Turn Around

December 25, 2015
Turn Around

On Nov. 18, 2014, President and Chancellor Ken Starr welcomed Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose lives were chronicled in the film and best-selling book The Blind Side, to the Waco Hall stage for On Topic, the president’s series of compelling conversations on contemporary issues.

The On Topic event served as the finale to the 2014 Texas Baptists' Annual Meeting held in Waco, November 16-18. More than 1,700 registered pastors, church messengers and guests took part in the annual meeting convocations and conference sessions over the 3-day convention. This year's Annual Meeting challenged participants to "Live the Difference," a theme based on 1 John 2:6.

The On Topic event helped conclude the focus on that theme as conference participants, Waco community members, and Baylor faculty, staff and students joined together to hear Sean and Leigh Anne share their perspectives on making a difference through giving and through offering opportunities to those in need.

Sean and Leigh Anne on Michael Oher and the story that inspired The Blind Side:

SEAN: It was 9:00 in the morning. It was spitting snow, which in Memphis is a blizzard. Everybody in our town goes and gets milk and bread. It was cold, and we were driving down the street.

The school was four blocks from our house, so there was nothing to see ... and Michael had been in the school six, seven weeks, and, of course, we didn't know who he was. And my daughter [Collins] said, "That's the new kid in school."

Well, the school was just your typical private school, lily white, you know, every corner of the school, and Michael's 6'6" and not lily white. Wasn’t hard to figure out who the new kid was.

And so we recognized that, and if there's an early lesson in this event today, it's that the truth is always consistent ... You can always tell when someone's lying when the story changes, but unfortunately, for me, the truth is consistent. And the truth is, I'd have driven past him at 35 miles an hour, wouldn't even bothered him ...

And my wife said two words to me as we passed him, and those two words changed our lives .. The title of our book is In A Heartbeat because that's how fast our lives changed. And she looked at me--didn't put it in a question for me, as you could well imagine--and she looked at me and said these two words, "Turn around."

So we tell people, "I don’t care where you are in life right now. I don't care what you're doing in life right now. If those two words can have the impact that it's had on his world, imagine what you could do with more than just two words." And it was nothing more than that.

Leigh Anne: It's amazing where God has taken us on this journey, from a young man that got off of a bus and walked five blocks to the high school...We did one simple, random act of kindness. And we tell people all the time, if someone that is as valuable as a Michael Oher almost falls through the cracks, can you imagine who gets left behind? Can you imagine?

We had the opportunity this afternoon [at Baylor] to talk to students here and faculty that are involved in the 40 or so trips they're taking each year, outreach trip and mission trips ... and that is such a wonderful thing because we tell them, and I'll say it again, that every single person that they come in contact with is potentially a Michael Oher.

Because Michael, for all practical purposes, should be dead. Every gang in Memphis knew who he was. The life expectancy of a gang bodyguard in Memphis is, I don't know, two years, three if you're lucky? We did this one simple, random act of kindness, and he's a thriving, contributing member of society right now. And all we did was love him. We offered him hope and we offered him love and we offered him opportunity. And it changed his life.

Leigh Anne on taking risks:

People all the time go, "Gosh, you took this risk. You took this big black kid into your house and you had a daughter the same age. What were you thinking?" I was thinking, "It's none of your business."

But the truth of the matter is we all take risks every single day. I can assure you that every person that is in this room ... I guarantee you, did not check the air pressure in all four of your tires before you came tonight ... It's what you choose to take a risk on. Take a risk on somebody. Take a risk, turn around.

It might've been a little risky. We have, for some reason, developed a yellow streak down our back in this country. We need to find our backbone. We need to stop locking ourselves in our house at night. We need to get out. We need to meet our neighbors. We gave our sanitation collectors some tickets to an NBA game the other night, and [someone said], "You talk to your sanitation workers?" I'm going, "Yes, I like them better than my in-laws. I see them twice a week."

Get to know people out of your social circle.

Sean on the popcorn theory:

My wife and I are trying to keep it simple, and when it came to giving, we weren't experienced. We were young; we didn't have any money, you know, and so we were kind of developing the--I don't know, the attitude and the ability to give. And then when it came about where we could, we go, "Now what do we do?" And she said, "You just--you can't be all things to everybody."

So the analogy is a big pot of boiling popcorn kernels, and if you look down on it, you know there's a lot of stress .. they're all stressed. I mean, that oil's hot and it's burning, and you’d like to help a million popcorn kernels, but you can't. And so you just kind of look at it. And all of a sudden, they start popping, and one hits you in the face. And so to us, we go, "There's a reason why that popcorn hit us in the face."

Now, Michael's a big piece of popcorn. But that's our theory. So we don't know what we're going to do or how we're going to do it, but when it hits you in the face, you do know.

