September 23, 2014


Philanthropy can fill empty chairs

Bill Laramee

Bill Laramee

My wife and I recently attended the funeral of a dear friend of Berea College.

The service reminded us of the memorial services for friends of the college and other organizations that we have attended over many years and how each service captures at some level the philanthropic life-cycle of many.

It could be found, for example, in the reflective remarks of the minister and friends, or in the obituary, or in the suggestions that "in lieu of flowers, please send memorial gifts to Berea College."

The philanthropic cycle then often continues beyond the passing of the donor-become-friend since the legacy and spirit of the deceased is kept alive through a still-living spouse or family member.

It is, however, different since that familiar literal or figurative chair, where a friend of the college once sat, is now empty.

It's uncomfortable to even think about sitting in the empty chair - the one where "Bill sat," for example, and shared his most passionate ideas about world peace and social justice.

Other empty chairs help to recall Liz's probing questions about fairness; Mim's irreverent but genuine mistrust of religion coupled with her deep commitment to race relations; Anne's deep concern for the holistic health of others, and many more.

Not uncommonly, when the immediacy of shock and processing wears off, the future conversations ever so slightly shift to questions of immortality and how investing in others is life affirming and can provide comfort and hope.

These special and most introspective and personal moments also underscore the reflection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich."

Basically, Bonhoeffer's words, in the context of development work, point to the importance of not only seeing one's life in the present but in the continuing sphere of the resurrected spirit and the unfolding from one generation to the next by the sharing of gifts -- in gratitude. 

The conversations, laughter, appeals and frequent suggestions for ways to improve our sometime-broken world are missed, of course, but the spirit of philanthropy found within our friends is not totally gone but instead may now smile upon those who continue the generous and joyous spirit of serving and giving to others.

The chair may be empty but it still receives others with warmth; it provides light at times of "darkness."

Such is the faith and goodness of those who build trusting and respectful relationships for the good works of many organizations and causes -- truly a life-giving calling.  


Bill Laramee is vice President for alumni and college relations at Berea College in Berea, Ky.


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