What inspires Mark Swann to keep going?

My talk with Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann yesterday, after learning he was named a finalist for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s Service Before Self Honors, was powerful as it always is with Mark.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann stands amid rennovation debris at his organization’s new teen homeless shelter in Portland on Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012, due to open in September. Swann is a finalist in the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s Service Before Self Honors.

I frequently walk away from interviews with Mark Swann thinking about ways I can be a better person. As one might expect would be the case with someone who’s a finalist for what’s called the most prestigious civilian award in America, he’s inspiring to talk to.

So what inspires the guy who inspires others?

Well, a lot of things that I mentioned in yesterday’s story – the resilient people he meets, his family, etc.

But one thing he mentioned didn’t make it into the final draft of yesterday’s piece, but I thought was interesting: Bill Shore’s 1999 book "The Cathedral Within."

I asked Mark, frankly, how long can he keep working so hard to fight poverty, homelessness and hunger? He’s been on this emotionally taxing rollercoaster for 20-plus years, and there are more tragic cases of homelessness in Portland now than in years. Does he ever throw his hands up in the air and say, "What’s the point?"

Well, no. Obviously.

And as for why not, he pointed in part to Shore’s book. He said the book recalls that some of the world’s great cathedrals took 100 years or more to build. The builders in many cases would be born, grow up and die while the structure was in progress. Said Swann:

These artisans and stoneworkers spent their entire lives building a cathedral that they knew they’d never see.

 But they took heart in the fact that their lives contributed to a greater goal, and knew that without their life’s work, humanity might never get to that special place. Swann said he and the others at Preble Street – and in similar lines of work – envision a world of social justice, where no one’s homeless or hungry. He said he realizes it’s something he’ll never see – like the artisans working on the cathedrals – but it’s worth it to contribute to that greater goal.

Another thing he said stuck out to me, about the base philosophy that drives Preble Street, which was founded as a teaching arm for University of Southern Maine social work students in the 1970s before splitting off to become an independent nonprofit in 1985. Swann said:

It’s about human relations and treating people the way you want to be treated, no matter who they are. No matter who they are. It’s a simple premise.

 Simple indeed. But yet so hard for so many people.