in the Church too long have hidden behind a twisted view of Christ's rebuke
to his disciples, 'The poor you will always have with you,' as if we were
somehow excused from the rest of his teachings about the poor and oppressed...”
I congratulate all of you who will receive today your degree. Your education as evidenced by the degree will serve others and you well. I personally owe a great debt to this University and her people. Names like Bryan, Edwards, Cox, Wheeler, Dobbins, Flynt, Forman, Rhea, Walker, Hunt, Swindle, Teale, Hamilton, Armstrong, and Haywood are among those stamped upon my mind and heart.
I am most grateful to Dr. Corts for the opportunity to address you today if for no other reason than expressing gratitude on behalf of my community for the engagement of the people of this university, for remembering a place called Marion in the County of Perry.
Many of you are familiar with Perry County. You may know the beauty of our forests and pastures. Perhaps you’ve canoed the Cahaba or biked our rural roads. You may have been fascinated by the community’s role in the Civil War, or Civil Rights, or higher education.
Your own university was begun there as Howard College. The Chapel and a dormitory from the University’s years there in the 19th Century still stand. The monument to the black man who saved the lives of Samford students of another generation and gave his own life for them, may be viewed from Judson’s campus.
You may also know the more desperate conditions and now widely publicized status of our community, what the Birmingham News calls the “third world of Alabama.” The statistics are grim: 54.3% of the children lives in poverty, 41% of our senior citizens lives in poverty, 35% of adults (ages 18-64) lives in poverty. 18% of our population lives in extreme poverty, that is, they exist on an income less than one-half of the poverty rate. Unmarried teenage mothers account for 22% of all births. We are among the five counties in Alabama that lead the State in school dropout rates. (The Picture of Poverty, Alabama Poverty Project, p. 136) (Alabama Kids Count, Voices for Alabama’s Children, p. 68)
In a state which leads the nation in per capita cases of diabetes, Perry County leads the State with this ignominious distinction. We also lead the population in per capita cases of hypertension and heart disease.
In arguably the wealthiest country in the world, such statistics should not be possible.
I am mindful that many of you in this graduating class hail from states across this country and around the world. In Appalachia, the black belt of Mississippi or Georgia, the low country of South Carolina, the ghettoes of Los Angeles, the Barrios of Caracas, the slums of Calcutta, in Somalia, you will find crushing poverty as well and the opportunity to bring hope and healing.
What are we to do about the grim realities of poverty? For much of my generation, we have chosen at best to delegate to government programs the responsibility for the poor and at worst we have chosen to flee from the poor in an attempt to ignore them. We salved our consciences by calling the poor shiftless, lazy, and irresponsible. Arm-chair quarterbacks in business, education and government grabbed the easy rhetoric of more motivation and better education. Upon examining the historic dearth of infrastructure in west central Alabama--highways, shipping, communications, and other fundamental economic building blocks, I have suggested that governors and legislatures of the last 50 years secretly hoped that a seismic shift or marvel of plate tectonics would somehow cause the Black Belt to fall off of Alabama into Mississippi.
With rare exceptions, the words and programs of my generation have failed to ameliorate the circumstances of the poor. In fact, most of us would agree today that the gap between the “haves” and “have-not’s” in our country and in the world actually is a chasm.
Alabama Congressman Artur Davis illustrates the need to heal the Black Belt, when he asks us to contemplate an Alabama where poverty is substantially reduced or eradicated. Then, he contends that Alabama would lead all Southern states in per capita income. Our standard of living would rival that of the most prosperous and progressive states in the Union.
While I believe that no state is stronger than its weakest county, just as no chain is stronger than its weakest link, and while I believe that there are many sound economic, political, social reasons for focusing resources and attention on this region, I believe the community of believers, of Christ-followers, should reach out to this county and to this region because it is the right thing to do. We in the Church too long have hidden behind a twisted view of Christ’s rebuke to his disciples, “The poor you will always have with you” as if we were some how excused from the rest of his teachings about the poor and oppressed.
A prophetic evangelical named Jim Wallis rightly asserts that helping and encouraging the poor is a biblical mandate. "During his seminary days in Chicago, he and few of his classmates decided to do a study to find every biblical reference on one particular subject--the poor and oppressed. Thousands of verses later, and to their astonishment, they discovered that those who are marginalized, mistreated, abandoned and forgotten by everyone else fill the Bible. In the Old Testament, poverty is second only to idolatry as the most prominent theme and the two are often linked. In the New Testament, one of every sixteen verses is about the poor. In the Gospels, the number is one out of every ten verses. In the Gospel of Luke, its one of every seven, and in the book of James, one of every five verses." (Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics, (New York: The New Press, 1994), p. 149.
The words of Christ are compelling. In Jesus’ manifesto of his ministry in the fourth chapter of Luke, He announced the fulfillment of time when he read,“ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4: 18-19, RSV)
In the last discourse of Jesus in Matthew, He speaks so clearly, “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the very foundations of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ When those on His right hand are confused by the words of the Son of Man, because they do not remember ministering to Him, He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, in as much as you did it to one of the least of these, My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25: 34-36, and 40, RSV)
Men and women of the Class of 2004 of Samford University, you bring hope! Your president has challenged you to remember your school’s first home. Before Lakeshore, before Eastlake, there was Marion. In the new Millennium, your university has embraced again the people of Perry County through many of you who are here today.
