In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon titled, “Looking Beyond Your Circumstances.” It was eight years before his “I Have a Dream” speech that would change America’s course. In this lesser-known sermon, Dr. King suggests that one of the great temptations is to become too absorbed in our circumstances, which leads to the conclusion that changing our circumstances is the only way out of them. Under than mindset, Dr. King states, our personality becomes “thinner and thinner, ultimately disintegrating under the pressing load.” Martin Luther King concludes that we are part of the equation in determining the outcome our circumstances give to us. Seeing that can change everything.
My grandfather’s story was a legend we heard many times growing up, a true tale embedded in our family history. Each time I heard it, it nurtured the traits of perseverance and grit that run through my Serbian veins. With the recent struggle our country has had with whether to keep immigrants out, it’s ironic to think that some of our country’s best stories began with letting immigrants in.
At least my family thinks so.
Against All Odds
Todor Pero Polich left Serbia in 1906, at the time when his country was struggling under Austro-Hungarian rule. Like a multitude of immigrants across the globe, he came to America to make a new start. Boarding a boat by himself, he traveled two and a half weeks across the Atlantic, accompanied by no one he knew. At the age when I graduated high school, my grandfather left his homeland, never to return.
He knew no English when he arrived. His possessions consisted of a dollar in his pocket and the clothes on his back. After he got off the ship at Ellis Island, he traveled by train to California, where his fifth cousin gave him a job washing dishes. With only a few English words and very few contacts, he was lucky to get even that. However, Todor never limited himself to the way his circumstances might have looked. Instead, he viewed each circumstance as part of his journey and persevered to where they would lead him next.
Forty-one years later, my grandfather sold his first construction company for $7.5 million. That amount doesn’t sound like much until you realize that the year was 1947. After Todor sold his company, he started a second construction company, which he turned over to my dad after he retired. The money he made in his businesses didn’t only foot the bill of many of his grandchildren’s college education (including mine), it also contributed toward building several Orthodox churches that still stand today.