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Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks Saturday

We gather together every year for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, one of the beloved spaces of Union College.  The building was a project of President Richmond who wished to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars leading up to what was then the most recent – World War I.  The building was designed by the illustrious architectural firm McKim, Mead and White and was completed in 1925 (for those interested in the history of architecture, this firm designed a number of New York City landmarks, including the New York Public Library and the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park, and designed the portico that covers Plymouth Rock and other significant structures).

Memorial Chapel’s architectural heritage alone would make it special but it’s also special because it has become our primary ceremonial space, notably inaugurations of Presidents, Opening Convocation, Founder’s Day, the ReUnion alumni convocation, the Greek and Senior Athletic award ceremonies, and yes, Baccalaureate.  It has also become a place for remembering the passing of all graduates of the College and other members of the Union community.  We do so again today.  The names of Union alumni and former faculty and staff that have died over the past year are listed toward the end of the program and I sadly would add Professor William Thomas, long-time member of the faculty and Director of Study Abroad to the list.  I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their love of Union, and their many contributions with a brief moment of silence. Thank you. 

Tomorrow morning, we will gather in the plaza in front of the Schaffer Library for the 2013 Commencement Ceremony.  I can’t tell you precisely what the day will mean to you or what you will be thinking about or feeling as speakers make their remarks and your classmates cross the stage.  I can tell you that, like it or not, it will be a significant moment in your life.  There’s a sort of threshold that you will cross tomorrow morning, the threshold between your life at Union and the world that awaits you.  If you look at the dictionary and the many ways in which we use the word “threshold” (e.g., the “threshold of a house,” the “threshold of a runway,” and even the “threshold of pain”), you will notice that the word is about endings and beginnings.  It’s about that line between what has been and what will be.

Amidst the cheering and hugging (and there will be much of both), take stock of the moment, try to appreciate the significance of the threshold you are crossing.  You know, I just finished reading a new book by John Sexton, the President of New York University, titled Baseball as a Road to God.  President Sexton is a friend of mine and he knows Union well, having spoken to our Board of Trustees at a retreat we held last summer.  In any case, his new book recounts many, oftentimes humorous, stories about baseball and he links these stories to theological and philosophical points he wants to make about God and religion.  I won’t tax you with the details of the stories or the theology and philosophy today.  I mention the book only because the fundamental thing he advocates about life is the virtue of “living slow and noticing.”  Live slow and notice.  Great advice for approaching life.  How much more fulfilling our lives can be if we can find ways of slowing the busy-ness of day to day life.  How much more rewarding our lives can be if we truly notice what’s happening around us.  It’s also great advice for appreciating the moments you will experience tomorrow morning.  Try to slow that hour or so down.  Try to notice what’s happening around you and to you.

Tomorrow morning you will listen to Congressman John Lewis of Georgia who will deliver the Commencement Address.  He is a 13-term congressman and, these days, that alone probably warrants the honorary degree we will bestow.  But more importantly, tomorrow morning you will be in the presence and hear the voice of one of our nation’s most significant figures.

Let’s turn the clock back.  Five decades ago, John Lewis was leading SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and was busily trying to register African-American voters.  This was difficult work.  By the age of 25, he had been arrested 20 times by white segregationists. He had been badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Alabama.  Yet through his leadership and commitment, he emerged as one of the Civil Rights Movement’s “Big Six,” along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins.  John Lewis spoke at the now iconic 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered those now equally iconic words: “I Have a Dream.”  Congressman Lewis is, in fact, the last surviving speaker from that march.

Two years after the March on Washington, on March 7, 1965, John Lewis joined what was supposed to be a 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  The march was intended to draw attention to the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South and to protest the death of a civil rights worker who had been shot to death by police during a demonstration in a nearby town.

An account of the day, appearing last week in the June 11 issue of the Nation magazine, recounts the story of the march and Congressman Lewis’ role this way:

On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aid to Martin Luther King, Jr., led some 600 local residents marching in two single-file lines.  The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet.  “There was no singing, no shouting – just the sound of scuffling feet,” wrote Lewis in his memoir.  “There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path.  It reminded me of Ghandi’s march to the sea.”  Lewis thought that he would be arrested, but he had no idea that the ensuing events would dramatically alter the arc of American history.

As they crossed the Alabama River on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers descended on the marchers with batons and bullwhips; some demonstrators were trampled by policemen on horseback, and the air was choked with tear gas.  Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing, thought he was going to die.  That evening, the prime-time network news played extensive footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”  Those scenes “struck with the force of instant historical icon.”

Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress and on August 6, 1965, it became law and the course of history was indeed changed.

Tomorrow, amidst everything else, you will be in the physical presence of history.  Congressman Lewis’ participation in Commencement; the honorary degree we will bestow upon him; the fact that he joins you as an honorary classmate of the Class of 2013; all tie you to him and to the history he helped make.  Take notice of this tomorrow morning.  You will be able to tell your children and grandchildren that John Lewis, a true American hero, the maker of American history, spoke at YOUR graduation.  Slow time tomorrow; take notice.

In preparation of Congressman Lewis’s visit to Union, I read his recent book, Across That Bridge, in which he shares the life lessons he’s learned in his life-long struggle for equal rights.  I recommend it to you.  I was struck by one observation that seems to have particular relevance as you cross the threshold between Union and the life that awaits you, a life in which you will be enmeshed in other communities and where you will undoubtedly have opportunities to transform the world for the better.  Lewis summarizes one of the most important of his life lessons, saying “the true work of social transformation begins within.”

I hope that your time at Union has been a time of inner transformation.  I hope the books you’ve read, the lectures you’ve heard, the times you’ve spent with friends talking into the wee hours of the night, the plays and performances you’ve watched, and the whole of your Union experience has exposed you to new ways of knowing, helped you better understand others and your self, and equipped you to move into the world in a way that will make a difference.

Yes, live Slow these next 24 hours.  Take notice.  Savor the experience.

I will be with you as you as you cross the threshold and I will happily hand you your diplomas tomorrow morning.  It will be a special day and I’m honored to share the moment with you.

Thank you.