Christine Janis '76
May 18, 2019
Congratulations, Classes of 2019. For a minute, I would like you to think about your families, friends, faculty and staff, trustees and citizens of Geneva who have been among the crowd of witnesses supporting you. Now, if you are able, please stand. Look around and appreciate those present who have been and will be with you. Centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah, spoke God's promise to a people not yet at their destination.
"I have called you by name, you are mine." Called here to the Colleges to be a student, rising to challenges here to become a part of a community in which you have made a great and good impact.
As I have come to know of the challenges at our Colleges these past years, I am convinced that you have come to this point stronger, with the skill set enabling you to discern, whatever your calling, what is true and what is right around you.
You have benefited from the best of organizational theory in order to create something new in higher education. Through asset-based analysis, communities of learning, entrepreneurial studies, you have been gifted with skills of and beyond classroom learning. You, soon to be bachelors (knights in training) have used your assets, your God-given gifts. And me?
Forty years before the Classes of 2019 was formed, I arrived in Geneva. First to help with a political campaign. Next to take on the challenge of being what you now call a 'first gen.’ After happily settling in, I discovered my favorite place to study, the Blackwell room as well as the then break room in Demarest Hall. There, scratched on a wall, was as a portion of a famous Robert Frost poem. You know the gist. “I took the road less traveled by...”
My road was to be the one less traveled and in reflecting back forty years, I understand why Interim President Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. ‘12 first tracked me down, and then asked me if I could I tell a portion of my story.
One night, freshman year, after a party, a group of us came into this chapel. While my classmates were looking around, I felt something and I thought I heard something... was it that still small voice of God? My response was swift. I ran out. I was silently praying, "Not now... I am not ready yet."
Fast forward, a few false starts. I was living in New York City when a Hobart alum of the 1950s suggested that life in the Wall Street arena would be a good one for me. I dwelled upon his offer of a job. Then only as a 22-year-old could do, I decided rather than work for a first-rate stockbroker, why not become one. Now mind you, I had no idea what a stock was. All I had to do was ask for help and a Hobart friend set me up with an interview at a good brokerage firm.
I learned all I could about the firm’s culture. No doubt as some of you have been doing for your interviews, be they for graduate school, work or even a roommate situation. The interview went like this. Are you married? (These days no one would dare ask this question). No. Do you type? I don't type, but my family is in the boat business and I have sold over $100,000 worth of boats. Oh, and I love sales!
I had caught his attention. And here was the clincher, I love squash and I love sailing. Those were the magic words, the code. I was in and perhaps one of the first women in a first rate training program.
I loved being a stockbroker. The path was grueling and yet, I loved doing well for my clients. I was happy in a New York dream life. Years went by.
As St. Augustine would write, I had become a problem to myself. One day, at Grand Central Station a William Smith staff person approached me. I had been aging at a rapid pace yet I was perfectly armored in the newest women of Wall Street attire. From Ferragamo feet to the correct earrings.
The older, wise William Smith person looked carefully at me, not the costume. She saw my internal distress, and kindly suggested I “slow down.”
Well, we now know more about social and emotional learning then we did in the 1970s.
Now we know that we really don't have it all together until we are at least 25. I was 24. Internally in turmoil, I was holding on to an important value, “to strive for excellence for my clients.”
Yet, something was unsettling me internally. In my heart. Just like I had run out of this chapel years before as God was whispering to my soul, the words of that William Smith staff person were haunting me, “Slow down. Wait.”
Eventually, I did slow down. I made the time to examine world religions. I turned to my Hobart Wall Street mentor for advice. He guided me to a new course of action, a settlement house that his family had been supporting for generations. At the East Side House Settlement, in the South Bronx, I began to remember the values I learned in the classroom as well as in Geneva of community service and civic engagement.
It was odd, being a portfolio manager had been great. The Wall Street people I knew, in finance, in law, in trading were honorable in their work. Yet, for some reason it was not my path.
If it is yours, pay attention to how your soul is responding in your interviews as well as your work. Learn your truth and celebrate your good fortune in your calling.
Well, here I was. Finally, a portfolio manager now ultimately ministering to homeless people.
At times, I missed Wall Street. Still thinking this new path was all a phase, I avoided graduate school, training instead as an interfaith chaplain. If I was to love God, loving my neighbor and pastoral care needed to be integrated into my now social justice activist life.
I began to face my fears daily. I was determined to stay true to a vow I had taken to 'respect the dignity of all human beings' and I was doing, as I had learned at these Colleges, to look for mentors who also believed in excellence. I knew the next call would be clear.
