Oprah Winfrey received the most votes-and one need only read the words of those who nominated her to sense the profound positive impact she has had on millions of people. "Oprah Winfrey has been the most inspiring person in my life," wrote Beliefnet member bluedragonfly2. "She has helped me discover myself, and my spirituality. She has helped me ask myself the important questions, to look deeper, and to become a stronger woman." Oprah is indeed an extraordinarily powerful and influential woman who has used that power to help people.
Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals football player, who gave up a multimillion contract to join the Army, provides a dramatic counterpoint to the other athletes who compete to set new marks of greediness. How many of us would walk away from millions of dollars to further a cause in which we believed?
Christopher Reeve's persistence enabled him to make unexpected progress in his personal struggle to regain movement, and he has used his celebrity status to fight for causes like medical research and insurance coverage for the disabled. Celebrities who are willing to spend their credibility capital to uplift as well as entertain-people like Oprah, Tillman, and Reeve, and, for that matter, Bono and Michael J. Fox-are worthy of praise.
This year, though, we have a bias toward ordinary people who took extraordinary steps. The example of John Holland-McCowan, who started an effort to help homeless kids when he was five years old, is a dazzling reminder that no one is too humble, too busy, too old, or too young to help others. Five years old!
We were inspired by the faith of the Pennsylvania miners and the collaborative spirit of their rescuers. Lisa Beamer, whose husband perished on Flight 93, harnessed her unwanted celebrity status into an effort to raise money for children of trauma-a graceful example of turning tragedy into something positive.
Ultimately, though, the choice for us came down to three: Voice of the Faithful, Sherron Watkins, and Asma Hakimi.
In 2002, there was no greater spiritual catastrophe than the crisis in the Catholic Church. Despite its historical low points (the Inquisition, the promotion of anti-Semitism), the Catholic Church as an institution and Roman Catholicism as a faith have provided peace, hope, freedom, and inspiration to billions of souls.
The pedophile priest scandal endangers the profoundly important work of the Church. In 2002, it became clear that the U.S. bishops were not going to adequately address the crisis-unless they were forced to.
Using e-mail and the Internet, the group grew to 25,000, including chapters throughout the country. The efforts of all these groups increased attention to the issue, pressured the bishops to strengthen their policies, and ultimately forced Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law to step down.
We are aware that nominating Voice of Faithful as "Most Inspiring" may be viewed as taking a stand against the Church. But we and many Catholics believe that at this moment in history, groups like Voice of the Faithful-even if we don't agree with everything they do-are helping to force the Church to confront a life-threatening spiritual illness.
Sherron Watkins came close to being the Most Inspiring because she was unwittingly on the frontlines of another spiritual crisis-corporate corruption. On a moral level, Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals were important not so much because shareholders lost money but because the scandals wouldn't have gotten so out of control without the complicity of hundreds of employees who either assisted or looked the other way. To stand up to one's supervisors and peers to point out wrongdoing-risking not only your own job but your friendships-takes extraordinary integrity and courage. We applaud Time Magazine's decision to honor Watkins and the whistleblowers at the FBI and WorldCom as Persons of the Year.
At one point, soldiers raided her school, beating students and arresting teachers. The school was closed. Hakimi's response? She restarted the school the next month. Sadly, the persecution of women has continued under the new government, so the work of Hakimi-who continues to run a girls' school-and others like her, remains dangerous and important.
Hakimi represents all of the women who risked their lives in Afghanistan to promote girls' education, and should serve as a beacon of hope to all those who fight against religious repression around the world.
We were also influenced by the fact that Hakimi inspires such a broad range of people-conservatives and Christians who admire her for standing up to the Taliban, liberal feminists who praise her commitment to empowering girls and women, and Muslims who admire her as a model of a forward-looking and compassionate Islam. She is therefore, both an inspiring and a unifying figure.