Take Note

A Service of Lessons and Carols

Thurs., Nov. 30, 7:00 p.m., Ligon Chapel; free and open to the public

2014 Baccalaureate Sermon

“Pioneers and Settlers”

J. Cameron West, President of the College
Huntingdon College, Montgomery, Alabama
May 16, 2014

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 12.1-9; Luke 24.13-21;
Luke 24. 28-35

To Huntingdon we raise our song
Fair college on the plain,
The name that sets our hearts on fire,
And makes our spirits flame.
To Huntingdon, our Huntingdon,
In praise our voices swell;
The scene of happy college days,
The home we love so well.

“The home we love so well.” It’s in our nature to want and need to be home. To settle. Abram, in today’s Old Testament story, was called from one home…to another home. The travelers on the road to Emmaus, despondent over the death of Jesus, were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem—where Jesus had been crucified—back to the village which was their home. They ended up in someone’s home for supper. Home: comfort, the familiar, safety and security.

Many of you are going back home to settle—at least for a while—and join a family business. At least for a while. I remember telling the presidential search committee 11 years ago that, from all I had learned about Huntingdon, the college had for generations prepared young women and men to go home to their local communities and serve as teachers, preachers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, lawyers, coaches, bankers, accountants, small business owners. And I was right. That’s what we do. We prepare you to go home, and if not to the home from which you came then to a new home … to settle, to serve.

Home, and settling into home, is such a part of the meaning of Huntingdon that over the last 20 years—and especially in the last five years—Mother Huntingdon, Alma Mater has become the place every year where at least a couple of new graduates have first settled … in the Business Office, in the Registrar’s Office, in Admissions, in Financial Aid, in College and Alumni Relations, in Student Life, in the Provost’s Office, on the coaching staff.

When all is said and done, that’s what sets us apart.

“We Are Huntingdon. We Are Family.” Huntingdon will always be your home. To quote a song from my college years: “You can check out any time you like; but you can never leave.”

It’s nice, so nice, to have a home and to be a settler.  But … it can be counterproductive to be a settler.

It can be.

I think of a man who lives in the valley below the Cumberland Plateau where my daughter just graduated from college, a kind and generous man in many ways, who nevertheless shows the dark side that sometimes emerges from being a settler. His family has been settled in that valley for over 200 years. One day a couple of years ago he was complaining about a businessman who had just moved into the valley to set up shop. “He won’t last here. He doesn’t know how things are done here. I’ve told him, but he won’t listen. You ignore a family that’s been around here for 200 years at your own peril. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.”

Maybe that’s why the little valley—so beautiful, such an inviting place to want to settle—maybe that’s why the little valley is in danger of drying up. Maybe that’s why people are leaving and why many do not come back … or don’t come in at all. It can be counterproductive to be a settler, if we settle in with the mindset of, “That’s just the way it is; some things will never change.”

As you leave the safe confines of Mother Huntingdon, where you have settled for the last few years, remember that even as you settled in here you were also pioneering. Whether you realized it or not at the time, you were breaking new ground on the road to becoming a much different person than you were when you first walked into Flowers Hall. You have probably written a script for your college years much different than the script your parents would have written for you or you would have written for yourself as a college freshman. Even as you settled in at Huntingdon, you began to pioneer your way forward in your own way. “Find your own greatness,” reads the wall hanging in a residence hall room, borrowing from the Nike TV ad. “Find your own greatness.”

And you have … found your own way, found your own greatness. As a pioneer. Remember as you leave your undergraduate student days, and look for ways to settle in this world, that God is prodding you to be a pioneer. God prodded you to be a pioneer in college—with help from the faculty, staff, coaches, and, yes, even parents—and God is not finished with you yet, no matter where you settle.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he left school and came to Montgomery
to settle in as pastor of a comfortable, upscale church. Before he knew it, in the space of a year, he had been drawn in to lead his community and say out loud for all to hear: “That may be the way
it is right now, that we cannot ride where we want to ride in the bus. But things are going to change. And you better believe it.” Even as he settled in right after graduation to be pastor of a prestigious little downtown congregation, Martin Luther King, Jr. was drafted by God to be a pioneer and press on to an even higher calling.

I think of Wade Whatley, Huntingdon Class of 2006, who came here to Mother Huntingdon from the little town of Skipperville to settle in and play baseball. He ended up in dental school with an offer at the end of dental school to settle in a large city surrounded by bright lights and all the distractions a large city can offer. Wade chose, instead, to settle in a different way—to settle
in as a pioneer—returning back to south Alabama to a little town near his home where there was no dental care and to live out the Huntingdon motto: “Go forth to apply wisdom in service.” Dr. Wade Whatley has settled, yes, but he has settled as a pioneer.

And I think of two Huntingdon alumnae on our faculty—Dr. Maureen Kendrick Murphy, Class of 1978, and Dr. Celia Smith Rudolph, Class of 1980—who came back to Mother Huntingdon and settled back in Mother’s arms as teachers … but who even as they settled in really settled in as pioneers. Dr. Murphy is a pioneer in the academic discipline of chemistry which has traditionally not been particularly welcoming to women, and she has blazed the way with her male colleagues for countless numbers of Huntingdon women to enter pharmacy school, and veterinary school, and medical school, and graduate school.

Dr. Rudolph left the comfort of a settled job as school superintendent in her hometown to pioneer Huntingdon back to strength in our teacher education program. I know that she has loved her years settled back in the arms of her Alma Mater where she was a student (and cheerleader) 35 years ago; but she has loved settling here so that she could be a pioneer.

So where do you want to settle? Where do you expect to settle? Wherever it is you settle, whatever you do when you settle, I hope you are willing to pioneer and look for ways to press on to the higher calling of not accepting the way it is. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. even as he settled here in Montgomery. Like your fellow Huntingdon graduates Wade Whatley, Maureen Kendrick Murphy, Celia Smith Rudolph.

In closing, I commend to you the life of a man who was and is one of my heroes. He has inspired my entire adult life. Robert Francis Kennedy—Attorney General of the United States, Senator from the State of New York, brother of our 35th President John Fitzgerald Kennedy—was assassinated on the night of my high school graduation. Born into comfort and stability, settled into a life of politics that was in many ways very conventional and very mean-spirited, Robert Kennedy nevertheless grew into a pioneer who did not accept the way it is. He cared for poor people when it was not fashionable politically to do so; he cared for people of all races when it was not fashionable politically to do so; he cared about peace when it was not to his advantage politically to do so. Settled in as he was into a life of politics as usual, he grew into a pioneer blazing the trail for a different kind of politics. And when the train bearing his body from New
York City to Washington, D.C. passed by, all sorts and conditions of people lined the
tracks, rows deep, for hundreds of miles to salute their pioneer.

At Robert Kennedy’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue in New York City, three days after I graduated from high school, his brother Senator Edward Kennedy spoke these words:
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, but be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. … As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and to those who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'”

May the same be said of you, my friends. This weekend, as you graduate and pioneer out from the home you love so well, as you settle in to the next phase of your life: Dream of things as they can be, and say why not. You can live this way, wherever you settle—in Montgomery, in Abbeville, in Dothan; in Mobile, in Fort Walton Beach, in Panama City; in Birmingham, in Hartselle, in Muscle Shoals; in Atlanta, in Durham, in Richmond—wherever, doing whatever, with whomever. No matter where you settle, no matter what you do when you settle, no matter with whom you settle— you can be a pioneer. Count on God showing you, when you least expect it, how to be just that.
And let all the Class of 2014 say together: “Hawk ‘Em!”