front of him, he clutched an oversized paper bag stuffed with mittens, ski caps, a Bible, a handful of keepsakes, and a few sandwiches secured from the local food bank. The bag seemed to pull him perpetually toward his mission, often blocking his view without slowing his purposeful gait. Thinning gray hair slicked back on his pale forehead, John peered around the edges of the tattered brown sack, dropping it with relief and purpose when he reached the library. There, he staked claim to the high-traffic area where he could minister to the locals.
John greeted each of us with the same message: “Good luck.” Day in and day out, he shared these words with genuine interest and caring, no questions asked. He assumed goodwill and good intent in everyone he met and exuded a joyful positivity he selflessly conferred to others. Those who engaged with him would be welcomed into his ministry. Bible in hand, he preached a universal love rather than chapter-and-verse brimstone. “We have so many blessings, we are so fortunate,” those conversations would conclude. As long as we had faith and focus, evil would be eradicated, blessings would rain down upon us, and we could immerse ourselves in the resulting joy. That was his gospel, and when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the wall to be torn down, it seemed the prophecy had been realized.
We might not expect a man of John’s humble circumstances to live with such happiness. After all, he lacked necessities that most of us are fortunate enough to take for granted. It was not clear, for example, that he knew where he would find his next meal, even if providence often delivered him to a fraternity house kitchen. While we students moped around campus with self-imposed angst—our largest demonstration of defiance came when the faculty voted to abolish the Greek system—John taught us to find peace within ourselves, to express gratitude, to long for and forge connections with others. Through his words and example, he taught us that humanity mattered.
When will we find the courage to lay down our weapons so that our children can love and learn without fear?”
John’s memory evokes a time far less complex than ours. The challenges our students now face were merely nascent in the 1980s, even if those of us approaching adulthood during the Reagan-Bush era thought we had plenty of torches to carry and swords to fall upon. There were real problems. But looking back now, it seems like we were chasing windmills, innocently convinced that perhaps our faith and good fortune to be educated would enable us to solve the major problems that threatened our common humanity.
In 1989, Don Henley declared the end of our innocence. Little did we know, however, that innocence would continue to dissipate with each passing generation. And we would subsequently come to understand that unless we became more vigilant, so too would our shared veneration of humanity, a concept I once naively believed we all were dedicated to honoring. Today, it’s hard to imagine that John, who would likely be identified as a security risk, would be permitted to have a pulpit from which he could teach his privileged clientele how it might see the world differently. His presence on any cam- pus today would raise anxiety about security; his simple message would have no meaning in a complex moment where we cannot take for granted the ability to learn and live in relative safety.
How do we respond to student concerns about gun violence when our broader society has forsaken their safety in favor of a right first asserted in an archaic context? How might we work with students to create meaningful change and embody the peace testimony? How can we affirm and help students to develop resilience in dangerous and disjointed times? When will we find the courage to lay down our weapons so that our children can love and learn without fear?
These are questions we can ill afford to leave to chance. I fear, however, that our children are paying the price for our collective willingness to have done so. Will they ever again experience the blessings of innocence?
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