Sean and Leigh Anne on Hollywood:

Leigh Anne: Well, Gil [Netter, producer of the movie The Blind Side] told us that .. there's a big meeting at Sony about some movies up and coming, and that the head of Sony said, "I want to find out what kind of cross that Tuohy lady wears on her neck because I want this lady to have one on her neck just like that." And I’m thinking, "Really? That's where we're going with this?"

But that's the misconception; you know, Hollywood doesn't get it. They don't get that this [The Blind Side] is really a movie that has been used to move the needle, make an impression-whether it's race relations, socioeconomics, faith traditions.

People look at it in so many different ways and go, "That's me. I did that," or "I want to do that," or "How can I do that?" And because we believe that this is a message, a story that God wanted to be told, and that's what Hollywood can’t accept and figure out.

Sean: Baffles 'em. It’s a movie about giving ... It happened to have a football scene in it; it happened to have my wife screaming at people in the ghetto scene. It had nothing to do with that. It was all about giving, and we’re a country of givers ...

You know, our country doesn't celebrate a day called "Thanksgetting." It celebrates a day called Thanksgiving, and that's all this movie was. It was everybody sitting in the audience, as Leigh Anne said, they'd look up at the screen and go, "You know, that’s a little bit of me up there." And I kind of like that.

Leigh Anne on adoption:

Not everyone can go out and adopt a 6'6"/350-pound African American young man. You know, he eats a lot, hard to find clothes for, has big feet. It's not for everyone, but you know what, there is something that everyone can do.

If you're sitting in this room right now, you were born with the ability to make a difference in someone's life. And you may not be the one that can go out and adopt, but you can go shoulder-to-shoulder and hand-to-hand with someone that is in the process or that has done the process.

We all can have a hand in the adoption world, and it is a crying shame that there are 140,000-plus kids-and the number is probably far greater than that-that do not have a family. We have them come to us every single day and look at us and say, "I just want someone to love me. I just want to know that when I wake up in the morning, that there’s someone that cares."

And we do a lot in this country. We may not can figure out who should be the right president, or we may not can figure out Social Security, or we may not can figure out the tax code, but you know what? … If every faith-based organization in this country would be responsible for putting one kid in a loving home, we would wipe out the need for foster care. That is what we, as Christians, should be worried about.

Sean on the struggles of raising older adopted children:

The easy answer is to keep loving them, and that's all we really did. We get a lot of credit for the way Michael turned out. He was 16 when he came to our house. We didn't do anything other than, hopefully, allow him to be the person he was supposed to become.

So if you get retrospective with it, that's a very hard question because everyone's isolated, and the instances are different, kids have their own issues, etc.

But during the war, when England was being bombed, Winston Churchill, who was the greatest orator ever - I mean, he could make a speech and the whole world would respond - and they were just bombing Britain ... every night, it was just relentless, and so he announced he was going to have a speech for the whole country. And the whole country was trying to figure out what was going to happen because it was just rubble. You know, London was just--it was a horrible situation.

Well, he got in front of Parliament and they broadcasted it, and he went to a lectern, and he just started pounding it. And he pounded it and pounded it, and all that came out of his mouth was, "Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." And that's what we tell people. It's not insightful. It hasn't cured any disease. But that's what we tell people, is they're worth it.

Sean on volunteering and mission trips:

I think that the lesson we learned through our kids is that we feel really good when we sit down and write a check and we send it to the United Way. I mean, we do. We feel good. But-and don’t stop if you're doing it because there's some great organizations doing wonderful things-but we watched our kids, as young as they were, when they were physically involved in something, how much difference it made. And it was so much more impactful than a check. And again, keep writing them. I mean, places need them, but it doesn't replace the boots on the ground.

And when SJ would come back [from working at an elementary school in an at-risk neighborhood], he would tell us stories that were just wonderful … and I remember going, "That's a lot more impactful than the check I just wrote." And so we learned from our kids … and I think we learned that it's one thing to be involved, but another thing to get involved.

Leigh Anne on making a difference:

Let's say in the next 36 hours, a lot of what will happen is, most everybody in this room, you'll walk by somebody-whether it's that guy holding the sign at the red light or whether it's someone that is working at your office, taking out the trash or weeding the flowerbed, or that you just see at the gas station next to you. We all tend to look at people and size them up. And you’ll look at somebody and you'll go, "They smell bad," or "Where'd they get those shoes?" and "They need a new shirt."

Well, that's what they said about our son. Society, as a whole, we value people so incorrectly. And I challenge you ... Trust me when I tell you that if I walk out this door and go within a quarter of a mile, there's ten Michael Ohers right there. It's not like you have to unearth something. They're right under our noses. Turn around. We tell people, "Get off of Main Street. Get out of your social circle." You, as an individual, can make a difference. The power of one is overwhelming. You can make a difference.

So when you go out this door, be careful, because that person that you're going to walk by, they could be a Michael, and all they need is a chance. They just want to be loved. They need opportunity. I tell people all the time, my two biological kids will put me in the nicest nursing home in the country, and Michael Oher will come and change my bedpan every day. Every day.