posted August 28, 2005

2005 Fall Convocation Address

Global Hope

Fall Convocation Address

Dimnent Memorial Chapel, HopeCollege

Sunday, August 28, 2005

by Professor Deirdre D. Johnston

President Bultman, Provost Boelkins, deans, members of the faculty, family, friends, and members of the class of 2009, it is a great pleasure and honor to welcome you as we mark the beginning of a new academic year.

"Which building is VZN, or PSC or MMC on my class schedule?  Is this place vowel challenged?"  "I just bought my books at the bookstore - aren't these titles out on DVD yet?" "And...who is this person who just moved into my 10X10 square foot shoebox?  I wonder if they have foot odor!  I wonder if I have foot odor?"

These musings are normal. They are all part of the excitement and anxiety associated with change.  It may help you to know that you are not alone.  Take, for example, Hope College student Kumaje Kimura.  "I am from Japan. My roommate says he speaks English, but it sounds more like Czech to me! And what's with this two-handed fork and knife business? I'm so nervous at every meal I can hardly eat.  I wish Mom would send me some sushi...And what about that foot thing! Am I supposed to take off my shoes before I enter the classroom?  What if ...what if I make a mistake?"

Oh, and I might add, Kumaje had a heck of a time getting here - he took a boat, then a train, and then a horse and wagon.  The year?  1874.   Kumaje was one of two Japanese students, and one of 6 students overall, that graduated from Hope in 1879. Hey, two out six - that's the best international student ratio we've had yet!

As you confront the hundreds of changes associated with starting college, you, like Kumaje, must prepare for a world that is rapidly changing as well.  You, like Kumaje, have selected a HopeCollege education to prepare you for this challenge.  As you embark on your college education, you, like Kumaje, need to ask yourself a very important question: What is my role in this changing global society?    

If Kumaje were with us today, he would, of course, be amazed to learn that although he could travel from Chicago to Tokyo in a single day..., one half of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day.  Although he could talk to his family instantaneously via the internet..., one in seven of the world's population cannot read or write.  Although he could now buy sushi in Holland, Michigan..., 800 million of the world's people go to bed hungry.  Although he came to HopeCollege in a new spirit of international peace and a promise of ethnic understanding..., he could scarcely imagine that 174 million people would be wiped out by genocides in the 20th century.  

How do we make sense of the promises of globalization in light of the recent havoc in Baghdad, New York, London and the Sudan?  We read the 3-inch block headlines and wonder, is God yelling down at us:  "It's Not Working!"?

As I thought about "globalization," and mourned the headlines in the paper this summer, my thoughts repeatedly returned to James 1:19: "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, and slow to speak."  I have to be honest.  At first this passage struck we as too...well, wimpy, and just too difficult to practice! 

There's a story about a monastery in which the monks were only allowed to speak once every 7 years.   As the end of a 7-year cycle approached the news media arrived.  Cameras and lights were set up.  With great anticipation, the journalists crammed into this very small room to wait as the holy men assembled, in silence, around a simple plank table.  When the clock struck 12, the cameras zoomed in on the head monk...who turned to the monk next to him and said, "And the other thing..."

The head monk illustrates a tendency we all have, especially when engaging complex global issues, to regard communication as something we have to say, rather than what others have to say to us.  "Be quick to listen and slow to speak" is the ultimate Global Challenge.     

This year, I invite each of you to take the "Global Challenge."  The "Global Challenge" has the potential to change our course as individuals, students, faculty, a college, and as a nation. But be forewarned.  The "Global Challenge" is a difficult path.  There are three "Global Challenge" tasks we must engage:  Fear Factor, Extreme Makeover, & Trading Places. (Yes, reality TV can be a metaphor for real life).

The first challenge is "Fear Factor."  Humorist Dave Barry says ""All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears--of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark..."  The problem with fear is that reason and fear are seldom well acquainted.  A recent study found that people have more difficulty overcoming fear toward people of other races. [1]  An experiment was set up in which blacks and whites were shown images of black and white men accompanied by a mildly uncomfortable electric shock.   Participants were later shown the same images, this time without the shock. Researchers found that participants' physiological fear responses to people of their own race quickly dissipated.  But, for both black and white participants, fear responses to people of another race, persisted.

These results suggest that our fears often target people who are different from us. And we use fear to exaggerate these differences.  Contemporary writer Anne Lamott quips that if we read the Bible and conclude that "God hates everyone we hate," we're in a world of trouble!  