While commissions study again and again the plight of the Black Belt and recommend the same or similar action plans of previously appointed commissions, while councils wring their hands over poverty and failure, while government and foundations mandate ineffective and costly programs without input from the very people they wish to aid, you act. You become the hands and feet of Christ!
When public school children need help, you send tutors and readers for them, you send faculty to organize and implement enrichment programs during the summer. When public health, because of budget cuts, cancels programs to aid poor hypertension patients, your Pharm.D. students arrive to conduct the hypertension clinics. When you learn of the county’s epidemic of diabetes, you send pharmacy students in person and by phone to monitor and encourage diabetics to comply with treatment and exercise. When you learn of the economic potential of visitors and tourism, your Howard College of Arts and Sciences begins planning a bike tour and race in the county. Nursing, Business, Exercise Science, students and faculty listening and responding. When children in Perry County would see a world of possibilities, you came for them, brought them here and showed them what hope looks like.
You understand what so few seem to know. You don’t do “to”
or “for” the poor. You are “with” the poor.
Mother Theresa said it well when she admonished, “Today it is
very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not fashionable
to talk with them.”
In these remarkable initiatives, we discover meaning and purpose by giving of ourselves to those in need. While a number of formative events frame my time on this campus, two especially stand out. One of the most important lessons while a student at this University came as the result of assigned reading in a psychology class. The book was written by Victor Frankl and was entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl chronicled the lessons of the Nazi concentration camp where he was imprisoned. He had every reason to hate and to give up. His wife, his parents and his brother were killed by the Nazis. Dr. Frankl observed that the men and women who seemed to retain their sanity and even their dignity in the face of torture, disease, starvation, gas chambers and death were people focused upon helping those around them. Forgoing meager or starvation rations by giving their food to those in greater need, caring for the sick and dying of Aushwitz, attempting double portions of labor to cover for those unable to work, facing the rage of a world gone mad--Frankl, an atheist at the time, observed the power of faith, yes and the power of living beyond self that separated these extraordinary people of the Holocaust from the withering souls around them, who were living without hope, who were living without meaning. Frankl was awestruck by the revelation. In fact, Frankl found God at Auschwitz.
The second was much less profound but equally influential. In the spring of my junior year, two good friends who were music majors met me in Seibert Hall after a handball game to talk about forming a rock band to perform a rock musical called, Natural High. Let me assure you that they were talking with me only because of perceived abilities in organization and management. You see I have what my friends kindly call a “choral” voice. In my words, that is a voice best heard when surrounded by a very large choir. I agreed to help and the three of us were joined by another 20 Samford students. We found scrap lumber, built a not-so-portable set, rehearsed late night and Saturdays and booked engagements on college campuses and arrived unannounced at public parks where flower children, hippies, recreational and hard core drug users hung out. We sang about the natural high of God’s love, about finding meaning, about a “more narrow” but ever more fulfilling way. We talked and joked and shared with anyone who would listen. Every person who was a member of Salt and Company remembers that summer and was blessed immeasurably by what we gave and unexpectedly received.
We live in a self absorbed society. Billy Graham has said "we stamp 'In God We Trust' on our coins, but 'me first' on our hearts." Our world commends superficial answers to life’s important questions. Consumerism, materialism, fixations on sex, fame and fortune seem to rule the day. We search for meaning and happiness in all the wrong places. Helen Keller rightly said, “Many persons have a wrong idea about what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” Psychologists who study happiness repeatedly discover a puzzling paradox; the happiest people are those who pay little attention to the goal of becoming happy. According to William Damon of Stanford and the Hoover Institution, many of the things which we strive for in order to become happy seem to have little to do with it. “Affluence is not strongly related to happiness. Status, glory, and other advantages that we avidly seek do not make us any happier than we were before we acquired these treasures. Any boost in mood usually proves temporary, wearing off soon after the initial glow of self-congratulation. What does matter is engaging in a noble purpose that creates great personal satisfaction by bringing us outside ourselves into activities that capture our imaginations and promote the causes we believe in. The paradox is that hard and often thankless effort in service of a noble purpose, with little thought of personal gain, is a surer path to happiness than the eager pursuit of happiness for its own sake. Self-indulgence simply does not work. Our truest and deepest desire is the universal yearning for a life with meaning.” (William Damon, Noble Purpose, (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2003) pp. 67-69.
Billie Jean Young, a daughter of the Black Belt, the first black woman to graduate from Judson College and also a graduate of this law school, writes compelling poetry. She is the recipient of the Governor’s Art Award for the State of Mississippi and a MacArthur Fellow. In her poem, “Wake-up Call,” she cries out:
I thank God that He has awakened in many of these graduates, a spirit that calls us to the aid of those in poverty in the Black Belt. May God bless the Class of 2004 and this great University.
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