Commencement Address, Class of 2020
The Rev. Deb Richardson-Moore
May 15, 2021
When the pandemic closed everything down 14 months ago, I had already announced my retirement as pastor of Triune Mercy Center. So what I had imagined as my final six months of goodbyes to my homeless friends, and receptions with staff and board, and last words to the congregation all went away.
It was pretty devastating. After 15 years of building a ministry based on bringing homeless, poor, middle-class and wealthy into community, we had the legs cut out from under us.
But whenever I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, I thought about you. That is the gospel truth. I thought about you and about seniors in high school.
For you were losing something that could never be replaced. Senior year spring break. Frisbee throwing and bike riding and sunbathing and blending daiquiris … all those things it was hard to do in previous springs because you were studying so dang hard.
Spring sports. Awards banquets. First week at the beach. Graduation. Somebody like J.K. Rowling speaking at that graduation instead of me.
Quite frankly, you have been robbed of something. And it is appropriate to grieve that loss.
I know that some outside this place – and maybe even some of you and your families — have lost much more than a senior year: Loved ones, businesses, careers. But we don’t get very far comparing hurts, comparing losses. You have experienced a big one, and it’s appropriate to acknowledge it, to grieve it.
But Furman didn’t invite me today to send all of you scurrying into grief counseling.
So the only real question as we emerge from a dismal year is … What next? What next?
What are you going to do with that liberal arts degree?
I would argue … anything. Anything at all. For you have learned how to think, to reason, to research, to query, to question. You have had the incredible opportunity to take four years to look at the world and to consider your place in it.
I’m a big believer that your experiences in foreign study, in meeting and living among different people around the globe, will be a game changer. Only when we truly know people in other societies will we be able to tackle global issues of immigration, health, poverty, terrorism.
Back on campus, you rubbed shoulders with race activist Naomi Tutu and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, with entrepreneur Kwame Jackson and Captain Marvel author Kelly Sue DeConnick.
You met Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.
And you heard from Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who spent 30 years in an Alabama prison for a murder he didn’t commit. You heard his story of how Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative got him released. You saw Mr. Hinton cry as he spoke to you in McAlister, the memory of those lost years washing over him.
All those experiences were formative. You have taken them into your minds and your hearts, and they will resurface when you need them.
One of my favorite things about Triune was that it attracted Furman students, including some of you. Professors and staff, too, but lots of students. Going back 15 years, students worked with our hot meals, in the art room, the food pantry, worship, you name it.
I loved that because I knew Furman students were going places. And if what they saw at Triune could nudge their interest in poverty, in homelessness, in racial justice just a bit at the beginning of their careers, what a difference they would make.
Sure enough, some of those students went to seminary. Some went to Africa, Central America, Washington, our Southern border, to work in nonprofits. Some sent checks so generous I asked if they were robbing banks.
I am just as confident that you will go forward and make a tremendous difference in our world.
I graduated from Wake Forest University in 1976. When people learned I was from Greenville, they asked one question and one question only: Why aren’t you at Furman?
Even 44 years apart, I bet our college experiences were pretty similar.
And that’s why I can tell you that one of the lasting benefits will be the friendships you have made. When you think of the classmates you were most eager to see today, those are the friends you will be eager to see in 10 years, 20 years, 44 years.
In my work with homeless citizens, I came to believe that the greatest poverty wasn’t a lack of money. That’s temporary. The greatest poverty was a lack of relationships. Almost without fail, our homeless parishioners had severed every healthy friendship they ever had. So that’s what we attempted to restore.
Let me tell you about my friend Lois. When we met Lois, she had been sleeping for 18 months beside a dumpster outside the Greenville Convention Center. That’s the place off South Pleasantburg behind Krispy Kreme.
Not surprisingly, Lois suffered from depression. She was only 38, but most of her teeth were gone. She began meeting with our mental health worker about sexual abuse and other issues.
Then Lois became one of our guinea pigs for Triune Circles, a year-long program in which we trained a circle of four volunteers to come alongside her – to encourage, cheerlead, advise, but not to rescue her. Not to buy her out of situations. Basically, to become her friends.
During that year, Lois got a set of dentures. She enrolled in Greenville Tech. She got into a nice little house supplied by Greenville Mental Health.
