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  • Reverend James Squire


I read an article recently about the life of Tyler Perry. He is the fabulously successful black producer who owns a 330-acres spread that he opened as a studio complex that employs a thousand people. He is a certified billionaire, a best-selling author and the creator of 24 feature films. Everyone should know the other side of the story. He grew up with an abusive and alcoholic father, was homeless for a period of time, and lived out of his car. He credits two things to his fabulous success, the people that believed in him and others who underestimated what he could do. His philanthropy is widely known. Giving to others is a key to his moving forward. It is not necessarily giving money although Cecily Tyson fell on hard times and indicated in her memoir that Perry found out about this and hired her for a day to be in one of his movies and paid her a million dollars for the day and continued to support her for the rest of her life.

There are themes in the article about his life. As a result of his financial challenges in life, people underestimated him which was a key motivation for him. He gave away a good bit of his financial success to others, and his values were based on questions that he asked others in the same way that he asked these questions of himself regarding his son, 7 years old, Aman. “How do you protect your child? What do you teach your child about becoming a man?”

People need to know how being underestimated can become a powerful force to make something of your life. It is like the playground of our early years that if you are not picked by a peer to be on their team, one of two things happen. You accept it or you work harder to show your peers what they missed in first underestimating you.

Most of my life has been involved in ministry and education. My memoir, The Times of My life, had an earlier different title. It was From Janitor to Jarvis Fellow. Like Perry being underestimated was a powerful motivation in his life for him, it is true for me as well. But to be fair, would anyone have been able to picture Perry’s success if you rolled the camera catching an image of him sleeping in his car? Would anyone have bet on me if you rolled the camera when I was cleaning public restrooms in my high school as a “scholarship?” The smart money would not have put anything down on either Perry or me. There were people who believed in him and people who believed in me. Others underestimated any chance of making a difference in the world of film or of school by either one of us.

I literally find myself saying to folks who are friends when my I am in a risky situation, challenge, or back against the wall, “Don’t bet against me!” Like Perry’s questions, my life has been about keeping people safe and helping them to become better people. I got a special thrill seeing students who are underestimated thrive beyond all expectations. I was particularly excited when a student would address chapel and share their faith and story that no one knew but me. I have had some Cecily Tysons in my life. I didn’t give them money but I gave them a chance to be more than anyone they thought could be after some big bumps in the road of their lives.

In the Spring I got a video sent to me by a former student who has become very successful. When he was a student, he was unfocused and underestimated, but he practiced piano in the chapel where my office was located. I knew something that others didn’t. He was a gifted piano player of classical music. However, “he kept his light under a bushel” to use biblical language. I made arrangements for him to play the piano in our theater in an assembly during his senior year. He was reluctant to do this, but finally agreed.

The school was buzzing wondering what antics this student would do. Some faculty were angry for wasting their time as they were required to attend. There was still much laughter with people poking themselves in anticipation of the embarrassment that would begin. Then he began to play. A few seconds later there was silence, a hush fell over the auditorium. I stood in back of the auditorium and watched students look at one another in total shock and disbelief at what they were hearing and seeing. He received a standing ovation from both students and faculty.

The video that he tweeted to me was this student sitting at a piano playing a piece of music surrounded by his friends. He looked into the camera and said, “This is for someone who gave me a chance!”

Underestimated is an incredible motivating force, but it is more forceful when it is correcting the misperception of others and believing in others and taking a chance on them, and then seeing them thrive. I don’t know if they echo my words, “Don’t bet against me!” but I know that is how they must feel.

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