Commencement 2020


The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry
Commencement 2020
June 6, 2021

Thank you, thank you everyone.

President Jacobsen and members of the Trustees, and faculty, and staff and all who made this possible, and to all the parents and grandparents and godparents and care parents, and by whatever name they shall be called, all of the family and friends. And to the awesome, incredible, dynamic, remarkable, irretrievable, undefeatable Class of 2020. To you, thank you. Thank you.

I know that my fellow honorary degree recipients would agree that it is a particular honor to be able to be here with you. And I want to tell you why that matters. Not just for you. Not just for your family and loved ones, not just for the faculty and the staff and the trustees, and all the folks who make this place happen. But, frankly, for the sake of the world in which we live. In the country in which we dwell. You matter. This day matters. What you do going forth from this day [pause] matters profoundly.

I'm not ashamed to say, that these Colleges helped to form Michael Curry for whatever good I have been able to do, whatever that was. What happened here, helped to shape me in ways I didn't even know, until they unfolded. And I daresay, you will discover the same for you.

When I was, I was probably 12 or 13, and had a conversation with my Daddy. He now has gone on to glorious, folk used to say, that means you died and gone to heaven. Well at least you hope you gone to heaven. Well anyway, you gone on. Now, I was probably 12 or 13 and I don't remember what the conversation was about. All that I remember, was that he just blurted out at some point and said, "You know the Lord didn't put you here just to consume the oxygen." Now, again as the father of two grown daughters, having had some of those conversations when they were young, I can assure you that that was not considered a philosophical reflection. That was pure adolescent and parent in conversation, but there was wisdom in it.

He was right. Lord didn't put me here just to consume the oxygen. And Lord didn't just put you here to consume the oxygen. But we are here in part to consume oxygen. I mean, if you think about it, I mean we, we consume oxygen, we inhale oxygen right? This is basic biology. And we exhale what? I'm sure there's some biological science faculty. I want to say that with a little bit more vigor, we inhale what? [audience answers "oxygen"] And we exhale what? [audience answers "carbon dioxide"]


Praise the Lord, we got that one right, thank you. And, and so we actually do have a biological, ecological purpose. The plant world, they take in the carbon dioxide that we have exhaled, and they release oxygen that we inhale. They give us what we need, we give them what they need. There is a symbiotic relationship between us, and that is true all over the planet. And the better we learn to live together, caring for the entire creation, the better off we will all be. Oh yeah.

So, we actually are here in part to consume oxygen. But I want you to notice what my Daddy said. I take enough English courses here, and then, extra Jesus courses to know how to execute the sentence, how to unpack it. The sentence technically said the Lord didn't put you here JUST to consume the oxygen. Which assumes that in some small way, you are in part here to consume oxygen, but you are here for more than that.

You are here for more than consumption and acquisition. You are here for more than what you can get. Nothing wrong with getting what you can get, get it. Don't end up like a poor preacher like me, go on and make some money. And then, when you make it, give it back to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, alright. [audience cheers] We are here for more than, then just consumption. Now I'm aware this is not a sermon, and so it's not gonna be long either. It's not a sermon but if it was a sermon [audience laughs collectively], I might go back and say Moses said it this way in the Torah; is that human beings do not live by bread alone, they need bread, but they do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

This is not a sermon again, but if it was [pause] the prophet Micah might say it this way, what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Oh Jesus of Nazareth said it this way, the supreme law of God in the highest end of humanity is to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Doing that, we will figure out how to take our jangling discord, that Dr. King said, and create a beautiful symphony of God's wondrous humanity. [audience applauds] Oh no, yeah.

We are here, not just to consume, we're here for more than that. But this is not a sermon, it's a commencement. And so President Jacobsen, I went to the website. And I looked up the mission statement of the Colleges, to prepare students, not for lives of consumption, tell me somebody. To prepare students, not simply for lives of acquisition. But to prepare students for lives of consequence, lives that matter, lives that make a difference, lives that leave this earth a little bit better because you passed along this way. Can I get an Amen from somebody?

In the late 80s, 1980s and through the 1990s, before I was elected a Bishop, I was serving as Pastor of a congregation, St. James Church in Baltimore, Maryland, in West Baltimore. This was a church, actually you've probably seen it. If any of you, anybody remembers The Wire, it was on HBO some years ago, a number of episodes were filmed at St. James and in that surrounding area. Well, we had a Community Center and Parish Community Center and we had these outings, mainly for seniors. During the summer, about this time of year, when the crabs were good. Anybody who's been around the Chesapeake knows what I'm talking about. Now is the time to go crabbing. And so we would go out and it would be a group of seniors from the Church in the community, and several buses would go and we'd spend the day at St. Michael's in Maryland, and have a good time, and folk would tour the old town, and you know; eat crabs and drink beer, and whatever it is they do. And then they would sit around and play cards, you know; do what old folk do. You know, they would sit around basically. [audience laughs] And so I used to go, I wasn't as old as I am now, but I was younger then, and so I would kind of go around with different tables and talk to folk and meet everybody. And I went up to this one particular table and there were a bunch of guys there and they were talking. And it turns out they were all World War II and Korean War veterans. Almost all of them, most of them, now gone onto glory. One of them was a Montford Point Marine, the first Blacks who served in the United States Marine Corps during the Second World War. Another was a Tuskegee Airman, the first Black unit to be allowed to fly. When folk realized that ideology and biology should not be confused, when folks said Black folk can't fly because they don't have the lung capacity to endure the heights and don't have the brain capacity to fly. Eleanor Roosevelt helped them understand differently. He was one of those Tuskegee Airmen. Somehow in the course of the conversation, Mr. Bentley, the airman said, "I signed up for the Tuskegee Airmen. Even when I was a little Black child grown in the rural Jim Crow segregated South, I saw a plane, and I wanted to fly. So when I heard about the Tuskegee Airmen, and the war was on, I signed up.”

