VISION AND INSPIRATION
by Michael G. Sullivan
The meaning of inspiration continues long beyond that fateful moment. It grows. It expands. It multiplies. As inspiration takes hold in the hearts of those blessed enough to have been encompassed by its power, the flow of time and humanity is changed.
In May 1981, an assassin tried to take the life of Pope John Paul II. Gene was in Rome at the time and had gone to the Vatican to catch a glimpse of the popular pope. Soon after the assassin’s bullet passed Gene’s head and nearly took the pope’s life, Gene began to realize that the attempt on John Paul was not because he was Catholic, but because he was Polish. Gene knew something “more” must be done than just expressing sorrow for the pain brought into the world by a bullet.
I do not know what it was like for Gene as the full light of inspiration came, but I do know when the fullness of inspiration dawned upon me. My portion of the inspiration did not come in full as Gene explained his vision for an effort he was asking me to undertake in November 1981. He asked if I would accept the job as national director of “Food for Poland.” The full meaning did not come even months later when Food For Poland had become a public charity and we were well underway with our activities.
The light of Gene’s inspiration came to me only later as I stood in front of the Ark Church in Nowa Huta, Poland, outside of Krakow. As the Bishop of the Ark Church spoke to me about the struggle of the people past and present, I learned what had motivated thousands of Poles to say mass for my baby daughter.
The church was named the “Ark Church” by Pope John Paul II, long before the assassination attempt. The Pope referred to the church as the “Ark in the midst of the red sea,” because the heart and soul of the people of Nowa Huta had gone into building the church during the Soviet communist domination of Poland. Often building at night in a cornfield, the foundation rose as the corn grew. Now many of the same people who had built the church were gathering to say mass for the baby daughter born to my wife and I while I accompanied one of many food, clothing, and medicine shipments our group had sent to Poland.
I had accompanied the shipment to Krakow. As we stood and watched the people gather around the church, the Bishop asked if I knew how thankful they were for the relief supplies we were delivering. Then he asked if I knew how much bread the flour in our shipment would provide to these people. He answered his own question: “One small dinner size roll for each person.” Clearly as the shock of that statement came across my face, he calmed me… no, no it is not the amount of bread that they eat it is the nourishment they gain from knowing “they are not forgotten, they are not forgotten.”
One of the kernels of Gene’s inspiration was that the people should know the world had not forgotten them in their time of need. The knowledge of “being remembered” was brought to millions of Polish men and women across Poland. Those who I saw that summer day came because the light of Gene’s inspiration had touched them. “Michael, we could do one big event and call it enough, or we can do more,” Gene said on the day he asked me to lead the day-to-day organization of Food for Poland. Now it was clear “more” is what was happening in Poland.
Twenty-six years after the first light of Gene’s inspiration flooded over me, I am once again standing on Polish soil, this time with Christine, my wife, and Karen, our youngest daughter. Christine had never seen Poland in person yet loved the people for the kindness they showed me and our new baby daughter, Amy. Now we stand at that same Ark Church on Annunciation Day 2008. As we hear the organ playing and see a temporary high altar set up on the plaza outside the church, I remember, once again, the sound of the music and the people gathering. Now we see all of the people streaming toward the church as the bells call the faithful to mass. How sweet it was for my wife that she could, across so many years, share a little of the same feeling I had, on that spot, with the Polish people.
That was not all we experienced on this journey back to Poland. As my family and I walked the streets and sat in the churches of Poland we looked for signs of a strong and contributing people today. All of those who worked so hard during the 1980s in the cause of Food for Poland had some knowledge of the kind of people the Poles had been—strong, full of faith, and self-reliant. The many volunteers had faith the Polish people could once again regain that confidence. Despite the trials they were going through at the time, the struggle of the Solidarity Movement showed the world the heart and soul of the Polish people.
Now, we sat several nights in a new restaurant that had just opened that week. We saw the entrepreneurial spirit in full bloom. The proud husband and wife and all of their young waiters and waitresses were filled with enthusiasm. We saw a vibrant economy going through all of the introspection and public discourse a nation should have as they actively join in world commerce. I remember a photograph we used on a Food for Poland flyer that had signs being carried by people in a crowd. Some said, “We Want to Eat,” other signs asked for “Food for Our Children,” but one loudly proclaimed “Poland in the Future Will Export Food.” Now they fed us.
We went to Poland to see first hand what had happened to these strong people since the days of our effort to help, but in this day of electronic communication, the final testimony of Gene’s inspiration came from Africa.
