Recently, Nikki Dobbs, the 88th President of JCI Kalamazoo (aka the Kalamazoo Jaycees) asked me me to give the keynote address during the chapter’s Year-End Banquet. I was blown away and honored more than folks know. I immediately said yes!

The title of my speech was “How Well Did You Run Your Race?” and here’s what I said:

Good evening, my friends.  I am so very proud to have the honor of being the keynote speaker for our celebration of a year that we survived.  Seriously, who would have thought, at the beginning of 2020, that just surviving would end up being seen as a great success?

You know, as Jaycees, we’re used to setting goals that move us ahead.  Goals that make dreams come true.  Goals that make us do more than just survive … but make us thrive.

But shit, y’all, 2020 was all about just surviving.  If anything, 2020 was a very long race and the goal became, “just get to the finish.”  That’s what I want to talk about tonight.  

I want to ask you – how well did you run your race?

During the pandemic, I, like many other people, have been watching a lot of television that I normally wouldn’t watch.  Prior to the pandemic, my typical viewing pattern was something like this:

  • Monday Afternoon/Early evening after work – the news (Wood TV8, NBC, CNN and/or Fox somewhere in there).  That’s followed at night by WWE Monday Night Raw.  Don’t laugh … I know all of you still have a little Hulkamaniac or Macho Man Randy Savage in you somewhere!
  • Tuesday – Netflix binge or Youtube binge, typically something Sci-Fi or some political drama West Wing like thing followed by the news.
  • Wednesday – Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Chicago Chicago Chicago …  and then more news
  • Thursday – Law & Order SVU because Olivia Benson, followed by the news.
  • Friday – sports of some kind or if that’s not on, catch up on the DVR of Jimmy Fallon, Batwoman, or grab a DVD of something funny.
    • Speaking of Jimmy Fallon, did you catch this week’s hashtag? It was #AddAWordRuinALoveSong. My favorites were:
      • My Heart Will Go On … Tinder
      • Perhaps I’ll Make Love to You
      • I Saw Her Keg-standing There
      • Quit Playing Games with My Heart Monitor
      • Can You Feel the Love Handles Tonight?
      • Always Be My Baby Yoda
  • Saturday – is all about college football and SNL because Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong (or if it’s a rerun – Maya Rudolph)
  • Sunday – sports of some kind, or investing time in saving Washington, DC on my PS4 (which really, I pretty much fit in every day).

Over the last few months, however, I’ve added some new stuff to the routine.  Documentaries on the Catholic Church, history of the Pope, biographies of Martin Luther and the like. OH and WandaVision (and y’all have to start watching that if you aren’t already)! 

Anyhow, I’ve also added watching a show that comes on after SNL called, “Your Move with Andy Stanley.”  It’s one of those late night informercials type of spiritual programs.

Now, let me pause here to reassure you that I’m not about to start preaching.  Ask Fay, Angela, or Niki and they’ll tell you that when I start preaching, I typically use that Baptist growl voice that my maternal Grandma loved back in the day.  It is usually accompanied by some swaying back and forth like there was the Brite Lite Choir behind me singing Halleluiah” when I ask “CAN I GET AN AMEN?!”

Yeah … that’s not happening tonight … at least not on purpose.

I mention Andy Stanley though because, while he is the pastor of a church in Atlanta, he isn’t one who forces the Gospel on you.  More often than not, he’s just talking about learning from other people and what he takes away from wise people.  And he often talks about leadership and how to be a strong intuitive leader.  He recently shared the following on his YouTube channel:

“Leadership, for the most part, is about taking people on a journey.  But the challenge is, that most of the time, we’re asking people to follow us to places that we’ve never been?  For example, a pandemic combined with an economic shut down that’s left us teetering on economic meltdown while navigating social unrest during an election year.  Ever been there before?”

Yeah, me neither.

He goes further and says, “We’re on our own, but we’re not alone.  We’re not alone because there are people looking to us for direction, reassurance, and hope.”  

Lots of things that we need too, don’t you think?

So … how well did you run your race?

