Five year ago, the late actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis spoke at New York City’s Riverside Church. In his speech, Ossie said “My commander in chief is Martin Luther King, Jr. and more than 30 years ago, Martin stood in these sacred halls and gave me my marching orders.”
Indeed, it was on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year to the day before his martyrdom – that Dr. King gave his “Breaking the Silence: Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church.
Dr. King may have articulated a dream earlier in the decade, but on that April day in 1967 he described the nightmare of “racism, poverty, and militarism” that was tainting the soul of our nation and causing death and destruction abroad.
In his Riverside speech, Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” and called for “a genuine revolution of values that would help us shift from being a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”
In a world that is begging for the revolution of values of which King spoke, we graduate from Marygrove College acutely aware of the fierce urgency of now.
An urgency that demands all the creativity and intelligence and heart and soul that we can muster. An urgency that invites us, in the words of King, to dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.
Today we celebrate our hard work here at Marygrove, but I would ask that we do more than congratulate one another.
Today I would ask us to consider giving back the education that we received at Marygrove – that we would give our education back to a world that desperately needs us to enlist in this long, bitter, and beautiful struggle.
Rather than look at our diplomas as certificates of personal achievement, let’s look at them as our marching orders.
Marching orders to teach and preach. To be healers and hope-givers. Marching orders to help create what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.”
We graduate at a time of unbridled greed and unparalleled need. A time of tapped phones and foreclosed homes. A time of violence, silence, and compliance with the status quo. A time when torture is condoned on the television program 24 while the teachings in Matthew 25 go ignored: Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.
We graduate at a time when we have money for warfare but little for health care. A time when we incarcerate rather than educate our young people.
Yes, my fellow graduates, we leave Marygrove at a time that compels us to respond to the fierce urgency of this moment by joining the march for a more just and peaceful world.
From Mack to Iraq . . . from Dexter to Darfur . . . from Gratiot to Gaza, there is a need for the beautiful variety of gifts and academic disciplines represented here today. Whatever our fields of study, we have our marching orders.
Our world – our city – needs you teachers to join the march. Teachers who inspire our young people to think deeply and critically and creatively in a shrinking and complex world. A world in which far too many children are left behind.
Social workers, you’ve been given orders to bind the wounds of those who suffer and advocate for those who have no voice. A blessed vocation to heal and empower.
In a world of propaganda and sound bites, you writers and artists bring music to the march and ignite the imagination with your poetry and songs – a sacred and joyous task.
Those of you in social justice bring to the march a fire that burns in your bones for the kind of justice that brings about peace and a belief in the power of community.
If we are to bring about the revolution of values of which Dr. King spoke, we need you business leaders and entrepreneurs to bring to the march your spirit of innovation and an ethical outlook that values people over things.
Yes, whatever our field of study, the fierce urgency of these times demands from us a response.
Will we sit on the side of the road with our diplomas in hand, or will we accept our diplomas from Marygrove as marching orders?
Writing from a jail in Birmingham, Dr. King wrote that “the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Creative extremists for love, truth, and justice. Creative extremists who dare to dream that a new world is possible.
Here at Marygrove we have been shaped by our own community of creative extremists, the IHM sisters, whose graced and global vision includes a commitment to “bring about the dream of God on planet Earth by building a culture of peace and right relationship and sustainability.”
A group of creative extremists who describe themselves as having a “legacy of pioneering and risk-taking.”
We leave Marygrove challenged to follow in the footsteps of our extremist sisters who follow a subversive and liberating gospel that commands us to put down the sword, love our enemies, and even turn over a few tables now and then.
We graduate today grateful to the IHM community for marching before us and with us during our time here at Marygrove.
We are also grateful to the administration, faculty, and staff at Marygrove for their support and example.
Marygrove is so much more than just another educational institution. In many ways, the Marygrove family is a microcosm of the beloved community.
I think I speak for many when I say that Marygrove has become an intellectual and a spiritual home, a place where head and heart have intersected in a way that is life changing and transformational. A place where a concern for the common good permeates the campus. A place where the dignity of the person is valued and the soul of the community is nourished.
A place where marching orders can be discovered, discerned, and discussed.
In the end, a march is only as good as the people walking beside you, and here at Marygrove, we have been mightily blessed.
I know that I am a far different – and better – person for having journeyed with my teachers and fellow students here at Marygrove. Therefore, it is with a spirit of profound gratitude that I thank and congratulate all of you this morning.
Yet congratulations are not enough. Today, let us receive our diplomas as marching orders. Let us make the decision to give our education back to the world.
Yes . . . let us celebrate. But at the same time, let us dedicate ourselves to the long, bitter, and beautiful struggle for a new world a world transformed by a revolution of values.
A world that is dying for the gifts that each of us has to offer.
A world that is waiting for us to march.
Commencement Address, Marygrove College, Detroit, May 10, 2008