Have you ever met a person whose purity of heart and sense of sacrifice literally rivals belief? My skeptical personality often denies the existence of such people.
But it shouldn't. I knew one such person well, and I hope his example inspires all of us.
I was in the third grade when I first met Tewolde Asgedom, a boy my own age whose family moved to our country from Ethiopia through a church mission. They fled danger from warring factions in their homeland.
Neither Tewolde nor his three younger siblings spoke a word of English. His father, who had been a physician in Ethiopia, developed severe sight impairment. Between that disability, and steep differences in medical qualifications of our country versus Ethiopia, Tewolde's father only found work in menial jobs.
Years later in high school, Tewolde and I became best of friends. By that point, this young man and his siblings were honors English students excelling in school. Tewolde also schooled our group of friends on a regular basis in pickup basketball on my folks' driveway.
He had grown very pure at heart, always listening and giving what little he had to others who had less.
As the oldest child in his family, Tewolde also was doing something none of his financially privileged classmates grasped. He was about 16 when he started his own housecleaning business — working this job into a schedule already busy with after-school studies — to aid his family's meager means.
His brother Mawi recalled Wednesday how Tewolde sent $20 of those proceeds every month to an impoverished child he was sponsoring overseas.
By this time 21 years ago, Tewolde was doing all of these things while garnering offers of full-ride college scholarships.
I remember speaking with him, 21 years ago yesterday, about his plans to drive to Montana the next day — the beginning of our Christmas break — to meet with a former youth pastor regarding upcoming summer missionary work.
It was the last time I would see him. On Dec. 19, 1992 — 21 years ago today — a drunken driver traveling the wrong way on a South Dakota highway slammed his vehicle into the front of Tewolde's car. At the age of 17, an embodiment of pure kindness was dead.
My feelings blended deep sorrow and rage. In my mind, severe punishment — retribution — was warranted.
But what happened next was truly extraordinary. A short time after Tewolde's death, his sister — a couple of years his junior — wrote to the culprit in her brother's death, forgiving him.
The kindness of Tewolde's heart, the pureness of his example, did not end on that South Dakota highway. It lived on through his sister and brothers.
So did his drive for excellence.
Younger brother Mawi graduated high school with a full-ride scholarship to Harvard. When he graduated Harvard, Mawi was voted by his class to speak at commencement, just before then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Mawi is now a motivational speaker and author, taking the message forged by his brother to young people all over the country.
As we approach the holidays, I hope the example of Tewolde continues to inspire us to fill our own lives with extraordinary kindness and a drive to excel for the good of all.