When President Nikki asked me to speak tonight, I asked her what she wanted me to talk about?  She shared how her theme for the year was To Infinity and Beyond.  But as we got into the year it changed and it began to embrace the compassionate qualities of perseverance and the need to support others.  It turned into Be Excellent to Each Other.  To show this, I point you to the March edition of the Kazooan Online, where she wrote:

“With everyday feeling like a week, I’m all discombobulated.  If you’re discombobulated too, then please know that I see you.  I’m with you.  You’re not alone.

In times of craziness, people want certainty.  People crave it.  But good leaders know, in crazy times, you cannot provide that.  You can’t because certainty is all about the future … and if there’s anyone here who knows the future then I wanna know why didn’t you warn us about 2020 in the first place … and even more, I wanna know why you didn’t tell me the winning Power Ball numbers three weeks ago!

Yeah, we can’t provide certainty and with any luck we won’t make the mistake of promising certainty to others because that will just set all of us up for failure.  But I hope that we all can take note of what President Nikki did, at the start of the pandemic and throughout all of 2020.  

She gave us hope.

Why is that such a big deal?  Here’s where I pull from the Apostle Paul.  

When Niki and I got married, one of the readings at our wedding (and it’s one that is read often at weddings) comes from his first letter to the Corinthians.  You probably already know what I’m about to say.  Paul reminds us that, of all the gifts that humans have been given, there are three that are the best.  Faith.  Hope.  Love.  Yeah, love is the greatest of these – I’m not going to argue against that.  But I am going to remind you that hope is pretty damn good too.  It is vital for people who are going to survive tough times.

For the parent who lost their job, they need hope.  

For the high school student stuck at home who hasn’t seen their best friends in person in forever, they need hope.

For the Broadway actors who haven’t performed on stage in over a year, they need hope.

For the undergrad student studying for a final in a class that’s is kicking their butt, they need hope.

For the business owner trying to figure out the cash flow with only being able to have 25% of a restaurant’s capacity in their place, they need hope.

For people of color and those in the LBGTQ community, who have been and continue to be denied the fair treatment that all people deserve from our country and their fellow citizens, they need hope.

For the single mother trying to figure out how to pay rent or who is facing the decision of “Do I pay rent or do I buy groceries,” they need hope.

St. Paul knew that as well.  In times of trouble he reminded the Romans in his letter to them that, “… we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance proven character, and proven character, h0pe and hope does not disappoint.”

Put another way, let’s grab a quote from Season 6 of The West Wing, where Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) said: 

“In a life of trials, in the world of challenges, hope is real.  In a country where families go without health care, where some go without food, some don’t even have a home to speak of, hope is real … Hope is what gives us the courage to take on our greatest challenges, to move forward together.  We live in cynical times … but hope is not up for debate.  There is such a thing as false science, there is such a thing as false promises, and I am sure I will have my share of false starts.  But there is no such thing as false hope.  There is only hope.”

Still have doubts? Ask Stephen King.  After all he wrote this line in a book which then got turned into a movie (which also gets on my TV routine whenever it’s on): “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

So how well did you run your race?  

Did you give others hope?  Did you keep the faith and believed in hope?  If you did, then you can proudly proclaim, as St. Paul did, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

Thank you, President Nikki, for giving us hope.  Thank you, for your shining example of perseverance and for your love of the people in this Chapter and throughout Kalamazoo.

If you ran your race well, you can also say that you are ready for “a year to serve” which we all know is President Tina’s theme for 2021.

President Tina, I personally am excited to see what you do this year because this marks ten years since I experienced my time as the 87th JCI Michigan President.  Ten years ago, my Executive Vice President/Chief of Staff was a guy from Redford named Adam Bonarek.  I can testify with a full heart that I wouldn’t have been the 87th President and wouldn’t have survived being the 87th President if it was for him.  I can see that, between your desire to serve and his call for Building Bridges, 2021 will not only be the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel we’ve be running through, but it will be a new birth of our common goal of building leaders all across Michigan.  My advice to both of you, aside from enjoying every single moment you have as President of the greatest young person’s organization in the world, is to go out of your way, every day, and give your members hope.

If you do that, you’re gonna have a year to remember that will rank high in the list of highlights of your life.

My thanks again to President Nikki for the invitation to speak tonight.

I ask that the Angels be there for all of you to help keep you strong and that peace is always within you.

Thank you and good night.