Community and the Common Good
Washington and Lee University Baccalaureate Address
May 21, 2014
Rev. John M. Cleghorn
What a privilege and blessing it is to be with you all on this happy morning—you graduates and all those who helped you reach this moment. That is, first and foremost, the parents of you graduates.
But it is also everyone who has encouraged, pushed, prodded, inspired, coached, mentored, taught and believed in you over the last four years, from the classroom to the ball field and the performance auditorium, from the halls of administration and staff to the buildings and grounds crews that keep this place beautiful to the supportive faces of those who have cleaned your dorms and prepared your meals. You graduates take a little piece of each of them with you. Honor their work. Make them proud.
I first stood in this exact spot here 35 years ago. My college counselor at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, David Lauderdale, had sent me. His granddaughter, Kate Armstrong, graduates with you tomorrow. It was love at first sight, this line of noble, brick buildings fronted by those brilliant white columns that stand as sentries to the grace and dignity of this place.
This place and the people who give it life have prepared you for life beyond the comforting lap of Lexington. More than that, they have given you a rare advantage and a set of privileges that call on you to live and lead extraordinary lives, lives that reach beyond yourselves.
This morning, of course, what path your careers and leadership may take isn't known. An enduring truth—and a piece of good, Reformed theology—that I have learned over and over again since leaving this place is the advice that, "If you want to make God laugh, tell God all about your plans."
You never know where a W&L degree will take you. For example, there is Todd Ford, a classmate who flew airliners until he was 50. Then he launched a wildly successful regional brewery in Charlotte.
Or take my close friend and classmate Rick Swagler, whose daughter Allison graduates tomorrow. Rick was a reporter and editor, then went to law school and became a first amendment lawyer, then returned to journalism as an editorial writer and is now a bank executive vice president. Neither Rick nor I saw that for him when we sat where you sit.
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Then there is the joke about the time a journalist, a banker and a preacher walked into a bar. Actually, that was last night, when I had a beer, alone. You see, you never know how one career leads to the next.
Wherever you go from here, keep in mind the counsel of the great spiritual writer Frederick Buechner, who said, "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness meets the world's deep hunger."
The world you will inherit hungers for many things, of course. It hungers for peace and justice. In too many places it hungers for enough shelter, and, quite literally, for enough to eat. It also hungers for freedom from oppression, liberation of our environment and our nation's elusive goal of true equality.
Back in the 1980s, Rick Swagler and I were taught journalism by, among others, a no-nonsense, tough-minded professor named Ham Smith. Ham was the weed eater of the J-school. If you weren't serious about the profession and showed some promise, well, let's just say you didn't want to be a weed in Reid Hall. Ham's rule for how to write the lede, the first paragraph of a news story, was straightforward. What is the most important thing? What is the most important thing?
As one who is about half-way through life's journey, I propose that a very important thing for you and for our world - if not the most important thing - is community.
You are leaving one very special community. You came here four years ago as a disparate group of 400-some-odd firs-year students. You leave this place with bonds that will last a lifetime. Your bond to this place will draw you back time and time again.
Since you arrived, you've been molded by values and traditions that the world needs - things like the speaking tradition, the honor system, high standards of achievement and a deep commitment to service. You have created personal communities within the larger W&L community - groups of classmates in your areas of study, through Greek life, athletics, the arts and in service and leadership circles. You will be amazed at what those bonds come to mean.
It was an otherwise uneventful winter day in 2011 when a shock ran through our class like a jolt of electricity. Our classmate, my friend, fraternity brother and former housemate, U.S. Army Col. Parker Schenecker, was on duty in the Middle East. His wife, suffering from a Gordian knot of illness and addiction, had killed their children. Hardly any of us were military men, but that day we all instinctively began to close ranks around our friend and classmate.
A few weeks later, the Washington and Lee family filled about 6 long pews at the memorial service. What got us through that day—and what holds us together through other highs and lows, before and after—were the bonds that were forged here.
We drew on a solidarity rooted in the values and experiences we shared here, a solidarity that is, most days, latent, unspoken, unrealized. In times of adversity, though, what we had in common here draws us together as one community, shaped and defined by the mystique and meaning of this place.
You, the class of 2014, know this, too. The accident that took your classmate, Kelsey Durkin, and injured 10 other students, changed the course of your time here. In ways you may or may not recognize, it re-shaped you. Perhaps it caused you to grow up faster than otherwise. As the year played out, that experience formed your sense of community as a class. It revealed strengths and qualities in you that will forever be a part of your bond, a bond that otherwise would have been less, a bond that will see you through future trials and triumphs together.
As important, Kelsey's loss left an imprint on the heart and soul of this institution. It rightfully evoked new honesty in examining how W&L can—responsibly—be that place where students study hard and play hard. We as a community will be stronger for it.
More recently, the Washington and Lee community is faced with new questions. Some African-American law students have raised legitimate questions related to inclusion. In fact, these issues and their debate are not new. They come with the distinct history and narrative of this place, a place we don't hold to be perfect, a place that can always be better but a place that holds hearts and fierce loyalty, nonetheless.