Fear prompts us to flight or fight - we either tend to deny or avoid those who scare us, or we project our hate and animosity toward those who scare us.  Fear makes us strangers. Theologian and poet Macrina Wiedrekehr writes about the fear that overcame the Apostles after the last supper:  "Fear was clutching at our throats enslaving us. We obeyed it and gave it first place in our hearts.  Our fear slowly overcame our love and so we scattered in the night.  One of us went so far as to deny that we knew Him.  It was fear that made us strangers. It was fear that covered up our love." [2]

A few years ago my daughter, then 5, was terrified by the homeless she encountered on a trip to San Francisco.  A homeless man sleeping in a doorway, covered with rags and scraps, startled her when he suddenly moved and sat up as we walked by.  She saw a number of untreated schizophrenics yelling on street corners.  For a 5-yr-old growing up in Holland, Michigan, seeing homeless people was terrifying.  On our drive back from the airport, this little voice came from the backseat, "I have a message from God."  That's enough to send you driving right off the edge of the road!  My daughter repeated, "I have a message from God. But I really don't want to DO this!"  "When I grow up I have to pick up the homeless people in my car and take them to get food and help."  After a few seconds of stunned silence she said, with a sigh of resignation "I think I'll keep my purse in the trunk."  With her abundant and innocent faith Ellie had confronted the most terrifying "other" in her 5-year-old world, and she had confronted them - not with avoidance, ridicule, or violence - but with compassion.    

Unlike the TV Fear Factor, where people eat buckets of worms or are lowered into a pit of crawling snakes, our fear of others cannot be overcome in 30 minutes and there's no million bucks waiting the penultimate moment when we rise to the challenge. Fear Factor does teach us that fear is a natural response and being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave is centering your self in the face of fear.   This year, be brave.  Take the Global Challenge:  Learn everything you can about what or whom you fear.  If you fear Islam, learn about it. If you fear global poverty, learn about it. If you fear Al Quaida, learn about it.   If you fear Asian bird flu, learn about it. But my dear brothers and sisters, to replace our fear with compassion, "we must be quick to listen, and slow to speak."

The second task of the Global Challenge is the Extreme Mind Makeover.  Author and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes knew this well when he said "[People's] minds, once stretched by a new idea, never return to their original dimensions." In the next four years you will be exposed to a myriad of the world's greatest authors, scientists, theologians, artists, historians.  But they can only become your lifelong traveling companions if you open your mind and let them in.

I read a bumper sticker this summer: "A good mind is like a parachute.  It doesn't work unless it's OPEN."  It's best to open your mind and learn everything you can, because you never know when it's going to come in handy.  There's an old joke about a guy who parachutes out of a plane.  He pulls the rip cord, the parachute doesn't open. He pulls the emergency cord, the parachute doesn't open.  He's plummeting to the ground when he passes another guy who is flying up.  The parachuter yells, "Hey, do you know anything about parachutes?"  "No," the guy answers.  "Do you know anything about gas stoves?"

You might approach a subject or a class and wonder, what do I have to learn this for?  "Why," asked the future Enron banker, "do I need to learn about morals in philosophy class?" "Why," asked the young Britney Spears, "do I need to learn about marital communication?" 

An Extreme Mind Makeover is not easy. We have to accept the uncomfortable fact that Ultimate Truth is known only by God.  We each carry partial truths, perspectives on the truth -- a few random pieces of the jig-saw puzzle.  An open mind means giving up the illusion that any one of us holds the whole truth

A few years ago, I had a student in my FYS class.  We'll call her "Harumph," because she came and sat down in class with a resounding "harumph."  She refused to finish a required book for the course because she disagreed with the author.  On a class trip to the University of Michigan medical school to hear a presentation by native healers, she sat with her fingers in her ears.  It was an exceedingly difficult semester -- for both of us.  Three years passed.  Much to my surprise, I received a letter from this young woman.  She talked about how she had changed her mind.  She had learned there were multiple truths and partial truths and fractured truths, and that she could learn from others' experience.

As "Harumph" demonstrates, a Mind Makeover often begins with disagreement. 

Disagreement is both an inevitable and healthy part of a quality liberal arts college.  Disagreement can open us to a new way of seeing, a new way of hearing, even a new way of being. 

The trouble is that we don't know how to "do" disagreement very well.  We either wallow in the warmth and comfort of our "I'm right/you're wrong" dialectical thinking, or we try so hard not to disagree that valuable information is forfeited for the sake of politeness.  Paul Loeb, author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time," writes that once we've disagreed, we must venture into the "difficult terrain where arguments are made, counter arguments explored, disagreements laid out, contradictions, myths, hypocrisies confronted, where honest people have to face the possibility of something that changes their mind." [3]   

This year, take the Global Challenge:  Disagree! Question! But remember that disagreement is the starting point, not the ending point. We must open our minds to change by being "quick to listen, and slow to speak." 

The third task of the Global Challenge is "Trading Places."  Have you seen this show?  Real people trade houses for a week and demolish each other's houses. They tear down the dining room wall, they hang jungle vines from the living room ceiling, they paint rhino murals in the bathroom.  At the end of the show everyone hugs and cries and laments that they hadn't hung jungle vines from the ceiling years ago.  The redeeming concept of "Trading Places" - yes, there really is one - is discovering the unspoken dreams of the people whose house you're re-making.  Trading Places requires taking the perspective of another, and this is key to the Global Challenge.