It was the 1980s and I was immersed in the AIDS, homelessness and crack epidemics. Teams of good people were searching for solutions and serving homeless and children at risk.
I had taken up Bible reading and learning of God's Commands: feed the hungry, take in the stranger, give your clothes to those in need, take care of the sick and visit people in prison. These have been God’s commands in different languages through time. But there was no escaping the fact that in New York City the gaps between classes, races and cultures were widening.
I was losing heart. And then, as God would have it, another HWS alum from the 1950s began to mentor me. This time a clergy person, who perhaps having had our unique coordinate college experience actually believed in the abilities of women! His counsel, as I was developing the skill set for such unsettling times, was this:
"Say your prayers, do your planning and the program will come." Sound familiar? He seemed to be echoing another interesting trinity of interrelated concepts. Soul, learn, live, pray, plan. The change needed will come.
I took his council to heart. The place where I was living gave me the space to pray and be with like-minded people. I had no idea, that where I was living then, The General Theological Seminary, had been related since its beginnings with what became known as Hobart College. I had no idea of the relationship between the people who offered their ideals, and their funds to found our schools. What I did know was that being in a community grounded in the loving kindness of God as well as neighbors was a gift.
Daily, before entering Chapel, I would walk around the beautiful grounds, allowing my soul to heal in the well planned 19th century built environment planned to evoke ideals. Just like this Richard Upjohn designed chapel, as well as Demarest Hall and the lovely grounds of Houghton House.
One day, having returned from either the South Bronx or the Church of the Holy Apostles, where we were then feeding up to 5,000 mostly homeless men a week, I heard a distinct joyous laugh.
Walking toward the gardens, followed by a group of students (who all looked strangely familiar) I thought to myself, “Could it be?” The next thing I heard was, “Chris Janis, is that you?”
I had come face to face with Professor Emeritus of Economics Dr. Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. ’12 and Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jim Spates. They were exploring New York City with their students as part of the now mythic “Two Cities” course.
After the shock wore out, they asked if I was still working on Wall Street. I said no, thinking to myself that I was still struggling to 'love God, love my neighbor, and respect the dignity of people and the earth."
Pat, being the economist and also practical, asked, “So what are you doing?” And so I told the simplest portion of my story to Pat and Jim's students. I had gone from Wall Street to Street Ministry and was working with congregations along with physicians, social workers and attorneys.
I remember them asking, “How did you make the transition?” My answer then was simple. It is not such a difficult transition. It is often just a matter of which neighborhood you were born in or if there were educational opportunities or not. I gave them a list of first rate church based outreach programs to explore and they were gone. Yet, from that point on, having experienced the congruence between the ideals and architecture of Geneva and the General Seminary, exactly when I was in need of counsel, I decided to make what I call a stealth visit to the Colleges.
Now, back to the here and now. In a recent letter that was sent out to us all, we were urged to learn our history. No, not merely learn, but seek the good in those who had set the courses before us and honor their contributions. Many of their lives were not always easy, as they choose paths not of their original intent. However, their lives, the broadness of their souls, helped form the ethos of these Colleges. Offering words and works which to this day help us all claim our callings. I prefer to think of them as stewards of the land, planners of this space. Their contributions are ideological, social, emotional as well as physical. They are now part of that great cloud of witnesses. And their lives of consequence are a part of our legacy. Call me if you would like to learn more.
For now is your time. You have participated in and are prepared for new challenges set before you. Today, put your fears aside. This weekend is your time to celebrate. It is your time to ponder your place now an alum and as a citizen of the world. To help send you on your way, I would like us all to do a short meditation.
1. Close your eyes. Think about what has moved you today, or during the past week.
2. Next, begin to reflect upon the good memories of these past four years. Bring into your mind and heart words from professors, work with friends. These words and works are now a part of your character.
3. Now I would like you to engage all of your senses. Think about a place, here on campus, or seek out in your mind's eye the beauty of the lake, the preserved as well as agricultural land which surrounds us. Go to that place in your mind, make it a part of you. Give thanks.
4. Just as you will now go forward and find your place and find your values, I would like to close with words from scripture which have helped me to stay true to God. Virtues which i strive for in the midst of work as well as in my retirement life.
Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, and whatever is commendable... Classes of 2019, you were called here to study as well as make a difference. Now is your time to enter a complicated world and in kindness, and with justice, offer yourselves. God calls. People and the land are waiting.