Voices: Woody Collins
by John Van Nuys ’83
July 10, 2008
Most of us who are trying to live a life of faith have, by the time you’ve reached my age, passed from the earnest zeal of younger days to where we are now.
Some of us are still in the fray for God. Others of us have largely given up. And still others of us oscillate between the two: We try to be faithful. We try to stick our necks out—occasionally. We try to keep hope alive, but let’s face it, it’s not easy.
The pioneering genius of developmental psychology, Eric Erickson, states that, come midlife, we have a fork-in-the-road choice to make between what he called stagnation or generativity.
If we choose to give ourselves away, then we create, we generate: We create families and we give ourselves away to our children as their parents. We find someone or something to love and we do that freely and fully. We may create a business or we may give ourselves to a cause. The point is to give ourselves away. That, says Erickson, is health.
If we don’t do that—if we hoard our life-energy, narcissistically lavishing all our attention on ourselves, then we stagnate.
In short, we cease to live. Jesus said much the same thing when he said that those who only want to save themselves will be lost.
But those who lose their lives for others will discover the very best life of all. The kind of life that simply has no end.
That is the kind of life Woody Collins is leading. Woody recently retired from the Army, where he worked as a civilian in the Army’s massive payroll center in Indianapolis. In his retirement, Woody has not immersed himself in the tedious task of endlessly entertaining himself. Instead, Woody has immersed himself in one of world’s worst trouble spots—The Democratic Republic of Congo.
Formerly the Belgian Congo, Congo today is in economic collapse. Thanks to a decade-long low-grade civil war, millions have died. AIDS is rampant, and one of every five children dies.
The world has chosen largely to look away. But Woody has not. With faith that makes the prophet Elijah look like a C student at DePauw, Woody has stood with Jesus looking out not on thousands who are hungry, but millions. And like that boy who shared his loaves and fishes, Woody has dared to stand up as a child of God, saying faithfully to Jesus, "Here I am. Here is what I have. Help me be a blessing."
Since 1996, not only has Woody traveled multiple times to Congo—a feat in and of itself—but he also has adopted the village of Bulape in the West Kasai Province as, essentially, his new hometown.
The rural health station there is a hospital with 50 beds. It is the sole hospital for a geographical region in Congo equal in size to South Carolina. If you live in the Bulape health district and if you are lucky enough when—not if—you get sick, then you try to make it to Bulape hospital. I say try, because a lot of people die out there in the rainforest because their appendix burst before they get to Bulape or the child died in the birth canal because they just couldn’t make it there in time.
During the past 11 years, Woody has focused on helping Bulape Hospital save more lives. He has set up the hospital with solar units and shortwave radio communication, and he has worked tirelessly through his church and friends and community to raise funds so that the hospital has more drugs so that more people are treated, so that fewer people die.
Woody just got back from a juried competition in Washington, DC, held by the World Bank. Bringing his business skills and faith together, Woody, in alliance with Bulape Hospital, Congo’s National Health Ministry, and an Indianapolis not-for-profit organization, worked up a proposal. They would provide funding to set up a micro-factory to assemble jungle transport vehicles called Basic Utility Vehicles (BUVs) for every village in the Bulape Hospital district. Larger than a 4x4 but smaller than an SUV, BUVs are three-wheeled vehicles powered by a 10-horsepower diesel engine and propelled by a pickup truck drivetrain. Woody’s vision is to get every village a BUV that can run on biodiesel, which can be produced locally.
In addition to transporting sick folks to the hospital so that more folks survive, these amazing, versatile Basic Utility Vehicles can also be used to grind grain, pump water, generate energy, and transport agricultural goods to market. All of which creates sustainable economic development as well as better health for Congo’s long-suffering people.
Out of thousands of development projects submitted to the World Bank, Woody’s $200,000 proposal was one of 104 finalists—which came from 42 different nations, all hoping for funding. The competition was steep; all the proposals were good, and Woody’s, while it had everything going for it, was just not picked.
How did Woody respond to this stinging setback? He’s undaunted. In it with God for the long haul. Basic Utility Vehicles or not. World Bank funding or not.
And so, last spring, Woody hosted his annual Taste of Congo dinner at Faith Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis: $20 per person with a silent auction of moderately priced items to follow. Raising what he can, to do whatever he can, for these people he has come to call his own.
The saints of God—those folks who get what faith is all about and who know how it is to be lived—just keep at it. And so what began in eager innocence as youthful optimism becomes with age and over time the hard-won wisdom of faith, which is hope, which is different from optimism.
Woody is not optimistic, but he is resolutely hopeful that the deep things of God—God’s will for this world—will be established. That the meek will be blessed and that all who mourn shall be comforted. That God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Optimism can’t go where God and Woody are going. But hope can. Only hope can. Hope that refuses to quit. Hope that keeps faith and neighbor alive. Hope that keeps going, fully aware of the cost, but bearing that cost, cross-like, knowing that this is the only way that the deep, good things of God are borne—are born—in this world.
Excerpted from a sermon delivered at the Big Bash Reunion Weekend, June 2007.