When we trade places, we have to tear down walls.  We so easily separate ourselves from others with our neighborhoods, our standard of living, our nationalism.  We try to fix our national and global problems by occasionally throwing food over the wall to the people on the other side, all the while maintaining our separation. While the distribution of global resources is important, we often overlook the spiritual implications of the walls we have built. 

Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, talks about the South African concept of "ubuntu." Our humanity is inextricably tied to the humanity of others. South African activist Malusi Mpumlwana was jailed and repeatedly tortured.  I ask you to imagine looking into the eyes of your torturers, as he did, and thinking, "These are God's children and yet they are behaving like animals.  They need us to help them recover the humanity they have lost." [4]  That's ubuntu.  There are concepts similar to ubuntu that might be more familiar.  Quakers call it "that of God" in every person.  Christians call it being a "child of God." Hindus call it "Nameste" -- the divine light in me honors the divine light in you.  For today, we'll call it "trading places."

In a London paper this summer a young British, Pakistani Muslim talked about why people, much like himself, became suicide bombers:  "Remember," he said, "the guys behind this were not poor, or crazy loners. They had credit cards and played cricket.  But they did not feel a part of society." [5]  As difficult as this is for us to hear, we need to hear it.  Tutu writes that the "worst effect of prejudice and injustice is to make a child of God doubt that he or she is a child of God." [6]  Dear brothers and sisters, to Trade Places, we must be quick to listen and slow to speak.

This year, as we dedicate our commitment to study Global Communication in the Martha Miller Center, as we embark on an in-depth, campus-wide study of genocide, as we engage diversity at Hope and in our community and in our world, embrace the Fear Factor: Learn about What or Whom Scares You.  This year, as you are exposed to new concepts and ideas, Open Your Mind to an Extreme Mind Makeover.  This year, as you meet new people - whether in your residence halls, your classes, in books, or in films -- Trade Places. Treat each and every one as a child of God.

Most of all, have faith.  Changing systems takes time and perseverance. Have faith that you too can change the world in which you live.  Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in a South African prison before he saw the system of apartheid fall. Czech play write Vaclav Havel led the nonviolent "Velvet Revolution" that overturned Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, 10 years after he had been imprisoned.  Paul Rusesabagina, who we will hear speak in 3 weeks from this very podium, faced fear to protect hundreds of Rwandans from genocide.   And don't forget Kumaje Kimura, fellow Hope student, who took the Global Challenge by traveling half way around the globe 125 years ago to receive an education at HopeCollege. With faith and with love, writes Tutu, there is "no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled." [7]

Tutu asks us to imagine, "If you were in heaven now you would notice the tears in God's eyes.  The tears streaming down God's face as God looked on us and saw the awful things that we God's children do to each other.  And then you might see a smile that was breaking over God's face like sunshine through the rain, like a rainbow.  You would see God smiling because God was looking at YOU.  God was noting how you are concerned. And the smile might break into a laugh as God said, "You have vindicated Me. I had been asking Myself, "Whatever got into Me to create that lot?""  "And then I see you, yes YOU. You are beginning to wipe the tears from my eyes because you care.  Because you care and you have come to learn that you are not your brother's or sister's keeper.  You are your brother's brother and your sister's sister." [8] 

Taking the Global Challenge involves Learning from Fear, Changing your Mind, and Trading Places.  I'm convinced we can't embrace a global world from a position of fear. We can't embrace a global world without changing ourselves.  We can't embrace our brothers and sisters without seeing that our destiny and humanity is inextricably tied to their destiny and humanity.  Read the headlines: "It's not working! Try again. Please!" God made a diverse creation, and gave each of us a piece of the jig-saw puzzle.  If we work together, to learn from each other, we can put that puzzle together.

You, class of 2009, each hold one or more of those pieces that we need to complete the puzzle.

You, members of the class of 2009, are our GLOBAL HOPE.

Footnotes

[1] Lovgren, Stefan (2005).  Race Affects How We Learn to Fear Others, Study Says.  National Geograhic News, July 28.

[2] Wiederkehr, Macrina (1991).  Seasons of Your Heart: Prayers and Reflections.  San Francisco: Harper Collins, pg. 159.

[3] Loeb, Paul  (1999).  Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. St. Martin's Press.

[4]Tutu, Desmond (2004).  God Has a Dream.  New York: Doubleday,  p. 51.

[5]Khan, Imran (2005).  Why my fellow young Muslims area so angry at Britain.  London Evening Standard,  July 15, 2005, pg. 8-9.

[6] Tutu, Desmond (2004).  God Has a Dream.  New York: Doubleday,  p. 40.

[7] Tutu, Desmond (2004).  God Has a Dream.  New York: Doubleday,  p. 128.

[8] Tutu, Desmond (2004).  God Has a Dream.  New York: Doubleday,  p.128.