“Road Trip” OR “What It Means to Be an American”

Presidential Convocation Address
Huntingdon College
Montgomery, Alabama
September 6, 2017
The College’s 164th Academic Year

Welcome, everyone, to Huntingdon’s 164th academic year! We’ve been around a long time, well over a century and a half, but there has been no better time at Huntingdon than right now!!
Can I get a, “Hawk ‘Em”? Can I get another, “Hawk ‘Em”?

Welcome, especially, those of you who are first year students: Our entering class. We honor you today, each and every one of you, in this longstanding tradition called the Presidential Convocation. The word, “convocation,” means, “a coming together.” We have come together today, as we do at the beginning of every fall semester, to remind ourselves of what college — and especially this college — is all about.

So, first-year students, entering class: This one’s for you! The next few minutes are for you. Everyone else is here to listen in while I talk with you. First, please join me in prayer:

God be in your head, and in your understanding.
God be in your eyes, and in your looking.
God be in your mouth, and in your speaking.
God be in your heart, and in your thinking.
God be at your end, and at your departing.
(Sarum Liturgy, England, 13th Century, Alt.)

BING went my cell phone last Friday, September 1, at 10:21 AM. Then BING again, as it always does when I try to ignore a text — at least for awhile — and stay focused on what I’m doing. At age 67, I’m not much of a texter. I’m more of a pick up the phone guy, or even better, a face-to-face meeting guy. “I like to eyeball ‘ya,” as the late great President Terry Sanford of Duke University would say. “Eyeballin’ ‘ya,” means I will literally be able to see what’s truly on your mind and truly in your soul.

But sometimes a text just has to do. If that text is a picture with no words, it can be as good as eyeballin’…and getting eyeballed in return. And that text last Friday — which turned out to be from my wife Elizabeth and therefore very important by definition — that text was a picture that needed no words.

The text was a picture of Elizabeth’s 90 year old Aunt Jan at the end of a road trip from her home in Houston to a fire station in Houston. A road trip on streets that had turned into rivers. A road trip where she was the passenger in a boat piloted by Houston firefighters, who had rescued her from her beautiful home with no time to spare. A road trip that tells the story of what it means to be an American.

In that texted picture, Aunt Jan’s hair is wet, her shirt and rolled up jeans are wet, her bare feet are covered in mud and debris. In her right hand, Aunt Jan holds her glasses; in her left hand, Aunt Jan holds her tote: her only remaining unruined physical possessions to her name at that moment. But it’s the look on Aunt Jan’s face that grabbed my attention last Friday, almost as if she was eyeballin’ me. It’s a look of exhaustion and shock mingled with the kind of strength that speaks these words without actually saying them: “It is well with my soul.” It’s the look I have seen on every other road trip that I have personally experienced with Jan Batchelor over the 29 years I have known her. Jan and her late husband, my wife’s Uncle Ed Batchelor, took a road trip to be with Elizabeth and me at each of the four most important times of our marriage. They took a road trip to stand with Elizabeth and me at our wedding in October, 1989. They took a road trip to stand with Elizabeth and me at our daughter Grace’s baptism in April, 1992. They took a road trip to stand with Elizabeth and me at our son William’s baptism in July, 1996. They took a road trip to stand with Elizabeth and me at my inauguration as Huntingdon’s 14th President in April, 2004, on this campus where we have watched our children grow up… and from where we sent them on the road to college and into adulthood…and where we have stood and lived with you and with thousands of other students.

Jan and Ed Batchelor have always been there for Elizabeth and me, no matter how long or how difficult the road trip they would take so that they could stand with us and pose for those pictures where their faces said, “It is well with our souls.” And because it was always well with Jan’s and Ed’s souls, Elizabeth and I knew that somehow it would always be well with ours…because they and many others were standing with us.

“When our founders boldly declared America’s independence to the world and our purposes to the Almighty, they knew that America, to endure, would have to change….Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American.” (Bill Clinton, “My Life,” p. 476) So spoke one of our presidents in his first inaugural address on a cold January years ago at our Nation’s Capitol. And, of course, he was right. We do have to change in order to endure. I did, yes, I must admit, write this address out in longhand with a supply of No. 2 pencils arrayed in front of me, just as I was taught to do in the dark ages of the mid-20th Century. But I called up the picture of Aunt Jan on my Iphone. And I called up the ancient 13th Century words of my opening prayer not from a dusty, musty prayer book but from the on-line edition of the United Methodist Book of Worship. I have changed so that I may endure, and so will you one day.

But there is a permanent, unchanging quality that has formed the core of American character since the founding of our country. Formally speaking, that permanent, unchanging quality is expressed in the words engraved on The Great Seal of the United States: “E Pluribus Unum,” which translated from the Latin means, “Out of Many, One.” Out of 13 separate colonies emerged a single nation: New Englanders, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Virginians, Carolinians, Georgians and so on… all now become Americans. We are all in it together no matter how much we may differ on this or that at any particular moment. Such is the message George Washington was communicating when he decided to make two long road trips — one northern and one southern — during his first Presidential term when the new nation was struggling to get its legs and its bearings. Such is the message those Houston firefighters were communicating when they took Aunt Jan on her watery road trip to safety: We are all in it together, and together it is well with our souls. Such is the message Jan Batchelor eyeballed out to me from that texted picture, when I looked past her soggy, dirty clothes and body to her strong face. A message that spoke firmly from a deep, inner core: We are all in it together. We always have been. We always will be. And because we are all in it together, it is well with my soul (she was saying); and, so, too, it must be with yours.

So what does it mean to be an American? To be an American means that we are always on a road trip, whether that road is from the Nation’s Capitol to points north, south, east, or west; or whether that road is from Houston, or to Houston, or inside Houston; or whether that road trip is just across campus and back. To be an American means that we will meet people on the road we have never met before. These people cannot remain strangers to us because America has never been about fearing strangers but instead has been about growing stronger, as one, with many new links in the chain. To be an American means that it is well with our souls. Our founders stood shoulder to shoulder and pledged to each other in the Declaration of Independence their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor so that it would be well on the dangerous road they were beginning to travel together. And so we make the same pledge on that same road all these years later…if we are truly living as Americans are meant to live.

So get on that road, and take that road trip. Reach out, connect, cross bridges into uncharted territory, and draw a map so that others will find the way you are headed and find the place where you land. Be there for someone else when he or she needs you. Let that person know that it is well with your soul…and his or her soul…because you are standing alongside each other. That, plainly and simply — from the words written in our founding national documents, to the courage displayed in countless road trips beginning with President Washington in the 1780’s and 1790’s all the way to the Houston Fire Department in 2017, to the actions you take that form a more perfect union out of the various parts of your life — that is what being an American is all about.

Thank you for listening to me. God bless you as you begin your life at this fair College, the Home We Love So Well.

(The Reverend) J. Cameron West
President of the College

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