When Christians live as Jesus told us to do, loving God and serving others, folks notice. Even the New York Times!
A recent headline in the New York Times was guaranteed to get readers’ attention. It said “Finding America’s Mother Theresa.”
Talk about pressure! Whoever the article described had some huge shoes to fill: Mother Theresa was a beloved humanitarian who was both a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a Catholic saint.
While Annette Dove of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, probably won’t win a Nobel Prize, and as a non-Catholic, won’t be canonized, there’s plenty here to admire and emulate.
Dove’s story, as told by Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, is a remarkable one. At age 16, Dove dropped out of high school and married a man not only incapable of loving her but who also physically and mentally abused her.
The end of that marriage left her as a single mom and taught her an important lesson: the importance of being “equally-yoked” with a person who shares your morals and values.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, “America’s Mother Theresa,” like her Calcutta counterpart, is a Christian. As she writes in the preface to her book, “Birthing the Vision,” “My prayer is that this book will help those who find themselves in a new place of seeking God for their purpose in life. It is important that you understand that God should always be acknowledged, first.”
“No journey will be easy,” she continues, “but if you allow Him to take control, by trusting in Him with your whole heart, and leaning not unto your own understanding; victory will be waiting for you.”
In Dove’s case, “victory” has taken the form of TOPPS, which stands for “Targeting Our People’s Priorities with Service.” Dove started TOPPS after spending several decades as a special education teacher with a decent salary and the security that went along with it.
Today, as Kristof tells his readers, “Dove works seven days a week and struggles month to month to pay the bills with donations, foundation support and a state grant; when the money runs out, she prays.”
And she has no regrets. At TOPPS, she and volunteer mentors are keeping young people in school, preparing them for college, steering them away from drugs and crime. During the summer, TOPPS feeds 600 people a day. Young men are learning things like “how to tie a necktie,” and “how to look a job interviewer in the eye.” At TOPPS meetings, they talk about politics and what’s going on in the world. And they talk about personal responsibility: finances, how to make a budget, how to treat girls with respect.
As Kristof says, “This training doesn’t erase the damage from troubled schools or dangerous neighborhoods, but it helps.” Kristof says that men and women like Dove are the ones who “keep their fingers in the dike and avert catastrophe.”
“By force of will,” Kristof continued, Dove “creates opportunities for kids who have none—and reminds us that whatever happens in Washington, there are miracle workers at the grass roots.”
Actually, Dove would hasten to emphasize that the will that matters most at TOPPS is God’s, not her own.
People like Annette Dove, “get no headlines, no reward, no glory, and they regularly have their hearts broken, only to soldier on to help the next child.” And yet, Kristof says, they “help to restore my faith in America.”
To which Dove would no doubt reply, what needs to be restored most is faith in the God she serves.
A few years ago, Warren Smith and I wrote a book called “Restoring All Things.” As the subtitle says, it’s about “God’s extraordinary plan to change the world through ordinary people.” We had not heard of Annette Dove and TOPPS back then, but like so many stories we tell in the book, this is what restoration looks like: an “ordinary” woman going to extraordinary lengths to teach kids how to change their lives for the better.
And of course, how to always put God first.
Further Reading and Information
Serving Others Gets Noticed: The New York Times Finds a “Saint”
Annette Dove’s inspirational story is highlighted in the New York Times article, linked below. Read other accounts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and giving the glory to God in John’s book, “Restoring All Things.” Get your copy at the online bookstore.
Finding America’s Mother Teresa
Nicholas Kristof | New York Times | December 3, 2016
Birthing the Vision
Annette Dove | October 2016
Available at the online bookstore
Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People
John Stonestreet, Warren Cole Smith | Baker Publishing | June 2015