And he said, but then the war happened. And we saw it, the horror of it. We also saw the reasons for it. Now realize, that we weren't flying for fun. We were flying for freedom. Freedom for our people who were dispossessed throughout Jim Crow and in the very country they fought. But not just for them, flying for the freedom of people who are being put down in Europe and around the world by other people, putting their feet on their necks. We were fighting for freedom.

Tom Brokaw wrote a wonderful book, some years ago, about this generation of Americans, in this case. And he titled it "The Greatest Generation." And he said at one point, "This greatest generation was forged and formed in hardship, hardship of a Great Depression. And they learned that life sometimes must live, by sacrifice that seeks the good in the wellbeing of others, sometimes even above and beyond my own self-interest." And he said "They may not have been perfect. That generation left the planet a little bit better because they had passed along this way."

I want to tell you my friends, I've never told this story before as many times as I've preached. I had forgotten about it, until I was thinking about you. And then I realized something [pause] part of your most important formation as human beings, has happened in the crucible not of a Great Depression, but of a Great Pandemic.

Whether you know it or not, and whether we know fully what this means or not, you have been and are being formed and forged in a crucible of hardship. Not yours alone, that of others. And you and the generation of which you are a part, have learned and reminded the rest of us about sacrifice.

I am almost finished, so relax. It was June, the first, last year 2020. I was, well, in my makeshift office in my home preparing to go on CNN at 6:30 in the 6:30 hour Wolf Blitzer's time. I am a Buffalo Bills fan and Wolf Blitzer is a Buffalo Bills fan. So if there are any Buffalo Bills fan here, [audience cheers] all right, all right, win, lose or draw, we are Bills fans. And I was sitting in, at home, but normally you would be in a green room at one of the studios. And just waiting to go on sometime between 6:30 and seven.  And so I was just waiting there, and had the little TV in my home office so I was keeping track of what was going on CNN. And usually a producer or a staffer will come on, and every 10 minutes or so, they're like you know "You'll be on after the next commercial" or whatever it is. They'll tell you "keep your breath", so you know what's going on. And so, they kept coming on and letting me know. And then about 6:20, 25 the staffer came on and said "Bishop, we don't know what's going on but something's going on and it's chaos around here. I'll get back to you, I don't know what's going on." A few minutes later they came on and said "We think, you're going to be on between 6:30 and seven, but we've been at the White House grounds. They're tear gassing the protesters. They're dispersing the crowds, they were marching peacefully, he said. "I know" I said, "I'm watching on TV. And she said, "You need to pray." Then they came back on and said "I don't think you're going to get on today, we'll get you on tomorrow. The President is walking around the White House grounds." And a few minutes later, the President of the United States, after the crowds of protesters had been dispersed, took a picture holding a Bible in front of St. John Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square.

I sent a text to Bishop Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, and said "Mariann are you watching TV?" She said "Yes." Come to find out she didn't know anything about this until she saw it on television. The pastor of the church didn't know anything about it, until she saw it on television and the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church didn't know anything about it, until he saw it on television.

But what struck me about that experience, and this is a nonpartisan statement so don't anybody get upset. What struck me about that, was that the crowds of peaceful protesters had been dispersed exercising their very constitutional right to lawful and peaceful protest. But what struck me even more was that I realized that after the killing and the murder of George Floyd, a movement happened in this country that I had not seen before. The Civil Rights movement didn't do this, the Vietnam War movement didn't do this. This didn't happen after the killing of Michael Brown at Ferguson, this didn't happen then. We saw in this country, a rising up of a generation of young people, and more than that, they were the most multi-ethnic, multi-racial, pluralistic, rainbow children of God that America has ever seen.

And they, you, rose up and called on America. America, be America. Stand up for liberty. America, be America, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice, not just for some, but Justice for all. America, be America, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, not by vote of Congress, not by vote of a Parliament, not by a priest, pope, potentate or preacher, but endowed by the Creator, with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America be that. Then you can be a shining city on the hill.

And this was the generation that didn't have civics in school, but you had Martin Luther King's birthday. A few days later, you remember they nickname - not nicknamed - pasted the name Black Lives Matter Square. And the late John Lewis, came to that Square, and stood for a different kind of photo op. A photo op, to bless the generation that showed us hope again. BLESS your generation, who reminded us of faith again. Faith that the good, faith that the just, faith that the right, faith that the kind, faith that compassionate, faith that the decent and loving, reminded us. As the poet said in the 19th century, in it's crucible.

Truth may forever be on the scaffold, wrong may forever be on the throne, but that scaffold sways the future. And behind the dim unknown, standeth of God beneath his shadow, keeping watch, above his own.

So I came here today to say thank you. But I guess I shouldn't have been surprised about you. After all, the Lord didn't put you just to consume the oxygen. So don't give up, don't give in, don't you quit because it gets kind of hard. Because, as Langston Hughes said in the poem Mother to Son [pause] we're still climbing. We must continue to climb. In life, for you, ain't been no crystal stair.

Class of 2020, God love you, God bless you. And now you go out into that world. And don't you quit. God love you, bless you.