Marci McPhee inspires the 2005 Brandeis graduates as the Baccalaureate Observance guest speaker

Thank you for the honor of speaking at this Baccalaureate Observance. Thinking back to my own undergraduate experience at Brigham Young University, I can’t remember the baccalaureate service at all, so I have nothing to draw on from my own experience. But last Sunday was the Baccalaureate talk at the University of Pennsylvania. The reason why I know that is because the next day, Monday, the baccalaureate speaker hosted a conference in Chicago about interfaith work that I attended. Dr. Eboo Patel, director of the Interfaith Youth Core, wore a slightly rumpled shirt as he spoke at a conference in Chicago, having left Philadelphia VERY early that morning.

Graduates, family, and friends listen as Marci McPhee, Center Assistant director, shares experiences of action, reflection, and inspiration from throughout the Brandeis campus and beyond.
Dr. Patel explained the difference between the speeches you'll hear this weekend: the Commencement speech and the Baccalaureate speech. The commencement speech is the "Go Forth and Conquer" address. The baccalaureate speech is the "Be a Nice Person" talk. So here's my "Be a Nice Person" talk for you at Brandeis.

I've been thinking a lot about you graduates lately. If you spent four academic years here, you arrived on campus as a first-year a few short weeks before September 11. During your last winter break, between the fall and spring semesters of your senior year, you watched the headlines as the tsunami death toll rose to monumental proportions.

These two world tragedies bookend your Brandeis career. What happened in between?

  • The bombing of Afghanistan.
  • The invasion of Iraq.
  • A presidential election.
  • The release of a 2 hour and 7 minute movie by a director named Mel Gibson.

What was happening at Brandeis during those years?

  • An alternative student newspaper the HOOT began publishing.
  • The WBRS incident, the Justice incident, the hate fliers.
  • The Shapiro Campus Center was completed and dedicated.
  • A skating rink was completed, but not dedicated.
  • Also launched were the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, the World Music Series, the Peace Garden, and the brand-new Peace Room in Usdan, dedicated just two weeks ago.

In addition to these happenings at Brandeis over the last four academic years, there were also some landmark Brandeis moments for me, to help make sense of the world-shaking events we talked about earlier. I looked over my notes from the talks I've attended at Brandeis over the time you've been students. Today I want to share with you some of the things that have helped me make sense of these monumental events on the world stage.

Reacting immediately to Sept 11, Brandeis professors Daniel Terris and Kanan Makiya moved quickly. The very next semester, they team-taught the first course in the country analyzing the trends that led up to that fateful day, and its implications.

In that course, over a dozen noted figures spoke in certain class sessions that were opened to the public. One session, entitled "Religion, Violence, and Peacemaking," featured James Carroll, Boston Globe columnist and author of Constantine's Sword, which is a history of the Catholic church and the Jews. Jim Carroll made things clearer for me when he said that post-Sept 11, the country is grappling with political questions in religious terms. Political questions, religious terms.

Another panelist that day, Brandeis giant Arthur Green, talked about the civil rights and anti-war movements, which show the greatness of religious tradition in working for positive social change.

Afghanistan? Brandeis alumnus and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman spoke in Spingold Theater about Afghanistan and remarked, "You can't add money and stir if you don't have a glass."

The presidential election? In the event "American Election Dilemmas, International Context," Brandeis professor Jerry Cohen refused to tell us how he votes, but told us the make, model, and color of his car and challenged us to read his bumper stickers.

In that same program, Doris Breay of the Sustainable International Development program, spoke about the political process from a personal point of view as she talked about the birth around her kitchen table of the campaign of her brother, Congressman Barney Frank.

What about that two hour and seven minute movie by a director named Mel Gibson? In a forum organized by campus chaplains Father David Michael and Rabbi Allan Lehmann, Brandeis professor Reuven Kimelman explained that the religious mind likes binary clarity – good & evil, us & them – but urged us to underscore the commonality of our religious experience instead of demonizing "the other."

In an earlier talk, Steve Jackowicz spoke about Zen, Daoism, and other approaches to the Inside World, reminding us about the role of inner mindfulness & presence in approaching the situations of the world.

The tsunami? In the January memorial service for victims of the tsunami, when the Washington Post reported the death toll that day as 221,000, Rev. David Michael asked us to see in others a reflection of God.

But it was neither an off-campus visiting dignitary nor a Brandeis professor or chaplain that uttered another phrase during that memorial service, a phrase that Ive thought of so often since that day: "Hope, like a baby on a mattress, can float." It was Vanita Neelakanta, a Brandeis graduate student.

I have been so inspired by the words of other students at Brandeis. There are so many I could share, but let me tell you about just a few.

Brandeis senior Michael Popper wrote about his experiences at a Zen retreat, meditating a total of 10 hours a day for seven days straight. His writing is published, along with that of four other Brandeisians, in the book Spirituality 101. As he reflected upon the intense pain of sitting motionless hour after hour, day after day, he wrote these profound words, "Perhaps it is time to sit through the pain rather than just get around it."

Yesterday, Ethics and Coexistence Student Fellow Amy Cotton met with me once more before she heads to Cape Town, South Africa, for her summer internship. She reminded me that the horrific tsunami deaths were not only the result of the tidal waves. As a Health, Science, and social policy major, she said, and I quote (because I asked her to say it again so I could write it down), "peace and conflict are social determinants of health. Power structures, gender dynamics, and interethnic struggle add up to huge unnecessary suffering and death. The spark may be the natural disaster, but the extent to which it affects mankind is the result of socio-political structures."

Her words made me think of Paul Farmer's work in Haiti, related by Tracy Kidder at this past fall's New Student Forum at Brandeis. Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains tells of one of Farmer's patients. Farmer said, "He didn't die of tuberculosis. He died of Haiti."

