Go & Do: Jay Milbrandt shares his life-changing challenge in book
WORTHINGTON -- As a law school student, Jay Milbrandt found himself wandering in the middle of a desert -- a metaphorical wasteland, of course, although he's visited a few actual deserts, too. He questioned what he was doing in law school, what he would do with a law degree once he achieved it and even the purpose of his existence on earth.
Jay credits a simple philosophy -- Go and Do --with rescuing him from the desert, giving purpose to his life and continuing to define and redefine his existence on a daily basis. It also became the title for a book, recently published by Tyndale House.
Prairie to Pepperdine
The son of Kim and Sarah Milbrandt and grandson of Bob and Pat Ludlow of Worthington, Jay graduated in 2000 from Brandon, S.D., High School, although he spent much of his growing-up years in Worthington and considers it as much his home as Brandon. Last year, he gained another Worthington connection, marrying Lisa Kremer, daughter of Glenn and Barb Kremer. Lisa is a registered nurse who shares Jay's passion for service.
"I was there every summer, and now all of our family is there," said Jay about Worthington. "Lisa and I look forward to returning to live there in the not-too-distant future."
Initially, Jay furthered his education at Bethel University in St. Paul, where he majored in business and philosophy, always anticipating that he would pursue law school.
"I had looked at Pepperdine when I was looking at undergrad," he recalled. "There were several people from Worthington who went to Pepperdine, and somewhere along the line I heard about it. I almost transferred, was accepted as a transfer student as an undergrad, but I decided there were things I wanted to do at Bethel. Instead, I made it my goal to go to law school there."
Once that goal was achieved, however, and he found himself studying on the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, Calif., Jay found the pressures and doubts overwhelming. He skipped class to attend a conference featuring lawyers "who were going into the world's most dangerous places to help those in the greatest need." After hearing their stories, he went home and amended his list of life goals to include "Go and do something." He spent the next two years pondering that goal, weighing what he thought he "should" be doing as a law school student against the dare with which he had challenged himself.
After much soul-searching, he finally accepted the dare.
Malibu to Thailand
Jay arranged a summer internship with an organization combatting human trafficking and booked a ticket to Thailand.
"That was 2007. I've been back many times now," explained Jay. "The Thailand experience in itself was really the major life-changing experience. I went not knowing what I was going to do. I wanted to create this film on human trafficking, had this big idea, and then when I got there I was told I would have to go out and do outreach. I didn't want to do outreach. I thought, 'This sounds like a waste of my time.' I ended up going against my will and had my heart broken for these kids that I met on the street, and that became what that entire summer focused on. Those are still the kids that I go and see once or twice a year and help with their education.
"When we go out of our comfort zones and show up in places that we don't even think we want to be -- for me, it was meeting God and finding out what faith meant. For others, it's seeing the human condition and how we're needed somewhere. Our desire for purpose is matched with someone else's need for survival, and it's this beautiful exchange that I talk about in the book."
The trip to Thailand was only the beginning. Once Jay's passion to "go and do" was ignited, he began to look for other opportunities to further his new philosophy after he graduated from law school. He even broached Pepperdine School of Law's dean about expanding the school's global outreach, although he didn't think the idea would come to fruition.
"I took the bar exam in Minnesota and had plans to come back to the (Worthington) area. The day after my last final, the dean, Kenneth Starr, invited me to stay on board and run this program," explained Jay, who is the director of the Global Justice Program and associate director of the Nootbaar Insistute for Law, Religion and Ethics at Pepperine. "I had been involved with some of these global justice initiatives as a student, and I saw this huge desire among our students to be engaged in this kind of work, so I thought somebody really needed to stick around and take this program to the next level. In my first couple of years of directing this program, I saw this huge growth and interest in students who want to serve both locally and internationally, both with their education and they wanted something more than just high-paying jobs."
Burma and beyond
Jay's go-and-do initiative has taken him to places around the world, but there is a special place in his heart for two venues: Thailand and Uganda. He annually takes a group of students to Thailand, where he also has a vested interest in the kids he met on the street and found a connection to Karen immigrants who have settled in Worthington.
