By Dorothy Wilhelm
Note: Father Lee Hightower, Pastor of St John Bosco Church in Lakewood is celebrating his Golden Jubilee; fifty years as a Priest. Below is a profile I wrote for The News Tribune in 2003.
Father Hightower gives homework. And that certainly has complicated my life. Every Sunday, as Mass ends, he turns to the congregation and says, “Now, here’s your homework for this week” – and he actually gives an assignment to be completed before the next Sunday. For goodness sake, hasn’t he heard that people look forward to going to church every week and not having to think at all? Just ease back and relax; Rest and recuperate. Leave an hour later feeling better about everything and put the whole experience out of your mind until next week. Doesn’t he know that? Apparently not. Homework assignments come naturally to this transplanted Montanan after 21 years as a teacher at Carroll College in Helena.
Rev. Lee Hightower arrived in our parish, Lakewood’s St John Bosco in 2002 at the end of a heartbreaking and turbulent period during which our community had lost a beloved pastor. Not all feelings toward the newcomer were friendly. He started in his usual way, with a smile.
Asked why so many former Montanans end up in the Northwest he cracked, “There’s a sign at the Montana State Line that says, ‘This is God’s Country.’ Those who can read settle there. The rest of us just keep coming west.” Tall and silver haired, his bearing gives evidence of his two decades as an Army Chaplain. He believes in the power of laughter to make people listen and get ready to make great changes “just one little bit at the time.” For instance, Father HIghtower buys his entire year’s supply of postage stamps at Christmas time “so all year, people who get my letters will remember that there was a Christmas and there will be another one.” And there will also be homework.
“Do one thing.” he said the first week he was at St. John Bosco, ”just one thing every day that you wouldn’t ordinarily do to make someone’s life better. “ Pretty easy, I thought: An anniversary card for neighbors celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary, vegetables for meals on wheels, say hello to a stranger, pick up litter at the park. That wasn’t bad but the next assignment was harder.
Next time, the homework assignment was to reach out to someone from whom you’re estranged. Hasn’t it ever occurred to this man that it’s only our estrangements and prejudices that are holding us together? There are lots of people I haven’t spoken to for years, and I’m O.K. with that. But after years of supervising homework it just isn’t in me to pass up an assignment. So I wrote a note to a relative with whom I have not been on good terms. She wrote back a pleasant cheerful note. Now I suppose I’ll have to send a note at least as pleasant and cheerful back to her. You can see where this is going. We’ll exchange pictures of the kids. Then, there’ll probably be phone calls, and in the summer I’ll drive down to visit her. There you are. A perfectly good estrangement, ruined. There’s just no telling how this will end.
Now, on top of everything else, there’s his latest homework assignment. “Look at every area of your life,” he says, “and see what you personally can do to change your relationships for the better.” Because of course, you can only change yourself. You can’t change others. Start small. Fr. Hightower advises, for example, that every husband should give his wife a single rosebud once a month. It just makes good sense. A bud lasts three days. She thinks of you all the time she’s looking at that bud. An open rose is gone right away.
Father Hightower is an active participant in “The Heifer Project” which trains the hungry all over the world to feed themselves. He frequently surprises nieces and nephews with the sponsorship of a goat or a flock of geese instead of a conventional gift. “Did you know you can get a goat for just $120” he says leaning forward enthusiastically. “Water buffalo and llamas are more.They’re $500, but worth it. My relatives know that they can expect to be the owners of livestock somewhere in the world.” (Learn more about the Heifer Project @ www.heifer.org.)
Father Hightower gets feedback from his homework assignments, he says. Last Sunday after Mass he lingered with a family that was celebrating reunion with a daughter estranged for 20 years.
Just look for small changes you can make, one at a time, is the best advice. Smile. Give a hug. You never know when a hug will keep someone from walking away forever. “The World is full of lonely people, he says, “if they all got together, they wouldn’t be lonely any more.”
We’ve come to our country’s birthday and the prospects don’t seem bright for the years ahead. That’s why I wanted you to meet Father Hightower. “Reach out.” he says, “ See where you can make a change. “Just do it one little bit at the time.” There’s an awful lot of homework to do.
Note: For his Jubilee rememberances, Father Hightower has designated Free the Kids (Freethekids.org) an organization that provides shelter and food for the children of Haiti, in honor of his niece Molly Hightower of Port Orchard, who was lost in the Haiti Earthquake.