The Rev. Johnny A. Phillips headshot

The Rev. Johnny A. Phillips is a retired minister and resides in Burke County. 

Whatever happened to character?

Or more properly phrased, why does our culture no longer highly value nobleness, honor and integrity in peoples' character?

Let's be honest: persons most likely to be emulated and envied in our society today rarely give of themselves sacrificially for others. Celebrities tailed by the paparazzi are more likely to live lives of grandeur while eschewing the poor working class. In the ghettos of large, inner cities, the Good Samaritan who returns to help others escape the slum scene are ignored, and it is the limousine-driving drug dealer whose lifestyle is coveted. The poor preacher sacrificing to serve a little country or inner city congregation for paltry salary is shunned, but the Lear Jet flying, tailor-made suit wearing pulpit egotist finds a entourage of want-to-be's. And the lady who delivers meals for every shut-in of the congregation then remains to clean up after each church dinner is taken for granted, but the Cadillac-driving, wealthy matron who has never lifted her hand to help the misfortunate of the community is courted as if a queen in hopes that she might write a large check to the church's budget.

Already known for his athletic prowess, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, a man set three world records and tied a fourth in what Richard Rothschild of Sports Illustrated called “the greatest 45 minutes in sports.” Then on Aug. 9 the next year, he displayed before the world a depth of character the world has too seldom witnessed. Before tens of thousands he braved the scorn of overt racism on Nazi Germany's 1936 Berlin Olympic's field and ran a leg of the 100-meter relay to win his fourth gold medal.

His name was Jesse Owens.

Said he, “The battles that count are not the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself --- the invisible ones inside all of us --- that's where it is at.”

In front of no one less than Adolf Hitler, fuhrer intent on proving the Aryan race superior to all others, Owens, from Oakville, Alabama, where he had experienced firsthand the contempt of pure racial discrimination, had already won gold in the 100 meter, the 200 meter and the long jump.

His friendship with his major competitor for the long jump, Lux Long, a German long jumper, is more inspiring than Hollywood could even imagine. Having failed at his first two of three attempts allowed to qualify for the long jump, Long approached him and shared advise that worked. When Jesse actually won the gold, Lux, in front of Hitler, returned, shook his hand and congratulated the American. They remained friends, exchanging letters despite the ensuing war between their countries. When Long's son married, Jesse Owens served as his best man.

Said he, “The only bond worth anything between human beings is their humanness,” and, “Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.”

Whatever happened to character? Why do we not emulate people like Jesse Owens? The onus lies not with them . We own the problem. When we can put selfishness behind rather than rewarding those who would trod on others to obtain another step up the ladder of success.... when we can refuse to hold others in high regard simply because of their wealth.... and when, instead, we value integrity and selflessness, we can have leaders truly who are filled with humane qualities.

Perhaps that great American Jesse Owens expressed it best when he said, “The road to the Olympics leads to no city, no country. It goes beyond New York or Moscow, ancient Greece or Nazi Germany. The road to the Olympics leads --- in the end --- to the best of us.”

Johnny A. Phillips is a retired minister and resides in Burke County. Contact him at

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