"We have been involved with them at First Baptist Church (in Worthington), so we brought in some of our friends from the Thai-Burma border and did an event there," Jay said. "It's the shrinking world experience -- this issue that I was exposed to and broke my heart became an issue that was local and in the church that I grew up in. I've actually been back to the refugee camps there with photos from the community in Worthington, so in a small way I tried to bridge the two groups. It's been a joy to get to know some of the people in Worthington."
After visiting there previously, Jay coerced some of his colleagues into joining him on an expedition to Uganda, where they prepared briefs for youths who were incarcerated in a remand center while they awaited hearings on their alleged offenses.
"Some of these kids had just stolen a pack of gum, and they were sitting in this prison for an entire year," explained Jay. "The system is broken, but there are good people in the system, and they want the right answers. ... You don't need to know what the law is to know there is something wrong with this picture."
Writing it down
As Jay became more engrossed in the go-and-do philosophy, he became a resource for others who wanted to find the same purpose.
"These students who were deeply interested were all coming to me with the same questions and same obstacles for getting to the go-and-do part of their experience," he related. "It occurred to me that their experience was exactly like my experience; we shared the same questions, obstacles and challenges, and the answers we were giving to these questions would help people get to the go-and-do part as well."
Already an avid online blogger (jaymilbrandt.com), Jay wasn't sure if he had enough material to compile into book form, although he had written a bunch of stuff down one night in a flurry of creativity.
"There's this saying that everyone has a book inside them, but for the most part, that's where it should stay," recalled Jay. "The next morning, that's what I thought -- that this should stay in me. But writing is something that I've been doing my whole educational career -- researching and writing, even though I had no hard skills, and I had some friends that I worked with abroad that I wanted to tell their stories, and I started putting together a biography of sorts on them. So I met with a literary agent, and he said, 'You write very well, but this just isn't the story. But I'm seeing something happening in culture and especially in your generation where there's this giant wave of people who want to go and do something to respond to the world. I don't know what's going on, I can't explain it, but I think there might be a book in that.'"
Jay put together a new book proposal, which became the outline for "Go and Do," and the agent agreed to represent it. Writing the book was about a two-and-a-half year process, during which he worked closely with a team of editors. He finished the first draft more than a year ago and had to "take it all apart and start over three times."
The book was published April 24 by Tyndale, a top Christian publishing house, and is now available at Barnes & Noble stores nationwide as well as on the Internet.
"Go and Do" details Jay's own experiences, sharing the lessons he's learned along the way and encouraging readers to find their own ways to make an impact on their world.
"I think a lot of the message is, first, whether we're driven by faith or just a love for humanity, a lot of people feel a desire to go and do something," said Jay. "It's daunting to look at the world and try to figure out how to respond to any of these issues, whether they are global issues or local issues. It can be discouraging, or we just don't get started on it. The message is how to get to the go-and-do part of this. Here's how to get some skin in the game with the do part, what to do and how to do it. In a nutshell, that's the main message. For me and a lot of people out there, it takes a dare, so that was a strong theme in the book. We almost have to dare ourselves to step out ... have to feel some pressure to respond."
Jay realizes that not everyone has the resources and ability to travel the world as part of their own go-and-do experience.
"Although a lot of my work is international because of the nature of it, this is not intended to be a message that you have to go to Africa or Thailand," he stressed. "It's a message that we need to go to Main Street, to families in our community or to the reservations in the region, which are some of the poorest places in the country. Those are our neighbors. We still have the same obstacles, whether local or international, and all this is accessible to everyone.
"The book is subtitled 'Daring to Change the World,' but it's not about this idea that I can go out and change the entire world," he added. "I try to flip that on its head. It's more about finding out what our place is. For me, it's those kids in Thailand. For another, it could be a street in Worthington that needs mentors to come out and work with the young people there. That is significant. It's significant to do something. What we all want is this little piece of the world that we can say we helped, that we responded to."
A book-signing event for Jay Milbrandt's "Go and Do" will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Historic Dayton House, 1311 Fourth Ave., Worthington.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rick-ers can be reached at 376-7327.