“Take a Chance”

2011 Presidential Convocation Address
Huntingdon College, Montgomery, Alabama
August 24, 2011

Well, first year students, entering class: This one’s for you. This speech is for you. Everyone else is here to listen in while I talk with you.

Huntingdon, as you are learning, is defined by many traditions, two of which take place today as they do every year during the first week of class. One is the Waterslide this afternoon, which you’ll look forward to every year. The other is this gathering — the Presidential Convocation (convocation means “a calling together”) — a time set aside to remind ourselves of what college is all about. First year friends, we do this to bring you inside the circle where the rest of us have lived for one year, two years, three years, nine years, or in the case of one of our faculty, 39 years.

The studying, the playing, the praying; the thinking, the competing, the singing; the learning, the learning, the learning — whenever, wherever, however it all takes place in classroom, studio, chapel, playing field or court, service project site, sorority or fraternity chapter rooms: “What is the point of it all?

Why do we crowd together on these 68 acres four months in the fall semester and four months in the spring semester? What makes college “college”; and what makes Huntingdon Huntingdon”?

Before I tell you what I think makes college “college” and Huntingdon “Huntingdon,” I’m going to offer a prayer for us all as we set out on this year’s journey together:

At the beginning of a new school year, O God of wisdom, we offer thanks and praise for the gift of new beginnings and for the opportunity to learn and to wonder.
We pray for students, teachers, coaches, staff, trustees that this year might be rewarding for all.
Be with us as we face the challenge of new tasks,
the fear of failure, the expectations of parents, friends, self.
In our learning and our teaching, may we grow in service to others
and in friendship with those to whom love is a stranger.
(United Methodist Book of Worship #585, alt.)

A nice person on this campus, who will go unnamed, walked up to me the other day on the way back to her office after making a candy jar run to CVS, and she invited me to take my choice of candy bars: Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Snickers, Mars Bar, Kit Kat. I did not hesitate: 100 out of 100 times, I’m going to take the Butterfinger. Why? Because that’s what we ate at my house when I was growing up. Familiar, comfort food, no surprises, no chances. The chocolate shell poured over a peanut butter wafery center: It’s always been good in my book; it will always be good.

A friend invited me several years ago to a Barbeque Cook-off. I was to be a judge in the finals. Out came two platters: one was Eastern North Carolina chopped pork, seasoned with vinegar, salt and pepper, served with plain corn meal hushpuppies minus onions or jalapenos. The other was pulled Alabama pork, smothered with whatever that red stuff is called that smothers Alabama barbeque, served with hushpuppies full of little green things. I did not hesitate: 100 out of 100 times, I’m going to choose the vinegar based barbeque because that’s how my grandmother prepared the barbeque made from the hogs slaughtered on her farm when I was growing up. Familiar, comfort food, no surprises, no chances. So when you see me pouring vinegar, and shaking salt and pepper, on the barbeque served in the dining hall, don’t gag; just come on over and join the party. I’ll show you how it’s done.

You’ll see me driving around campus and around town in a scarlet GMC Yukon Denali. It’s the automobile the college furnishes me to drive. Why do I like driving a GMC Yukon Denali?
Several reasons, but the main one is that when I was growing up, our family always drove General Motors – Buicks and Chevrolets. No Fords. No Chryslers. No Volkswagens. Always General Motors: familiar, comfortable, no surprises, no chances.

You’ve discovered by now where I live. I enjoy living on campus in a red brick house across from Ligon and the soccer and softball fields. I like looking out my back windows onto the Green every morning and every evening. I like walking out onto my driveway and seeing the spire on top of Flowers Hall. You know why? Lots of reasons, and I’ll give you a few: I grew up in a red brick house on a small college campus, where students blew their horns and waved at me when I was a little kid, and where I looked out my window onto a beautiful green college lawn, and where I saw the steeple on top of the chapel when I walked out to the car every morning for my father to take me to school. Living on campus with 500 of you is familiar, it’s comfortable, it’s what I’m used to.

My mother – may she rest in peace — did not like to take chances. And she never wanted her husband or her children to take chances, even though I have ended up taking a lot of chances in my life, Mom notwithstanding. She was a friend of the familiar, the comfortable, the reliable.
So when I told Mom 24 years ago that I had fallen in love with Elizabeth, who is now my wife, my mother had one question and one question only: “Is she a Methodist?” Not, “Is she a good person?” “Is she nice to you?” “Is she generous?” No, none of those questions were important. My mother had grown up a Methodist, had married my father and made him a Methodist, had lived on a Methodist college campus, and thought there was no good reason why anyone should be or do anything else. So when I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, Elizabeth IS a Methodist
— one of my first girlfriends since high school who, in fact, was Methodist — that was all my mother needed to know. And Elizabeth, to the day my mother died, never had a mother-in-law problem. Familiar, comfortable, no surprises, no chances: that was what Mom wanted for those she loved, especially her first-born son.

