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Graduates Urged to Continue a Tradition of Courage

Posted May 4, 2003

HOLLAND -- Reflecting on the national challenges of the present, Hope College Commencement speaker Dr. Fred Johnson called for courage, and offered as a model the resolve that overcame the challenges of the past.

"This is a time for courage, to find answers rather than merely ask questions; to see clearly when so many have lost--and are losing--their vision; to be bold instead of joining the timid," said Johnson, an assistant professor of history at the college, in his address titled "A Time for Courage" on Sunday, May 4.

In presenting several examples from history, Johnson quoted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1933 during the Great Depression declared, "This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and prosper."

"Those words were true then, they're true now, and they'll be true in the future," Johnson said. "Placing our faith in a God whose loving hands have created and control individual and national destinies, we need not fear. We need not lose hope. We need not lose our way."

Approximately 4,500 attended this year's Commencement, the college's 138th, held at Holland Municipal Stadium. More than 630 Hope seniors participated, the largest number ever. The class included graduates from throughout the United States and from foreign nations including Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Russia and Sri Lanka.

Additional highlights during the ceremony included the presentation of awards to a long-time professor and two dedicated alumni. The Hope Outstanding Professor Educator (H.O.P.E.) award, given by the graduating class, was presented to Dr. Donald Luidens, professor of sociology. Hope also awarded honorary degrees to Connie Boersma of Holland and her husband the late Max Boersma in celebration of the couple's many years of service to others, including the college.

In his address to the graduates, Johnson recalled the uncertainty and turmoil of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath.

"Two years ago, when graduation was still more far than near, we were an international giant of presumed invincibility," he said. "And then, on a horrific morning we crowded around radios and televisions, trying to comprehend if what we heard and saw could truly be happening. That... world had changed."

"Anxiety overflowed. Unanswered questions cluttered our days," he said. "The sledgehammer of war battered down our front door."

Such national challenges, Johnson noted, are nothing new. "Fear. Loss. Hostility. Despair. Chaos. Hope graduates we've been there before," he said. "We've climbed our way out of some tough, tight places. We've been alone when those who could help wouldn't, and those who wanted to help weren't allowed. We've had friends who sneered at our dreams, and strangers who found it easy to believe in us."

Johnson reviewed and honored the commitment and sacrifice of others in times of crisis, in both the distant past and more recently. He offered examples such as the women who struggled for suffrage; the 186,000 black Union soldiers "who couldn't afford to lose the fight"; the every-day Americans who defeated Nazi Germany; the lynched blacks "whose loss of life became our Civil Rights gain"; the Vietnam veterans "who did their duty for a sadly ungrateful nation."

The graduates, Johnson said, had already shown themselves courageous. They had themselves endured, he noted, in the face of 9/11.

They had also, he said, shown themselves capable--as demonstrated by their achievement in becoming college graduates.

"For four years you sought that challenge and met it," he said. "You leaned forward into the hard blowing winds of change, traveling the distance one carefully placed and determined step at a time, reaching this location and moment today, strong, skilled, and more prepared for the lives you are about to live."

He encouraged them to put the qualities to good use.

"This is a time for courage, a time when you, the newest phalanx of reformers, trailblazers, gatekeepers, trendsetters, standard-bearers, healers, teachers, warriors, and peacemakers, must rush to the front of humanity and put your education, hearts, hands, and spirits to the task," Johnson said. "Don't avoid the struggle for turmoil builds spiritual and emotional muscles; hardship cultivates the focused resolve of endurance; and overcoming delivers the priceless gift of wisdom."

The college's Baccalaureate service took place earlier in the day. The Rev. Eugene Sutton of Washington, D.C., who is canon pastor at Washington National Cathedral and director of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, delivered the address, "The Race is Human."

He based his text on Matthew 10:34-39. In the New Testament passage, Jesus says that he has come "to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."

Acknowledging the contrast between the tone of the passage and the celebratory event, Sutton opened with, "Okay, the first question of the morning is: who invited these verses to this graduation party?"

"There are some things you just don't want to hear when sitting in church surrounded by your fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and other family members; things like Jesus saying that 'one's foes will be members of one's own household,'" he said.

Sutton suggested viewing the text less literally. "To take today's text as a call to destroy family loyalties would be as wrong-headed as to take any other isolated passage from the Bible to justify any action of hatred or violence against another," he said.

Instead, he said, the passage is about priorities.

"Jesus knew how powerful families are in our lives, and if we listen closely to what he's trying to tell us in those disturbing words in the Gospel of Matthew, then you just might hear a helpful word of warning about the danger of giving your family total allegiance," Sutton said.

"Certainly, it offers us an opportunity to reflect upon who we really are, and what we were intended to do on this earth," he said. "For the point that Jesus wants to make is: your sense of 'family' is too small!"

"Unless we can get beyond understanding that it is my family, my clan, my ethnic group, my race, my nation that is most important to me, then there is no hope for the world in which we live, and there is no hope that we can grow individually into the persons that we were created to be," Sutton said.

The sermon's title stemmed from an anecdote about a young man applying for a teaching position. When asked to identify his race, the candidate wrote "human."

"The idea of race is a social construct, a modern concept that was useful for the purpose of highlighting differences for the sake of power and domination, but it is not biologically real," Sutton said. "Scientists cannot find any genetic markers that are particular to one so-called 'race,' and absent from another 'race' of humans."

"Differences--real differences--are here to stay, and are obviously part of God's beautiful creation in all its variety," he said. "But what would it mean to gain an identity that so identifies with the other--the different one, those outside of your family--that one incorporates them into the circle of love that was previously only extended to 'other people like me'?"

"It would mean," Sutton said, "getting closer to the vision of God, who in today's very strong words through his son Jesus warned his hearers of maintaining an allegiance to individual families that limits their allegiance to the human family."

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