On this day, 3 years ago, a car accident forced a loss on many people by taking away one of the most beautiful souls that ever lived. Her name was Esperanza which is the Spanish word for hope. I only ever knew her as Dean Muniz.
The day she was killed was, I'm fairly certain, the worst and most unthinkable day of my life. It was traumatic and planted grief very deeply in me. But I have already spent time in mourning beyond my heart's content. I let the pain mingle with every wound it seemed I'd ever had and it took on a life of its own. For a long time I felt dead inside and it was worse than the freshly violent grief. I don't want to focus on pain and sadness today, though I will Certainly Always, ALWAYS miss Dean Muniz and cannot wait to see her again in heaven. I want to remember Esperanza in a way that uplifts, inspires and comforts whoever reads this status.
Before I graduated, when I took Philosophy of Service, I wrote my topic paper about Lamson Hall and Dean Muniz. I was granted quotes from June Price (who was once a fellow dean at Lamson and is now the University Chaplain) and Dr. Clifford Jones, who I knew as the man who spoke at her funeral. The following is a compilation of excerpts from my paper.
I knew Esperanza Alvarez-Muñiz as simply, “Dean Muñiz.” I met her in the spring of 2009 as her cancer was finally going into remission. During our first conversation, she wore a hat because her hair hadn’t yet grown back in due to the chemotherapy necessary to save her life. I was struck by the beauty of her calm presence. She lived out altruism and gently poured it into my heart in that first conversation, which is still one of the most vivid I ever had with her. To review definitions, altruism is the unselfish interest in the welfare of others, according to – again – the Philosophy of Service Handout on “The Language of Service.” Altruism takes service to a deeper level. Simply listening for free and giving back loving advice for free, as service, does a great deal. But what touches a person’s life forever is altruism, which actually engages the other person’s heart in a genuinely invested way. Altruism goes beyond peaceful acceptance. Altruism begins a relationship.
In Christianity today, regardless of denomination, our statistics of debt and divorce are – so I’ve heard – the same inside the church as outside in the secular world. There are atheists whose love and charity put Christians to shame and sadly news cycles don’t seem to be at a loss for stories about religious leaders who don’t represent God at all. These days, for the most part as far as the secular world is concerned, Christians are not known for their love. Altruism is another word for agapé, which is God’s brand of love. According to the Strong’s Concordance, agapé means love, benevolence, and goodwill. At Dean Muñiz’ funeral, Dr. Clifford Jones gave the eulogy and said near the end, “Esperanza was love.” That sounds like possibly high praise, but to those of us who knew her it was utterly apt. We’d never known anyone like her, yet we didn’t worship her above Jesus. She showed us Jesus in her person. Also, it’s not impossible for a human being to make choices to refine oneself into a transformed human being. Like practice can make a beginning “Suzuki twinkler” into a virtuoso over time like Itzhak Perlman, humans can learn to be altruistic in an Olympic sense and maintain such a personality and lifestyle.
1 Corinthians 13’s passage on the definition of love is a series of choices – not feelings – that actually go against the initial grain of one’s feelings in the moment; therefore love is something that can be learned and practiced. Making choices against the grain of one’s feelings is what makes true love so stunning to receive; that is what makes it a service. Love is altruism. Altruism is practicing love for other people. Loving one another well is a labor that creates loveliness in our lives, which we desperately need in the twenty-first century wherein secularism and self-focus is at a shameless height.
I collected comments from two individuals who knew Dean Muñiz via email and interview: from June Price who was a fellow dean of Dean Muñiz’ at Lamson Hall and still works there; also from Dr. Clifford Jones, the associate dean of the Andrews University Seminary. In her email, Dean Price shared, “I first met Dean Muñiz when she worked as a student dean for us. I first saw her humility and kindness. As I grew to know her deeper, I saw a gentle, compassionate, funny woman of God. Espi’s life was a great lesson in joy, perseverance and surrender. In the good and on the bad she would always run to God, not away from Him. She would take her very real hurt, pain, disappointment and despair to Him, knowing there was no one better to take it to and be totally honest with. She was a warm and loving human being full of joy and perseverance. I believe she left a legacy of integrity, inspiration and encouragement.”
One might argue that I am straying too far from service and delving more into too much spirituality, but I am convinced that true service – which doesn’t fade and impacts permanently – is born out of a relationship with God. In my first religion class at Andrews University before I ever became a religion major, Professor Susan Zork taught us a crucial principle I’ve never forgotten: “If I don’t have five dollars in my pocket, I don’t have five dollars to give you. You can’t give what you don’t have.” We can’t give service if we’ve never experienced the phenomenon of it.
