“He Gave Me Strength”
I was a young buck preacher, serving two small churches in Macomb County and he was a well-respected Judge in Oakland County in the prime of his career when we met around a great tragedy. Tom, a young man in my church at the peak of his athletic prowess as a swimmer, had gone out for his daily swim and never came back. Later they found his body floating in the lake. I’d had plenty of funerals before. In fact, in my first appointment out of seminary I had 19 funerals in the first year. That must be a record. But I had never dealt with a tragedy like this one. His family was shocked and devastated, of course and his college age friends were stunned. One of the people who came to the funeral was Keith Leenhouts. Tommy had been in his Sunday School class in the church in Royal Oak, so of course, Keith was there. We meet in the funeral home just before the service and I was a mess. I had no idea how I would hold it together in order to meet the needs of the multitude of family and friends who were arriving in waves of grief. Keith took me by the shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, “You can do this. When you need strength, take mine. I’m here for you.” I did the service, found the strength and still believe that it came from Keith. I moved on to another church and our lives were separated by many miles and years. The last time I saw him was about 3 years ago. His health was failing and memory was short, but he still remembered that day when he gave me strength. And so did I.
I wasn’t the only one whose life was blessed by this crew-cut judge. Keith created a program called “Volunteers in Probation” which became a national model for involving volunteers as mentors for young offenders, making a huge difference in the lives of dozens of young men whose lives were radically changed for the better. The program was written up in Look magazine and in Reader’s Digest and he received numerous awards for the work he did. But none of those awards gave him as much pride as his sons. He was passionately involved in their lives and wrote a book which became a movie called “A Father, A Son and a Three Mile Run.”
Most of us will never be nationally known judges like Keith. Most of us will never write a book or make a movie. Most of our lives will never be written up in Readers’ Digest, yet all of us have the opportunity to touch the lives of others in ways that bring strength and courage, comfort and grace. Each of us have the potential to make a difference in someone’s life right here in Benzie County. In endorsing Keith’s book, then Governor George Romney said, “In helping others, there is no substitute for the one-to-one relationship based on loving and caring for another person enough to help him help himself. Keith has enlisted legions in doing just that.”
Keith died recently at 90 years old. I have no idea how many lives he touched through his volunteer program, in his years of Sunday School teaching, in his robust friendships. All I know is I was one of them–a young green-as-grass preacher who found strength though him. And I hope perhaps I have been able to do the same for someone else. Those are the times when faith really matters…and makes a difference.
Rev. Dr. John E. Harnish