On her birthday, her Circle members went to her house with balloons, cake and a pink dogwood tree to plant outside her new picture window. As she was telling me about it later, she said, “Pastor, only people who had taken the time to know me and love me could have known that dogwood was the best gift I could have ever received.”
But of course, the dogwood wasn’t the best gift. The best gift was having four new friends who understood the meaning of that dogwood tree.
At Furman, you have made friends who understand your dogwood trees.
Going forward, choose your friends carefully. There’s a slim little book I used at Triune called “Balcony People.” It took me a lifetime to learn what Joyce Landorf Heatherley writes in that book, and it is this: Our lives are populated with Basement People and Balcony People.
Basement People are all those who tell us we are no good. We will never amount to anything. We’re not smart enough, talented enough, pretty enough, hardworking enough, special enough.
We don’t count. We aren’t important. We don’t matter.
Those voices, living and dead, carry a lot of weight.
But if we are fortunate, they can be counterbalanced by our Balcony People. Imagine your life played out in an arena, surrounded by balconies. Balcony people are those who line our sky boxes, cheering us on, shouting encouragement.
You can do it, they yell.
I have faith in you, they holler.
They wave and lean over the balconies and carry on something fierce. They are our cheerleaders.
I am convinced that when you look at healthy, well-balanced people, you will find their balconies filled with cheering people.
And when you look at broken, hurting people, you will find their basements crawling with negative people, dead or alive, who are reaching to pull them into the slime and muck.
Beware your Basement People. Fill your lives, instead, with Balcony People.
I’m not sure what a job search has looked like in the time of Covid. I do know that 52% of people in their 20s returned to their parents’ houses to live. That’s more than at any time since the Great Depression.
So I’m thinking that career launches ground to a halt. There is no shame in that. That’s why I’m so glad you are having this ceremony today. Your launch was simply delayed for a year.
And your choices now are open – wide, wide open. But here’s the thing you will discover: The career or job you choose doesn’t matter as much as the integrity and authenticity with which you operate in that career.
If you have been watching as much Netflix as I have during the pandemic, you may have run across a series called “The Serpent.” It is a harrowing series about a real man in 1970s Bangkok who preyed on young backpackers, drugging, robbing and killing them.
The reason he got away with it for so long is that people in the all the embassies who heard the reports said, “Not my job. Not my problem.”
Until finally a young man from the Dutch Embassy cared enough to investigate. At one point, he screams at another ambassador: “If caring for each other is not our job, what is our job exactly?”
If caring for each other is not our job, what is our job exactly?
Caring for each other. That’s Job One. Our careers are simply paths to get there.
That said, as I look at our society’s needs and your gifts, I hope some of you will go into journalism.
That was my career choice after Wake Forest. But the well-financed and nonpartisan newsrooms of 1976 are far removed from what you will walk into in 2021. You will have to fight disinformation and out-and-out lying and conspiracy mongering.
I hope some of you will go into journalism. And I hope all of you will be selective and careful and fair about the journalism you ingest.
I hope some of you will go into elective office. On a personal level, it’s hard to see why anyone would. It’s ugly and harsh and can quite literally put your life in danger.
But someone’s got to fight against the conspiracy theorists and the liars and the cowards who thrive in that environment.
I hope some of you will go into medicine and banking and business and corporate life and bring your creative thinking and problem solving and ethical judgment into those spheres.
And selfishly, I hope some of you will go into ministry and law and social work such as Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. For there you will encounter an entire world unlike your own. We need brave souls, good souls, relentless souls, to fight in that arena.
You know, something I always said at Triune was that I wanted the person who slept under the bridge to sit in worship beside the engineer who designed it. I thought that would be the way we solved homelessness, by making it personal, by making those with resources care about that friend at the other end of the pew.
I’d like to challenge you along those lines. As you go through your life, meet the person who lives under the bridge.
Meet – or be – the engineer who designs it.
Meet – or be – the mayor who commissions it.
Meet – or be – the citizen who says, You know if we could build affordable housing near my neighborhood, no one would have to sleep under that bridge again.
As you graduates go forward, know that many of the people here today – your families, your teachers, your friends – will surround you as surely as Lois’s Circle surrounded her. We will scream from your balconies, cheer you on, applaud the difference you will make in our world.
We will be watching as you plant your dogwood trees.