Genes + Geography Grace = Gratitude

Phillip Jimenez, West Cook Y leader, on blessings

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Since 2014, Phil Jimenez has been CEO of West Cook YMCA in Oak Park. His resume includes vice president for Institutional Advancement, Lutheran Child and Family Services; president of San Miguel School, South Side of Chicago; and president and CEO of the National Museum of Mexican Art.

When people applaud him for his achievements, for working hard and pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, he deflects their praise, giving much of the credit to "genes and geography."

By genes, he means he had nothing to do with the genetic code his parents handed down to him. His native intelligence and other attributes are not products of his own efforts but gifts.

By geography, he means that he was raised partly in Forest Park and attended Grace Lutheran School in River Forest, locations where he could thrive. To use the imagery in the Parable of the Sower, his seed did not fall among thorns which choked it, or on the path where it got trampled, or on a rock where it couldn't take root, but on good soil in a nurturing environment.

Comparing his life to the thousands of refugees with Hispanic surnames like his who are languishing in camps just across the Rio Grande, hoping against hope to be admitted to the U.S., he notes that many have similar IQs and talents. The main difference is the geographical bad luck of being born in Central and South American countries where violence and corruption made living intolerable.

Rev. Dean Leuking, his pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, said, "Phil Jimenez is the capable man he is today because of what he has gained from the skills and values derived from his mother, a woman with amazing strength and panache."

After his father died when Phil was just 1, Sophie opened a wig-making shop and raised her family as a single parent. 

"Many people," Jimenez recalled, "would come into my mother's salon [as] broken people. They had lost their hair because of cancer treatments or because they suffered from alopecia. She had a style about her that allowed her to connect with people. All I knew was that a person would walk in not whole, and when they left, they were feeling better. My mother put into my heart and mind this idea of being a person who helps people feel whole again."

He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1993 with a degree in political science, entertaining fantasies of becoming the first Latino mayor of Chicago, and then spent a year on his own working in Spain and exploring Europe where he was less religious. 

"I always knew I had a strong faith, but I was probably more resistant to structured religion than I was to the concept of faith. I wore a cross, so I always had that connection, but it was not always a screen I looked through intentionally."

On returning to the U.S., Jimenez worked for Inland Steel, and three years into that job he was asked by the company to open an office in Mexico where he met his wife-to-be, Beatrice. They were married at Grace Lutheran in 2005.

As he prepared for marriage, he questioned what his career meant to him. 

"Phil was a rising star at Inland Steel," recalled Leuking. "While at home on break from his work in Mexico, he took me out to lunch and said, 'Now that I've landed such a good job and am making lots of money, I'm finding it unsatisfying. I don't want to chase dollars as the goal of my life.'"

"It was 2001," Jimenez explained, "and I'm struggling whether to go into a nonprofit because I'm scared of how sacrificial a nonprofit would be."

But he accepted the position of vice president for Institutional Advancement at Lutheran Child and Family Services which was at that time located in River Forest. Part of it was his experience at Grace Lutheran during his grade school years and reinforced by Bible studies there as an adult. He believes that God calls us to see our work not as a job or even a profession but as a vocation. Even more important was the witness his mother gave him.

"You have to understand," he said, "I grew up very blessed. I am not the traditional Mexican immigrant. I had a private education. I lived in the suburbs. I had access to everything I needed. I had support systems that not all of us have when we move to a new country, so for me education and winning the geography and gene lottery were things that I can't take credit for. So the idea here becomes, how do I dedicate my time to making the world a better place for others, which is what my mom got to do?

"From that perspective," he added, "the greatest gift my mom transferred to me was about helping people without seeing it as a sacrifice. I never felt my mom sacrificed anything at what she did."

Genes + geography grace all added up to gratitude and a life devoted to making the world a better place.

It's a good story to share as we approach our national day of thanksgiving.

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