Amy pointed out that not all of those hundreds of thousands in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and India and Thailand drowned underneath 100 feet tidal waves; some of them died afterwards of poverty and inequity and interethnic conflict during the very distribution of international aid supplies.

Amy's comments about gender inequity made me think of this line which appeared in the Haggadah, the text of the Community-wide Multicultural Passover Seder, the RPS event that celebrates the universal themes of freedom and liberation. From this year's Haggadah comes this quote by Erica Jong: "Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness."

So, you're just a freshly minted Brandeis graduate – or soon to be a freshly minted Brandeis graduate. You may be asking, what can I do about all this – Sept 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, presidential election, tsunami – at my age?

Well, let's see.

In 1893, a young Hindu lawyer, born in India and trained in London, went to South Africa for a one-year contract, and started a nonviolent revolution against racist laws. His name? Mahatma Gandhi. His age? 24. That one year contract turned into 21 years in South Africa, much of which was spent in a South African jail. During one confinement, he handmade a pair of sandals for Prime Minister Smuts, the man who ordered his imprisonment.

In 1955, a young minister, who had been the preacher at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for a year, led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. His name? Martin Luther King. His age? 26.

But it wasn't just Martin Luther King, the Baptist minister, working alone. The Civil Rights movement was a movement of many others of many different faiths, including Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who spoke these famous words: "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayers. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

King and Heschel remind us that we MUST work together as men and women of faith. In the tradition of King and Heschel, the Brandeis University Council on Religion and Spirituality was formed just a few weeks ago, thanks to the initiative and vision of many here in this gathering.

Back to Dr. Eboo Patel, the Muslim born in India who spoke last Sunday to Penn graduates and then on Monday to me and the others at the conference, saying "Shouldn't religions NOT make war on each other, but work together to make war on social ills?" I repeat: "Shouldn't religions NOT make war on each other, but work together to make war on social ills?"

But, you might say, where do I start?

On February 11, 2005, Dr. Ray Hammond spoke in the Shapiro Art Gallery at the session "Faith in Action," part of the Local Action/Global Impact forum at Brandeis. Dr. Hammond is not only a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, but he and his wife have helped to facilitate an elaborate underground railroad in the Sudan.

From an excerpt of his talk published the latest Ethics Center newsletter:

People often say, "in the face of so many needs out there, how do you choose?" I want to recommend to you what I call the "three C's" of this process: conviction, community, and circumstance. There are convictions that you have to arrive at because something touches your heart and ignites a certain passion, maybe a sense of indignation – righteous indignation. It then also has to be filtered through the community of people of which you are a part. They are going to be the people who support you in the process, who hopefully give you wise counsel about how to approach the situation and how to work it through. Finally, there are circumstances. I did not plan to be in Sudan in 2001. Somebody invited me, and I recognized it was time and we had to respond. It was not enough to deal with it in America. We had to go to where the problem was. What started as a conviction became a driving passion. Convictions, community, and circumstances often help you to decide on your calling in this huge ocean of need.

I've repeated that phrase to myself so often since then: "What is my calling in this huge ocean of need?"

Although I didn't hear her speak personally, I often repeat to myself the words of a Brandeis professor from years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt: "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

Shula Reinharz spoke this spring at "Tuesday with Shula," modeled after the bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie, based on the wisdom of another Brandeis professor. (By the way, also at the conference in Chicago that I attended earlier this week was Morrie Schwartz's nephew, Erik Schwartz, who is a Protestant minister in Washington DC. On the second day of the conference, Reverend Schwartz wore a T-shirt that read "Shalom, y'all," printed in Hebrew and in English. Go figure.)

As I was saying, Shula Reinharz spoke this spring at "Tuesday with Shula," and said, "When you live your life by principles, such as the Ten Commandments, it makes life easier. You have guidelines for making choices."

So, Brandeisians, Look within for the passion – and let it guide you. Whatever the choice you have to make, when it's time to know, you'll know. Pay attention to your gut feeling; you will hear that inner voice that tells you what's right for you.

Nothing will turn out perfectly. Roll with it. Perhaps you know what you want to do next and perhaps you don't. Perhaps you have a job or a place in graduate school and perhaps you don't. Perhaps you think you know what the next few years will hold – and maybe it will be just like that, and maybe it will be completely different. But it's all OK. You are safe in the hands of a force greater than yourselves.

One more Brandeisian who inspires me.

Yesterday a Brandeis undergraduate came into my office and told me she couldn't go home quite yet. She wasn't finished with a few things. Thinking she still had a paper to write or a final to take, to clear up an incomplete, I asked her when she thought she'd be through with her coursework. She said no, she was finished with her work, but she had a few more rounds of radiation therapy. She hadn't told me. She didn't tell hardly anyone, because she didn't want to make a big deal of it, but this academic year she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. Her doctor thought she'd just need a couple more treatments before she'd probably be free and clear, and could go home.

She was telling me this with a lively, bright face. Over the year she occasionally had to check into the hospital over a weekend, but it was great because she could just do her studies without distractions, she told me, and she'd done quite well academically.

She looked me straight in the eye and said "I have faith in God. I know he's watching over me and there are things I can learn from this. I cry when I need to, but I laugh when I can, and I just don't make a big deal of it. I trust in God." Then she told me about a close friend, an elderly man who was very dear to her, who died five years ago. She said, "He taught me a prayer that I say to myself often: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage..." I reached into my pocket and pulled out my 12-step medallion and finished the prayer for her: "the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Brandeis inspires me.
Brandeis speakers inspire me.
Brandeis professors inspire me.
And you, Brandeis students inspire me.

Farewell, but not goodbye, and
God be with you till we meet again.