These questions call for renewed examination of how Washington and Lee lives out its core values and, at the same time, provides a climate of learning that hears and respects all perspectives. For any university, that is the mark of authentic community, isn't it? True community seeks truth. A true community also calls on all who are in the conversation to demonstrate goodwill and reasonable intent.
As with the community of the Class of 1984, the community of your class and the community of Washington and Lee writ large, adversity can make us stronger and better.
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All of that relates to our W&L community. But tomorrow you graduates enter a far broader community, the community of the world. So I lift up the importance of community to your graduates in that national and global context as well.
"Being community" in your era won't be easy. I recently heard a consultant say that we live in a "VUCA" world. V...U...C...A. That is, a world shaped by volatility, unpredictability, complexity and ambiguity.
That's just the start of it. The nation you will inherit will be vastly more diverse and pluralistic than any previous generation has known. It will be a nation peppered by racial, ethnic and religious differences and variations. The nation we are "becoming" will also reflect today's dangerous and increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, a nation that today looks in too many places like two Americas.
Together these factors will require your best efforts if you are to build community in America and beyond. Amidst all of that, my request of you is this: Seek more than just to build community. Seek the common good.
The idea of the common good has been hijacked and marginalized in recent years by the far right and the far left and by those who practice the new religion of radical individualism. But long before the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, the common sense cause that is the common good was spoken out of the heart of our Lord as a covenant with God's people. It stands also at the center of virtually every major world religion.
We hear it in the words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah to the children of Israel in exile in Babylon. Even though they were in a foreign land, the prophet said to them, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you and pray to the Lord on its behalf . . . for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
Through Jeremiah, God gave clear instruction to Israel. Seek happiness and prosperity and that of your families ... BUT ... BUT ... BUT also seek the common good. Even those people with whom you think you have nothing in common. Even those people whom you may think you don't need for your own happiness. Even those people next door or down the block or across town that you might just as soon forget about.
Jeremiah still speaks to us, to you graduates and to the rest of us. Seek the common good. Seek the common good by stepping out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. Seek the common good by always trying to see through the eyes of the other, by practicing empathy rather than apathy. Seek the common good by making a habit of putting others' needs above your own. After all, that is the sum of the education you have received here, isn't it? That is the sum of the values you've benefitted from here.
All of that is to say, graduates, that you will have to figure some things out on your own. We older folks don't have a blueprint for the times that await you.
But two things give me deep confidence in you. Not just confidence, but hope, abiding and profound hope.
First, the same Creator that has seen us through thus far goes ahead of you and all of us, even now. Always has. The second reason for my great hope in you graduates has to do with the particular promise and potential of your generation.
A range of polls and studies reveals your character and personality. For example, Pew research notes that nearly four in ten of you have a tattoo. The research goes on to say that of that 40%, about half have two to five tattoos. If that's the case with any of you and you haven't told your parents, maybe this isn't the weekend to break that news.
There is more. Despite entering the workforce amid the headwinds of the Great Recession, you Millennials don't seem too worried about money, all the social research shows. Your priorities reflect your values. You rank the goals of being a good parent, having a successful marriage and helping others in need all ahead of things like owning a home, making a big salary or being famous.
As the first generation of young people since 9-11, you are globally aware and understandably wary. But you are not bitter. You are the least overtly religious American generation in modern times. In a way, I for one can't blame you - given some of the failures and hypocrisies of the church in your time. I hope we in the church today - and the rising generation of church leaders - can change that.
You are on course to be the most highly educated generation in American history. And, you get along well with others - older generations and people of all races, creeds and colors, including immigrants.
All of that gives me great hope in what you can do, hope in what our Creator can do through you. The world will try to take away your idealism. Count on that. But don't lose you resistance against skepticism and cynicism that is one of your shining strengths. My generation may have created some big challenges. But we have hope in you.
Now, life will get busy starting tomorrow. So I want to give you an assignment. One thing your generation does well is make use of your cell phones. So later today, I want each of you to take out your phones, pull up your calendar, jump out to a year from today and set a deadline ... a deadline that, by that time, you each will have done something meaningful and concrete to build community in your first year in the "real world."
In closing, as President Ruscio has already noted this morning, decades before Washington and before Lee, a group of feisty but reverent Scots-Irish Presbyterians actually opened the first doors of our beloved institution. And, years later, the first African-American student here, John Chavis, extended that legacy by becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister as a free man in the early 1800s.
So I will draw on a bit of Presbyterian polity to close. When our denomination ordains new officers, new elders to lead the church, part of their charge, the promise we ask them to make, is to lead the church with "energy, intelligence, imagination and love."
To lead in your times, to build community and to provide for the common good in what will be your own distinct, uncommon times, you will need heavy doses of all four of those things - energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Washington and Lee has taught you the first three and, I hope, along with your parents and friends, plenty of the last - which is love. Don't ever lose sight of the sheer power of that one.
So I will ask the graduating class to stand .... And I will put the question to you:
Will you strive to build community, to foster the common good and to lead our nation and world with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? Will you?
Well then, Amen. So let it be!
Good luck. Godspeed