At the event celebrating the tenth anniversary of my Toastmasters home club recently, I raised the question of whether our group remains relevant. Many events have transpired in the intervening ten years to warrant that discussion. Those assembled that afternoon concurred as I made the case for our relevance over the next ten years and the decade beyond that.
The world has changed even more immensely in these first ninety-one years since the first Toastmasters meeting. Our members have witnessed the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the expansion of transcontinental travel, the rise of talking pictures, the evolution of television, and countless Cher and Rolling Stones comeback tours. The exponential changes to commerce and to how we communicate through telephony, video, and the now-ubiquitous internet have altered in many ways how we engage our fellow human beings.
A story I shared with my home club colleagues on our anniversary may illustrate in part why Toastmasters will remain relevant long into the future. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and human rights activist, offered a parable about four rabbis:
The people of a certain village called upon Rabbi Abe to lead them through an ordeal threatening their community. The rabbi journeyed into the woods, where he found a clearing. There he built a ceremonial fire and spoke a prayer of intercession. As he returned to the village, Rabbi Abe learned that the crisis had been averted.
Some time later, Rabbi Baruch was called by the village to seek mercy on their behalf. He took the same path to the same clearing in the nearby forest. Baruch did not, however, know the specific directions for building the ritual pyre, but spoke the prayer of intercession. The crisis to his village was averted.
Rabbi Chaim, called as his predecessors were, trekked into the forest. He did not know the process for building the ceremonial fire, nor did he know the words of the solemn prayer which had twice redeemed his community. He meditated quietly, having invoked mercy within that sacred space. He returned home to find the village at peace.
In yet another generation, the community called upon Rabbi Daniel to provide guidance. He walked into his study and raised his hands in prayer:
“Lord, I do not know the instructions for building that sacred fire. I cannot summon the holy words of intercession. I cannot find the path to that revered clearing in the forest. I do, however, know the story, and will remain present with the people who live it.”
Ninety-one years ago, Ralph Smedley and a group of young businessmen gathered in a quiet space, and with a few empowering words, lit a flame which still glows. The methods by which we tend that flame have changed over the years and the exact words chosen are long forgotten. The solemn presence in one YMCA basement has multiplied into over 15.000 gathering places across 135 nations.
Toastmasters will remain relevant for the next ninety-one years, and the ninety-one years beyond that as we share our stories and remain present for the people who continue to live them.