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Learning Humility in the Fields of California

Do you like running? What about inspirational movies?

If you like either of these two, then you may enjoy following my posts on the second Thursday of each month. I’m going to be writing on leadership and basing my comments on the movie, McFarland, USA. It is based on a true story. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching it before next month’s post (you can rent it on Rakuten TV or Sky Store). It’s worth adding, however, that the posts in this series can also be appreciated by those who haven’t seen the film.

I’ve chosen this movie, because it contains a veritable feast of leadership themes. Indeed, they seem to burst out of the film like confetti at a wedding. Jim White, the main protagonist, is a teacher, who portrays a multitude of behaviours associated with great leadership. If I were training leaders in a company or a non-profit, and I had limited time, I would simply screen this movie and say, ‘You want to be a leader? Watch Jim White. Be like him.’

Before my opening comments, here’s a very brief synopsis.

Set in 1987, a college football coach named Jim White loses his job, forcing him to re-locate to McFarland, USA, an overwhelmingly Latino small town in the fertile central valley in California. He notices that many of the students are strong runners. They work in the fields as fruit pickers, before running miles to get to school, then returning to the fields in the evenings. He forms a cross-country running team and begins training them. He has no experience and has to watch videos to learn how to train cross-country.

The students call him ‘Blanco’ or ‘homes’ (short for homie, or homeboy). They start out showing very little respect. He comes into conflict with his team. They come from families in which there is no expectation of anything else but fruit picking. That or petty crime. After his fastest runner, Thomas Valles, argues with him and runs off, Jim finds him sitting on a bridge contemplating suicide. He talks him down.

Gradually, the team improves. It starts to win. But then a setback—the Diaz brothers (three of them) are taken off the team to work in the fields for longer hours. White decides to join them, doing the back-breaking work of picking cabbages. He persuades them to return by altering the hours when they train. They start to call White ‘coach.’ His wife, Cheryl, further integrates into the community by running a tamale and car wash sale to raise money for new uniforms. They also hold a quinceanera (a fiesta when a girl turns 15) for their daughter, Julie, an important ‘rite-of-passage’ event in the Latino community.

Eventually, the team qualifies for the State Tournament, setting the movie up for its triumphant ending. However, as all movie script writers know, the coming glory must be placed in peril just before the end. This happens when Julie, in the company of some of the team, is almost seriously injured after the party (the actual event is not shown). This angers White and he contemplates an offer of employment from another school, much richer and predominantly white—a position he had always hoped for.

The movie ends with McFarland winning its first State championship, after which Jim White breathes out “McFarland,” announcing his decision to stay in the small town that has become his home.


McFarland, USA is based on a true story. The makers do not claim to be recording the story with historical accuracy. White himself is quoted as saying, ‘It’s not a documentary. It’s based on a true story, but not everything’s factual. It’s still an enjoyable movie.’

Jim White didn’t arrive in McFarland in 1987 after being fired from another school. He started teaching there in 1964. The running program started in 1980, but they didn’t win their first championship until 1987. Jim and Cheryl White have three daughters, not two, and there were no overweight runners on the team. These are just a few of the differences between reality and drama. However, don’t let these differences detract from the many lessons contained in this wonderful story.

Let’s start with humility.

I start here because it’s important to recognise that White is never portrayed as perfect. Nor does he see himself as a person without faults. Indeed, his very first act in the movie is to lose his temper and throw a running shoe—spikes first—at a football player, which causes accidental injury. When the family arrives in McFarland, he is quite open about his desire to move. He doesn’t speak Spanish and shows no particular desire to integrate. His language skills (which never improve) are terrible. In conversation with a Latina teacher, he’s invited to participate in all kinds of social action projects. His response is, ‘You know, it’s not really my sort of thing’. He forgets his daughter’s birthday; he can be terse and taciturn. He’s got hard edges.

And yet he’s humble. How is this communicated?

He apologises.

I’ve long wondered what humility really looks like when properly expressed by a human being. As Christians, we often point to Christ’s humility, especially as described in Philippians 2. But how do we ourselves display it? If it involves the notion of ‘emptying’ (kenosis) and ‘giving up’, then we see this in spades in Jim White’s life. (A post on this subject will come later.) However, how often, when conveying humility, do we end up presenting ourselves with false modesty? (Previous post here.) Downplaying one’s role as a leader with false modesty destroys one’s ability to cast vision, and inspire a community. It’s also a sure route to sounding like Uriah Heep.

There has to be another way, and thankfully there is.

First, we can start by apologising. And we can start by being honest when things aren’t going well. No more spin during congregational meetings. Inspirational leaders take responsibility. They apologise when they make mistakes. Second, I propose an approach to leadership based on the principal idea in Alan Noble’s book, ‘You are not your own’. What liberation awaits us when we consistently and regularly remind ourselves that our lives belong to God. He made us, he has bought us, he owns us, and he invites us to live for his good pleasure.

Having embraced the idea that our lives are not our own, we are called to willingly and freely turn our attention to becoming ‘other-focused’. We give our lives away to other people. We seek to live for the benefit of others. As a leader, we need skills (we’ll come to those later) but they’re futile unless we become people who lay down their lives for others. That’s why leadership is primarily relational. It’s people-focused. And people are hard to love. It’s costly.

Jim White modeled an ‘other-focused’ life, but it pales in comparison beside the Lord Jesus, who gave himself up for us. He surrendered his glory to get his hands and feet dirty among sinners. Because he loves us.

So be honest when you make mistakes. And give your life away.

That’s the thing about humility. The truly humble don’t spend much time thinking about it. And they certainly don’t aim for it.

They just live. For others.


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