Don’t Duck for the Camera: #ColgateImpact in the Public Square (Note: These are remarks as delivered by The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings '74 for Colgate’s baccalaureate service in 2015.)
President Herbst, Former President Bartlett (would you stand up so we can all greet you?), university chaplains, faculty and staff, members of the board, and especially graduates and families:
I am enormously honored to be with you today, and I’m delighted to be part of another Colgate commencement weekend.
To put it all in perspective, tuition, room and board my senior year was $4,130. At my own graduation from Colgate, absolutely no one would have predicted that things would turn out this way and that I would be standing before you today.
In May 1974, when I graduated, we were just months away from the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon, we were still mired in a shameful war in Vietnam, and, in church news, eleven women were preparing to become the first women to be Episcopal priests in what the very unhappy House of Bishops would call shortly thereafter an “irregular” ordination.
All around us, there were signs and signals that the rules were changing, that old ways were passing away, and that to make things change, we were going to have to stand up and fight for justice.
I learned to do that at Colgate.
I checked prices at grocery stores in different neighborhoods in Madison County in order to address price gouging in the poorest neighborhoods. He may not remember, but I met with President Bartlett when, just a year after the passage of Title IX, I was injured playing varsity volleyball for Colgate and learned that male athletes got their medical expenses paid and female student athletes didn’t. (To his credit, it was changed. And this is, by the way, probably the meeting he was thinking of when he greeted the news that I was going to seminary with that peculiar look on his face.)
The dean of students was also bemused. The one person who was not surprised was my beloved professor of religion, Coleman Brown. He nominated me for a Rockefeller Trial Year Fellowship in Seminary . And I will always be grateful that he was a person here at Colgate who saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself.
During my time here, we marched and sang and shouted and prayed against the war in Vietnam, even carrying a coffin in one demonstration in the downtown village of Hamilton. Upon learning this, my father, who was still recovering from the news that I had worked to register voters for George McGovern, informed me that if he saw me on television in a war protest, he wouldn’t pay my tuition. I told him I’d just have to duck when the cameras came around.
But that, of course, was the wrong answer. And as I browsed the #ColgateImpact hashtag after your Day of Impact, I saw that you all know better. Your ways of making an impact are public and creative. You know that when we seek justice, it goes better if we mix in some kindness and mercy. You’re not ducking for the camera.
The education you’ve received here at Colgate — I know, everybody tells you this— but it really is an enormous privilege, and as you finish your time here, I believe you’re well equipped to think creatively and critically about how you will make an impact in the public square. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about that by trial and error, but even more from watching people whose thirst for justice and mercy is unquenchable.
A couple of months ago, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. And just a few weeks earlier, Congressman John Lewis, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement, received the Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award from Virginia Military Institute.
I paid special attention to this event, because Jonathan Daniels is a martyr of the Civil Rights Movement who is also a saint of the Episcopal Church. We commemorate him each August 14. He was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute — VMI — and he was a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School (also my alma mater). And he was there when he first answered the call to go to Selma, where he marched from Selma to Montgomery and then stayed to register voters, tutor children, and live among African-American people in Alabama who had been disenfranchised, beaten down, and impoverished. On August 20, 1965, Daniels was killed by deputy sheriff Tom Coleman after he pushed 17-year-old Ruby Sales out of the way of Coleman’s gun. Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury.
So John Lewis, who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers and still bears a scar on his head, went to Virginia to receive an award named for Jonathan Daniels, who was killed by that Alabama deputy sheriff. And you may begin to realize that this is not ancient history.
In accepting the award at VMI, Lewis noted that Daniels was seen by many in the South as an “outside agitator.” He said that Daniels “found a way to get in the way,” to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble.” He said that others who got into “good trouble, necessary trouble” were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Lewis himself.
He continued, “For someone who grew up preaching to chickens, I feel blessed to be able to say to you: never give up, never give in, never give out. Lay down the burden of hate, separation, division; we all live in the same house, the American house, the world house. … We need to look out for each other and remember the life and contribution of Jonathan Daniels.”
We need to look out for each other. That just about sums it up. You’ll do that through random acts of kindness and generous demonstrations of charity, but that won’t always be enough, as it was not enough for John Lewis and Jonathan Daniels. Your Colgate education gives you the ability to think critically, which means you don’t need to take things at face value or be spoon-fed by the culture or anyone in it. You can figure out the truth as you see it — the readings from each of the religious traditions that we’ve heard today are helpful roadmaps — and then you can figure out what to do about it in your context with your gifts and your skills and insights.
And sometimes that will involve speaking truth to power, but often, as Noam Chomsky says, you don’t need to speak truth to power, because they already know it. You don’t need to speak truth to anyone, but you do need to join with other people and try to find the truth together. “The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful,” he says. Or, in other words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This is a deeply counter-cultural way to live. It does not require you to live in a yurt on the beach — although if you are planning to do that, I am all in favor of it as long as you text your parents on a regular basis. But if you pay attention, you’ll find a lot of people living all sorts of lives who are using their education and their gifts to seek the truth and look out for each other and for the most vulnerable people in our midst. I see it in cities where the slow burn of systemic racism has caught fire; in schools that are educating children who have no other hope; in boardrooms where executives are creating human working environments and paying a living wage; in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples where people are repenting of religious racism, homophobia, and sexism and embracing the dignity of every human being.
This is the work of living a life beyond yourself, which is really the only work worth doing. The Colgate community has prepared you well to do it, and I look forward to watching you and helping where I can.
It’s a privilege to welcome you to our community of Colgate alumni across the world. Congratulations, and blessings on you as you go forth from this place.
Go get in some good and necessary trouble.
Never give up.
Never give in,
Never give out.
And may your faith sustain you and give you courage.