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What I learned about Servant Leadership from Saul Cruz

Saul Cruz passed away last December. He was the epitome of servant leadership— a gifted psychologist with a heart for God’s people. As the founder and director of Armonia Ministries in Mexico, he didn’t just feed and minister to the poor. He restored hope and dignity to all who met him.

As I sat in the fellowship hall of a local church for one of many memorial services in his honor, I felt cheated.

I’d only met Saul on a few occasions. A mutual friend involved in his ministry had approached me some months after our son Michael’s passing. Saul was interested in the group home for persons with disabilities that I’d been instrumental in starting here in town.

I agreed to meet Saul but assured my friend that I would not be going to Mexico. It was simply too soon after Michael’s death. I could not bear the thought of meeting even one disabled child who lacked the proper supports.

I know my limitations. I’d be the one caught smuggling three needy children across the border, sentenced to life in prison in a Mexican jail. Yes, that’s exactly how it would go. So, I knew, without a doubt, that I definitely would not be going to Mexico to meet Saul’s kids with disabilities.

Saul Cruz, founder and director of Armonia Ministries in Mexico Saul and Pilar Cruz

Then, I met Saul. He lovingly spoke about these families and their desire to know how parents in the United States provided for the many needs of their children. He further explained that these families had no governmental programs so they had learned to care for their children as a community.

I offered Saul a silent smile.

“Saul, you’re doing in Mexico what our families wish we could accomplish here. We want our children fully-integrated into the community. You’re doing exactly what needs to be done. I doubt I have anything to teach you or your families.”

The discussion continued. Saul never asked me to come to Mexico. He didn’t have to. I literally felt the presence of God move in between us. Before I knew what was happening, I heard myself whisper, “Saul, when can I come to visit these children?”

That’s how it was with Saul. God used him to move mountains—to free people’s hearts and quiet their fear of the unknown.

We agreed I’d come to Mexico on Mother’s Day, but it was not to be.

Sometime before the scheduled trip, Saul emailed me to say that it was best to wait. Things were a bit unsettled in Mexico, so we agreed to postpone my trip. Life got in the way for both of us, and I never made the journey.

Now, Saul’s gone, and his wife and two children are left to carry on his work. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to Mexico, but I know one thing for sure. I experienced in Saul Cruz, the essence of servant leadership.

We have a hundred-year history of leadership research in this country. Even so, we are baffled about what it truly means. There is no agreed-upon theory. Practices vary with many leaders confused about what to do when. For most, leadership is a title attached to a role or position or how much one earns.

Saul’s life tells a different story.

When the ministry earnings were down as a result of the recession in the U.S., Saul went without salary. He was a man who sacrificed much for the sake of others. He lived by the Word of God. He loved like Jesus. He taught others to experience God’s grace through humble service to those in most need.

I’ve been to a lot of memorials in my time. Many for great leaders. You come to understand the depth of a man’s heart and his legacy from the words and actions of those left behind.

Saul’s funeral in Mexico lasted for three days with thousands of people coming from rural and urban communities to honor his life. The shocking news of his passing hit Orlando like a tidal wave.

His memorial service this past weekend, however, was far more than a shared list of platitudes. For nearly two hours, we listened as person after person shared their journey with Saul and how he had changed their life.

What struck me the most was the testimonies of his wife Pilar and their two children. What I learned about servant leadership is that it begins with service to God. Saul was also a humble servant to his family. This life order allowed for rich purposeful work in the community and society-at-large.

You won’t find the lesson of Saul’s life in any text book on leadership. If you’re anything like me, I suspect you sometimes get it all backwards.

I’m often heard to say that leadership is a place to come from not a place to get to. Saul’s life proves that it’s less about our title or position. Leadership is about our heart and mind and how we conduct our lives in service to others. Then, and only then, does our life have the potential to change the world.

The memory of Saul will live on. His work will continue. His legacy offers each of us the promise that we, too, can have a tremendous impact on this noisy crazy world.

If you’d like to be part of what’s going on in Armonia, please join me in keeping Saul’s work alive. You can do so by visiting: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/118169.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. February 9, 2015