In the grainy photo I recognize her standing off to the side in a shaded corner of a hotel lobby. All around her students and staff prepare for an outreach event. The occasion is the Urban Student Leader’s conference in New Orleans-post Hurricane Katrina. It’s a perfect picture of Michelle, content to be silent and a little invisible in a room full of people. But if you had the privilege like me to be with her in planning this event, you would know her humble posture allowed others to take front and center, because she had fought and won battles to get us there. The insistence of her continuous and contagious advocacy taught us a new meaning of love.
Michelle Beckman joined Cru in the mid-nineties and went through our training center. That’s where I grew to love her wide-eyed-absorbing-everything-she-could, persona. While others glazed over during conversation, her pencil never rested, and her hand was always raised. She would stay in Orlando to train, inspire and eventually lead nationally. That’s the era of the photograph. Michelle was in the room because she got the challenges facing our ethnic brothers and sisters from underserved communities. Got it in a way few of us did at the time. How did this woman of German descent, from a farm belt in Wisconsin, see it so clearly? She had found a way to exchange her eyes for a pair God had trained to see the heart. This was ten long years before Cru took ethnic competency seriously, before a lot of us thought we got it; but were still a little clueless.
If you call her a forerunner, or a visionary, you’re mistaken. I call her a bastille of bubonic grace. Any time spent with her left you infected. The steel that would carry her through rounds of cancer treatments, was the same stuff she invested as advocate, a tiring and difficult post.
The room of students in the picture were there to minister to those whose world had been swallowed by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These students from around the country had been reared in under-served communities, yet were eager to give to others less fortunate. They never knew that this woman standing off in the shadows had fought in board rooms for the event, and convinced pundits that it was worth the risks and the financial cost. No, they had no idea the hours she had spent toiling over details, delegating, and praying. I think the photo is a symbol for the kind of life worth living. We will never achieve great things, unless we pursue greatness by willing to be invisible.
In the end her cancer would win, and a ‘too-young-to-lose-her’ Michelle was taken from us. Yet today, she rests her head on the pillow of great days, because during her life she fought for love, urged others to do the same, and modeled the courage to make it demonstrative. She did it all without a lot of fanfare. Only now stories emerge of people who sat across from her, wide eyed with fear, or perplexed, or even feeling marginalized, and how she lifted their head by words that had come to her in the deepest and most savagely fought battles for her own integrity. Her words infected them. Somehow after meeting, something remained in them that wasn’t there before.
When she was still here, I wondered to myself who would be left to mark men and women beyond the mission, deeply into where the root systems of prayer dwell, to be a voice of reason to a clamorous, busy bunch. Without that message, the mission feels too much like task, not love and influence. Who will call us back to communion with God, we who wait with the aroma of a feast heavy in the air, a feast to end all time. I haven’t met them yet, but we need them to replace her heart to pray, with their heart to pray. Could it be, dear reader of these lines, that you may be that fierce advocate?
It is the only way to rest our head on the pillow of great days.