by Steven Waldman

Ok, whose bright idea was it to choose a most inspiring person? Every one of the 10 people nominated by our columnists and several of those added by the Beliefnet users offered breathtaking examples of courage, vision and determination.

And this, to be honest, came as a pleasant surprise to us. We had been discouraged that the year seemed to be dominated by people who became famous for being famous. Richard became famous for being a Survivor, using a combination of treachery and selfishness. George Bush became Time Person of the Year by being the most unenthusiastically elected president in history. Elian became famous for being exploited and victimized.

Compare that to the Beliefnet Most Inspiring nominees.

Disillusioned with our public officials? Look at Kim Dae Jung, the leader of the democratic movement in the South Korea, who had the generosity of spirit to pardon the dictator who had once sentenced him to death.

Repulsed by religious leaders who appeal to our worst impulses? Consider the work of Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama, both of whom have used their extraordinary influence to promote compassion, unity, and the best of their respective faiths.

Even more inspiring, for us, has been the behavior of some "ordinary" Folks. Craig Kielburger, as a 12-year-old, started a global campaign to save the lives and health of child laborers. Twelve! His group has already drawn together 100,000 young people and started 100 schools around the world. He's now 17 and still at it, showing that teen attention spans can be longer than we've been led to believe.

Omri Jadah provided a stunning counterpoint to the blind rage that now occupies the hearts of so many Israelis and Palestinians. Jadah, a young Palestinian construction worker, saw an Israeli boy drowning. He swam out and saved him, and died in the process. He focused on basic humanity rather than politics, and was hailed by Jews and Palestinians, perhaps the first common hero in many years.

Debi Faris, devastated by a news story about a baby found dead in a garbage bag at the side of a highway, made a personal commitment to provide the children a few things they never had.

She started by naming them. She felt that the ultimate degradation was to lead a life deemed so insignificant that you didn't merit an identity. Then she gave them a funeral and in a characteristic sign of her wisdom and empathy, invited the police officers that found the babies to join the ceremony. And join they did, wearing formal dress uniforms and bringing stuffed animals and little blankets to place in the casket. Since beginning she has buried 41 babies in the Garden of Angels. And at Faris' urging California this fall passed a new "safe abandonment" law designed to encourage troubled mothers to bring their babies to hospitals. The law goes into effect in January 2001.

All of these people were profoundly inspiring--as were our other finalists, Lance Armstrong, the bicyclist who overcame cancer, Joe Lieberman, who carried himself with great dignity as he broke a major barrier, and Azim Khamisa & Ples Felix, a father and grandfather who tried to turn an unspeakable tragedy into a way of breaking the cycle of youth violence.

But in the end, our choice for Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of 2000 is actually a couple--Donna and W.C. Martin of Possum Trot, Texas.

The Martins organized their church to provide foster care for 70 children and adopt more than 60. Not cute little newborns but older kids from troubled backgrounds--kids destined to present the new parents with a lifetime of serious challenges. And these are not wealthy families who can pay the nanny to take care of the children. Many are struggling, some living in trailer homes, but all decided that nonetheless they could give a bit more.

Their approach is both inspirational and practical. By doing this as a congregation, as a community, the Martins have insured that the children and the parents have a support structure to help them get through troubled times.

The Martins--and the other Possum Trotters or Bennett Chapel-ites--are making commitments not for a weekend of service or a year of mentoring, but a lifetime of love. Undoubtedly they would say that they don't view this as a sacrifice since they gain so much from it as well. And that makes them even more remarkable. To be selfless and view oneself as blessed, to be generous and view oneself as the main beneficiary--this shows special wisdom and grace.

Thank you, Donna and W.C. You are an inspiration.

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