Our eldest son, now an ecologist, was on a research project in the heart of the African continent, and we received an email from him about a man and his son who had joined them at the camp. He wrote, “One of the volunteers, Lucas, who came to work on the farm is a successful management consultant from Poland. His English is perfect. He conducts business in many countries. He is staying at Lajuma for a month with his son to learn more about nature and help everyone out. We spent a bit of time together, and I told him about your work with Food for Poland. He asked me to pass on his thanks and observation that your work was successful. Many people in his family benefited from the food and clothing donated through your program. In particular he has fond memories of a pair of jeans that zipped at the ankles—old 80s style. Certainly some of his success today can be attributed to this boost he received through you.”
Thank you for the inspiration, Gene.
I met Gene through my cousin Roselle. She was living in TucsonArizona at the time and had heard about Gene and his idea to do some humanitarian aid for the Polish people. Rosie, as we all know her, felt a strong desire to meet him and find a way to help. She took an opportunity to visit her parents, Carma and Richard Anderson, at home in Provo, where Richard was a professor at BYU. While there, she made an appointment to meet Gene at his office on campus.
During the conversation Gene expressed his need to find someone who could devote full time to the effort. Rosie was prompted to mention that she had a cousin who lived in Provo and that he had some management and marketing skills. His name was Michael Sullivan and Rosie thought he might have some time and an interest in just such an endeavor.
As my wife Christine tells it, we had just settled down to a dinner of nine home grown vegetables when the phone rang. Somehow the concept of Poland and those vegetables has been solidly fixed in her mind. Almost immediately the beauty and desirability of the effort struck into my heart. As Rosie described the man that Gene was and the goals he had set to help the people of Poland and her own personal commitment to the cause, it was very easy to agree to a meeting with Gene.
We got together later that week. It was simple. He spoke of his experience in Rome, his efforts since returning, and a description of some of the people he had recruited to work and guide the effort. I learned something about the people who were his friends, students as well as thought leaders such as the Catholic writer Michael Novak. Later one of our Board members, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, later Ambassador to the United Nations, taught me how to do a “proper news event;” a skill which has helped me professionally for the rest of my life. One of the students Gene had recruited was Mitch Davis, who, along with his new wife and while still in school, had happily accepted the responsibility of coordinating the college student effort around the country. Mitch would later become a skilled professional movie producer and director. Then there was Rosie, a mom, and an LDS Relief Society member who now added the work of spearheading the effort to get the word out and collect donations of all kinds in Tucson.
Of course I said yes when Gene asked me to take on the day-to-day leadership of the Food for Poland effort. I believed what he had told me, and he trusted me from that moment on. Never did I doubt his trust, and over the years that followed I cannot remember a time when he questioned my judgment or leadership. Of course it was not all “perfect,” but somehow in Gene’s kind and quiet way he directed the effort as he defined the direction.
We had religious and governmental leaders across the county, who had never met Gene, issue Proclamations that would declare “Food for Poland Day” (or month). Others would organize community donation drives or parades in honor of the effort. Utah’s Governor Scott M. Matheson was one of those leaders who helped expand the effort in Utah. He issued a proclamation that declared Food for Poland month, participated in the Provo Freedom Festival that honored the Solidarity campaign in Poland, and supported the National Truck Convoy that gathered food, medicine and clothing all across the country.
The National Convoy was one of the highlights of those years. When it arrived in Chicago to be loaded into land/sea containers for shipment to Poland, it was met by half a million people as a part of the Polish Day Parade held every May. Standing in front of the national news cameras with the mayor and many other dignitaries, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin stepped forward and thanked all of those kind people across the country who had helped to gather and transport so many hundreds of tons of relief supplies. Then he turned and looked straight into the cameras and said that “the Mormons had done more than anyone else in the country to help the Polish people.” He then paused and smiled, then added, “except the Poles in Chicago.” Although I was in Chicago and Gene at home in Utah, I’m sure he also smiled just a little.
Food for Poland really wasn’t a “Mormon” effort, for it had become a national one. The LDS Church was a major supporter in that they supplied us offices at no cost for many years, donated tons of supplies, and members all over the country participated in donation drives. Poles, Armenians, Catholics, Mormons. Food for Poland had become the country’s way of showing solidarity with the Polish people in their struggle to survive and to be free.
Gene could have just held that “one big event” and been justified in having done something good for the Poles. However, his vision and drive was always greater than that. Like many other parts of his life, Gene gathered willing participants around him and did much, much more.