2020 Commencement Address for Berea College

By IMCBerea College - Berea College Farm, on wikimedia

In the opening sentences to his final sermon, “I See the Promised Land”, Martin Luther King Jr. imagined himself standing at the beginning of time, being asked by the Almighty which era he would most like to live in.  

He remembers Egypt, the flight of freedom across the Red Sea, but he says he wouldn’t stop there. 

He considers Athens, and wonders what it may have been like to discuss the great ideas with Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.  But he chooses to move on. 

He plays with being at the side of Abraham Lincoln in 1863, watching him sign the Emancipation Proclamation. 

But ultimately, he says to the Almighty: “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” 

King recognized the irony of his own words.  “That’s a strange statement to make,” he said, “because the world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land.  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.  And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – there is something happening in our world.” 

Berea College class of 2020, I have to wonder, as Martin Luther King Jr looks down at us from Heaven, if he may not be a little conflicted, a little jealous, if he might not be persuaded to trade some of his time in the second half of the twentieth century for a few days in the crisis we face now.

For this is surely a crisis that puts to the test everything that you have been taught at Berea College – about faith, about justice, about imagination, about empathy, about diversity, about cooperation. The wounds cannot be hidden, and yet the light shines through. 

And what might this mean for you? Well, if you ever sat in a history class thinking that everything exciting had already happened, or read a novel for a  literature course in which fiction felt more intense than reality ever could, or did an experiment in chemistry and thought that every imaginable discovery had already been discovered – the moment has come to you. An unexpected knock has arrived at your door. 

What does it demand? I think the answer to that is actually not complicated. I think it demands decency and attention. This is a time to remember the wisdom contained in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and William Carlos Williams. That you share what you can with the people you love, and you grow that circle wider and wider and wider. You take note of the things on which so much depends, and know that there is majesty in simply enduring.    

Class of 2020, I want you to know that people believed in you before you were born, loved you before you existed, knew that there would be moments like this and felt sure that you would be up to them. Some of us meet the moment by giving speeches on the national mall, others meet the moment by bringing groceries to neighbors. In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna does not know if he has the strength to engage in the battle before him. The Lord Krishna reminds him of who he is – that he was made for this. In the story of the Good Samaritan we are taught that eternal life is what awaits the one who is a good neighbor – who stops to attend to the wounded, who engages in acts of kindness across lines of difference. 

This is what attracted you to Berea College in the first place. This is what Berea has nurtured in you. Remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr – 

I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. This is what I want you to do. Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

Class of 2020, we need you, I believe in you.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Political scientist Henry Brady explores how trust has broken down in the U.S. and what we can do about it.
"Intel, which ranked second on the REDI Index last year, overtook Google, last year's top company, by 10 points in 2021. Intel’s public conference on religious inclusion earned it the extra boost."
"The letter says its signers feel compelled to condemn such expressions, "just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith" in previous years."
During the coronavirus pandemic, Moncayo has led the food distribution program through Mosaic West Queens Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
Raja writes about the usefulness or appropriateness of the term "BIPOC" - Black, Indigenous, People of Color- in discourse about race and justice, and how it relates to and reflects the politics of race and racism in the United States.
The river has been important since the dawn of civilization and has served as a commercial hub and lifeline for countless peoples over many millennia. Yet there has always seemed to be a justice that was out of reach for some.
"Many synagogues are leaning into the Purim tradition of giving gifts to friends and the poor— a custom known as “mishloach manot.”
"We know through surveys that people are more likely to like Muslims if they know one personally. But because only about 1% of Americans practice the Islamic faith, many people just don’t come into contact with any Muslims."
Purim tells the tale of Esther, an orphaned girl-turned-queen, how she married King Achashverosh, then saved the entire Jewish community in the ancient Persian city of Shushan, through her bravery and wit.
Higher education remains highly unequal and racial divides persist. How can these realities be explained in a context defined by wokeness?
There are so many forces that pull people apart from one another. Institutions and systems and ways of thinking that want us to feel separated, broken, helpless, and quick to capitalize on moments of weakness. The very thing that brings out...
Others noted Rihanna chose to display Ganesh on Feb. 15, the day Hindus celebrate as Ganesh's birthday, or Ganesh Jayanti. The god of beginnings, Ganesh is honored before starting a business or major project.
Until this year, most schools, states and national high school athletic associations had typically forbidden religious headwear, citing safety concerns, unless a student or coach had applied for a waiver. No waiver, no play.
Do a quick Google or YouTube search for tarot, and you’ll find the two main things people tend to inquire about are love and money. Underlying these inquiries is a belief that a tarot reading can tell the future, which begs the question of whether...
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Asian Americans are suffering under the weight of these mounting incidents. Many, including those in our own circles, have expressed concern about leaving their homes to perform everyday tasks.
"Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population, but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths."
Can interfaith leadership foster greater equity for the health of communities of color? Four leaders in healthcare discuss racial health disparities in our nation and how interfaith leadership can be implemented in order to solve them.
“It's an invitation to be subversive by focusing on ourselves."
Across the state, nearly every major health care system has partnered with Black and Hispanic houses of worship to expand vaccine access, setting up mobile clinics in their parking lots and fellowship halls.
Gandhi organized a nonviolent protest on behalf of the farmers. That was when the word satyagraha was used for the first time in the context of a political protest.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.