John Morford, professor and dean emeritus in the College of Education at Seattle University, is devoted to helping others and serving the poor. Last year, at age 80, he was elected president of Seattle/King County Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He also manages the Friday food bank and Sunday dinner for the homeless with his wife Jerene at Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Church.
He spent 10 years on the faculty of John Carroll University in Ohio, where he founded one of the first programs in the nation to prepare teachers to work in poor inner-city schools. He has also served as a consultant to the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Office for Catholic Schools.
In 2008, he received the Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Humanitarian Award from Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.
Talk about your faith journey and the role your Catholic faith plays in your life.
For a variety of reasons, I really never got involved in religion until I went to college. I had the great good fortune to end up at Gonzaga. The exposure there to theology, philosophy and literature, etc., really opened my mind. About the same time, I met the woman who has been my wife for 60 years, who is as wonderful a Catholic as you can imagine. It’s kind of a coincidence of those two things. I grew up in my faith and took my first Communion while a student at Gonzaga.
For the next 13 years or so, I spent a great deal of energy studying the faith, reading everything from Aquinas to Chesterton. I spent a lot of time with Scripture. From that point on, I guess I always defined the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross as that point where you realize it’s Jesus or nothing. At some point, that hit me between the eyes like a 2-by-4. I never looked back.
My faith journey from there has been more putting it into action in my life as a professor, as an educator, as an administrator, as a father, as a husband, as a member of a parish, and now in St. Vincent de Paul and other works I’ve been involved in — trying to make that real every day.
How has your faith guided you as a teacher and educator?
If you really are into what Jesus said about loving people and helping those who need help, then education is really the absolute center of that. I would argue that there is nothing more important in terms of serving society, helping the poor, than having a quality educational program at every level, formal and informal.
I always tried to see the face of Jesus in each person — that student over there that’s spitting on the floor, or that kid who’s taking a nap and he’s supposed to be doing his homework, or this kid who’s brilliant but doesn’t believe in anything — to recognize that each one of those individuals is that person Jesus was talking about when he says you must love one another.
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Where did your interest in social issues begin?
I think growing in my faith during college and spending a lot of time studying my faith after that, I just reached a point where it wasn’t like a decision on my part to care about social service and the poor — it was simply that if you are a Catholic and you’re a follower of Jesus, it’s automatic. I mean, I realize there are Catholics who don’t give a darn about the poor or social service, but in my opinion, that’s a sin. I find it really hard to think that anybody could read the New Testament and not be really committed to the poor.
What do the poor teach us about our Catholic faith?
I think the basic thing is: Poor is not better or worse than us. There are poor people who are the greatest people you’ll ever meet, there are poor people that are really rotten finks, and everything in between. That’s true of the upper class and the 1 percent, etc. One of the things you learn from working with the poor is: The poor are us — somebody that happened to have lost a job or somebody that happened to have a stroke, etc.
As a Vincentian, we keep reminding ourselves over and over that the face of Christ is in the face of the poor.
You co-authored a book, Life After 60? Yes! Choices for Managing the Third Part of Your Life. You’re obviously doing that.
As you get older you need to find things that are meaningful, and focusing only on yourself is not going to accomplish that. The research is really clear that the people that live the most successful lives as they age are people that focus outward — it could be family, or it could be the parish, or it could be the larger society — doing something that makes a difference. That’s absolutely central to healthy aging. It affects your health. It affects your attitude toward life. It affects your happiness. If you sit around and watch TV and sip beer, it doesn’t work out. It’s OK to watch a game, but if that’s all you do, you’re not going to be a happy, healthy person.
What’s your daily prayer life like?
You know, pretty routinized, to be perfectly honest with you. I pray as I awake in the morning. I pray at all my meals. Exercise is very important as you age, and I’ve linked my exercise regimen to my prayer life. So I walk a mile or two every day, and I do a lot of praying during that walking time. I have another set of prayers that I do during floor exercises. Then, of course, there are special events like going to Mass, and at St. Vincent de Paul meetings we always pray, that sort of thing.
If you had only one last message to leave the handful of people who are most important to you, what would that be?
“God loves you, and so do I.”
Is there anything else you would want to share about your faith life?
As people get older — people of my personality type particularly — one of the things that really matters to them is the kind of example, the legacy they’re leaving behind. I’m very conscious at this point in my life that what I do and don’t do matters not only to me but to a lot of other people. That means my grandchildren, my great-grandson, people I work with and people I am in St. Vincent de Paul with. I would hope I’m leaving an example of what a follower of Jesus looks like.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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