Service is grace. And we certainly cannot give altruism if we’ve never had a connection with God of some kind. There are atheists who represent God better than Christians and Christians who won’t be in heaven, because of their state of heart and how willing they were to be pressed like grapes into sweet juice for others. Romans 2:13-15 refers to individuals who have not heard the law, yet “who are righteous in God’s sight” because they “show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts…” This makes me think of loving atheists as opposed to Christians who turn the gospel into another system of behavior, devoid of authentic connection. I am not saying it is unnecessary to be a Christian in order to give what the world needs. I am exhorting the more potent combination of having a compassionate heart coupled with a relationship with the God who created us and best understands what paths we are to take and how, with the hearts of others. And in our cluttered, rushed, power-grubbing century, we need this more than ever.
“Women who are stunningly beautiful are women who have had their hearts enlarged by suffering” (Page 143, Captivating). “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love” (Mother Teresa). There is a pang of truth to these poetic quotes, but the praxis of them seems veiled. A simpler metaphor is in building muscle. You have to exercise in a way that challenges and discomforts you in order to ultimately become strong, otherwise there’s no value in the exertion.
Christian culture writes feelings off too much and secular culture worships them; both are problematic. But what will cultivate service and altruism is to begin laboriously embracing the dialectic of valuing both feelings and principles like a parent embracing two children who are in conflict with each other for the purpose of reconciliation. Our culture both in and outside the church talks a great deal about the value of our choices and debates are often themed on our right to choose. It’s why we have sin (separation from God) in this world: God created human beings with the capacity to reject Him. That same capacity of will can help us return to service and redeem lost time. How we exercise to become fit for service and capable of altruism is through making choices to engage with community and with God. This engagement will feel awkward at first, but it’s a universal truth that transition periods are never graceful. Perseverance is the key; it was one of Dean Muñiz’ frequently listed attributes. Perseverance is a choice that inevitably churns out results.
I was so powerfully moved simply by Dean Muñiz’ friendship that I’m repeatedly amazed at the many new things I continue learning about her, from just the week after her death to years later. When I went to the seminary to see if I could get a statement from Dr. Clifford Jones, I was told, “He’s a hard one to catch,” which I could understand. And so I was surprised that when I told him what I was writing a paper focusing on Dean Muñiz, he invited me into his office, shut the door and gave me a generous twenty minutes of his busy day, unrushed and completely present. I think it is yet another testimony of the lasting impact altruistic lives have; their memories are cherished ones.
Dr. Jones shared with me, “Esperanza was a gem of a human being…she was deeply spiritual as you know; she loved God…she was passionate about mission and ministry. She was an advocate for those who were marginalized…she was a teacher – elementary school level in New York City; that also sensitized her to need, working with children in the inner city. Her caring and compassion and spirit and soul were formed and developed in New York City…I have nothing but good memories of her; she left a legacy of caring, authenticity, she lived a life of integrity, she was transparent, she was always encouraging whenever you spoke to her; very positive. Her outlook on life was very positive. … This might sound almost cliché…the way she responded to, reacted to and engaged her illness [cancer]…I think she left a lesson for people who struggle with a terminal disease or diagnosis at a critical time in her life. Indefatigable…she just kept fighting back with her cancer. She was a fighter. I think that was the irony of her death. That she had won that fight [cancer], yet the tragedy of a [car] accident… I think hope encapsulated her life. She was always about hope. Fitting that her name ‘Esperanza’ meant in English hope. Because she was all about hope."
“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24b-25). According to an average dictionary, hope as a noun is “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” And as a verb, hope is “to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence…to believe, desire, or trust.” According to the Strong’s Concordance for hope in the book of Romans, the Greek word is “elpis,” which means expectation, trust and confidence or to anticipate and welcome; expectation of what is sure.
A woman whose name meant hope touched my life forever through service. Her ripple effect on my life – especially after coming out of extremely difficult years due to grieving her death and other losses – has taught me how crucial hope is to service. It is concrete to me now, not cliché anymore. Getting involved to serve our mess of a world is to sign up for a high risk of disheartenment. Only hope can sustain continued service in such a broken, needy world full of shallow sarcasm, numbness, abuse and terror.
Hope comes from altruism’s brand of love, which comes from God, which fuels service indefinitely. Galatians 5:6b says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” and 1 Corinthians 13:7-8a drives home why that is the case: “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Of course the one thing that will never fail is the only thing that counts. Pure logic.
A great deal of this paper is from Scripture and is of a spiritual nature, but it is so crucial that we don’t miss this, because what this paper is about is the lifeline, fuel and enhancer for all other types of service through avenues of medical care, political aid, financial donations, transportation, starvation relief, dismantling of the sex trade, and more. The tools of service and altruism will be kept sharp and effective if we pursued a transformation of our hearts through a relationship with God to have real, tangible love to give and a hopeful belief and expectancy that goodness is truer to life than evil, which would fortify all we do with the trustworthy security our global community both craves and needs so deeply. This security would nurture others to mature, grow and share the same thing with others in the ripple effect that would truly make the world a better place.