Now hearing all this, you might think I’m dull and predictable. Not really. I mean, I DO like the familiar and the comfortable; but I’ve learned to go out on a limb. I’ve learned to eat dark chocolate with coconut inside. I can eat Alabama barbeque by the pound, and I even like South Carolina barbeque with mustard sauce. That’ll open your sinuses. I’ve owned two Fords, two Toyotas, a Chrysler, two Volkswagens, two Volvos, a Mazda, and a Subaru in my lifetime, I’ll have you know. I’ve lived on top of a mountain with no college, and virtually no people for that matter, in sight. And when I was young, I fell in love with a Baptist, two Episcopalians, and a Catholic — before I met my wife and not all at the same time. I’ve branched out, I’ve expanded my horizons, I’ve embraced diversity as the years have gone by. Most of the time these days, I’m not stuck in a rut at all. Truth be known, I’m usually pushing the envelope, and I learned how to start pushing that envelope in college.

College: I and all human beings — you included — have to LEARN to push the envelope, branch out, expand our horizons, embrace what is different. It doesn’t come automatically, or easily, or even naturally in the course of things. And that’s what college is for. College is a place where, if we do nothing else, we must take a chance to ask questions we have never dared ask in the places we come from for fear that someone would think we are crazy. College is a place where, if we do nothing else, we must take a chance to associate with people we would never dare associate with in the places we come from for fear that someone would worry about us or look down on us or make fun of us.

College is a place where, if we do nothing else, we must think, think, think, and if the answers we come up with while we are thinking are different than the answers we inherited, then that might just be OK, for they are OUR answers and not the answers that someone told us we had to repeat by rote.

My friend Beverly Daniel Tatum is an African-American woman of great intellect, dignity, and professional distinction. A psychologist by academic training, she has been the dean of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and is now the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, an outstanding historically black woman’s institution. Spelman is a member of our athletic conference; we compete with Spelman in volleyball, soccer, basketball, softball, tennis, and cross country. President Tatum took a chance a number of years ago. Concerned that the re- segregation of America’s elementary schools and high schools is destroying the idea of America, she took a chance. She dared to talk about what she considers to be a terrible problem honestly and publicly. And she did so by writing a book with a title that made people sit up and notice: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” It made me sit up and notice, because it’s true. And all the white kids are sitting together in the cafeteria, as she also pointed out. And it’s by choice. Oh, there are exceptions here and there. But look around our dining hall the next time you’re there…in 30 minutes or tonight or tomorrow. How can we expect it to be any other way? Many of us, maybe most of us, went to virtually segregated high schools and know best how to relate to people of our own color and are most comfortable doing

so…and so that’s what we do. We go along living together in Montgomery, in Alabama, in the South, in America on parallel tracks, next to each other, seldom intersecting.

My friend Beverly Daniel Tatum says that America is headed for trouble, is in trouble, because we divide ourselves along artificial lines. President Tatum asks us to take advantage of being in college in order to learn how to talk with each other about the things that really matter. She says that college should be a place where, if we do nothing else, we take a chance. We embrace our identity, who we are — we don’t run away from who we are, we are proud of who we are.

But we take a chance and branch out, share our identity and our values, learn from the identity and values of others, cross the borders that separate us, and take the mantle of leadership in a country that is part black, part white, part Hispanic, part Native American, part Asian American, part immigrant, part Protestant, part Catholic, part Jewish, part Muslim, part secular. If we don’t learn how to do this in college, then we’re going to clip our own wings, stunt our own professional opportunities, shut ourselves off from the call of God to lead a world where we have to know how to talk with, and understand more than in my case white men and in Quinn’s case black men and in Professor Davis’s case white women and so on and so on and so on.

My first year friends, and yes, all of you who are listening in while I talk with my first year friends: sophomores, juniors, seniors, faculty, coaches, fellow staff members and administrators, fellow trustees: What an incredible place we are in this morning! This is a place where — because it is a college where serious ideas and serious talk is taken seriously — I am free, no I am impelled to say what I have just said, whether no one agrees or whether everyone agrees. This is a place where it is possible to listen to the beauty of poetry and hear the truth in poetry without feeling that those around us think we are idle dreamers. This is a place where it is possible to believe the truth of the Biblical creation story and, at the same time, to believe that life is more than 4,000 years old… and not to see any conflict between the two. This is a place where it is possible to learn a new game almost none of us have ever seen, except maybe on TV — lacrosse, a historic game far older than most of the games most of us play — and where we actually can get to know people who not only play lacrosse but who have played it in Oregon, and Maryland, and other places most of us have never had the remotest inclination to visit.

What an incredible place this is! This is a place where, even though it is a Methodist school, I have had the honor to serve as president under not just Methodist trustee chairs but a Jewish trustee chair and a Presbyterian trustee vice chair, because we believe that truth is deeper and wider and more profound than any one of us can grasp at any one time…and because we stand in awe before a Creator who chooses to reveal truth as the Creator wills to reveal it and not as any of us can reveal it. We have only to discern truth, discover truth, humbly and gratefully, however truth is revealed to us.

What an incredible place! Take advantage of all that Huntingdon is. Take a chance. Move beyond the familiar, get out of your comfort zone, expect to be surprised. That’s a good thing.

Thank you for coming today and listening to what I have had to say. If you want to argue with me, if you want to agree with me; if you want to throw rotten tomatoes at me, if you want to give me a bouquet of roses:

Just invite me to your PACT class. I’ll come; I’ll talk; I’ll listen; I’ll learn. We’ll all think together…I’ll be the better for it…and so will you.

God bless you all.

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