Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by President Rebecca Stoltzfus, at the 123rd Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 25, 2021.
Greetings to the Goshen College Board of Directors, the Goshen College Faculty and leadership, to all the friends and families watching via livestream, and most of all, greetings to the graduating class of 2021!!!
I am profoundly honored to offer this commencement address today. First and foremost, because I respect and admire what you have accomplished in earning your degrees. You did this!
I am also deeply grateful that we have made it in person and together to this day of celebration.
And in addition, for those of you who began your GC journey in the fall of 2017, that was my freshman year too! Yours is the first class of baccalaureate students that I learned to know as first-years. Truly, I will miss you.
As I have pondered this moment of your commencement from Goshen College, I was reminded of an ancient and sacred story about two brothers. Although these brothers had the same mother and father–they were biological twins in fact–they were very different. Right from their conception! Different body types, different looks, different personalities, different ways of interacting with the world.
And these two babies were born into a cultural system of dominance in which only one of these two brothers could “win” the favor of the father.
And this inevitably led to comparing, posturing, and manipulation. Eventually, through an elaborate scheme of deception, one brother defeated the other. One brother gained privilege over the other.
But as you can anticipate, this kind of winning did not lead to peace, but rather to anger and hatred and separation. The brothers parted ways.
This old old story is familiar, because systems of domination continue in our experience today — perhaps not literally within our family, although maybe that, but in our culture, economic system and society. We are still struggling with systems of domination, ones in which a few people control many to their own advantage. And we are wounded by the anger, fear and separation they create.
But that is not our only experience.
There is another way. A way characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Alongside all of the knowledge and skills that you have gained in your years at Goshen College, our mission has been to educate you in a community that is rooted in the way of Jesus. This is what we strive toward. We do it imperfectly, but these gifts of the Spirit and this way of Jesus are also present, here and now, in the midst of systemic injustices.
Seeing the world through this light, we know that we live in a terribly wounded world. I wish I could take that away, but I cannot. In fact, that is not the role of an educator, or a college president, for that matter. Your time here at Goshen was not meant to protect you from reality — rather the opposite. We have wanted you to engage with the world, with the truth of the world, in all its beauty and brokenness.
We’ve been through some hard times together. When we began this Goshen College journey, certainly none of us could foresee what challenges would be served to us. Goodness knows — we’ve all been on the struggle bus this year. Myself included.
And today I want to honor the struggle. I honor your struggles, unique to each one of you.
I honor our collective grief, at the failures of our justice and public safety systems, of more than 3 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, of the entanglement of politics and public health, of economic, environmental crisis and systemic racism. I honor your anger, your anxiety and sleepless nights. I have them too.
I honor your struggling with remote learning and teaching, with quarantine and isolation, with so many unwelcome changes. I honor your commitments to your sports, your teams, your bodies, and the athletic records you have set. I honor your singing with masks on your faces and playing your horns with masks on your bells. I honor your best attempts to comply by our many-month-long policy about not visiting your friends’ residential floors. And I honor the fact that when you really needed your friends, you broke those rules. I honor your struggles navigating school with work, and family obligations, and falling in love and falling out of love. I honor your struggles as leaders of athletic teams, ministries and chapels, student clubs; on pandemic task force and student senate.
I honor all of this, because in the struggle is our growth. We are learning, and not only in the classroom. We have all learned way more than we thought we could or wanted to this year.
We’ve even learned things that we did not want to learn. A year ago, we had honest arguments on the Pandemic Task Force about whether we should distinguish between the words isolation and quarantine on our website and in our communications because nobody knew the difference.
Oh, we were such pandemic babies back then!
Although we may feel some days that we’ve been stuck for a year, that is frankly not true. We really have come a long way forward.
In my first convocation remarks in 2017, when some of you were first-years like I was, I drew upon these words from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the one who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds. The person who is actually in the arena.”
We have all been thrust into the arena by the experiences of these years that we have shared together . . . . Realizing that there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but striving to do what the moment required of us.
Thank you for all that you have striven for during your time in the GC arena.
Your accomplishments are all the more impressive and meaningful because of the difficult context through which you have persevered.
I know that I speak not only for myself, but for all of our faculty, administrators and coaches when I say that we have truly cherished your accomplishments. In the midst of finals, I spoke with a professor who was receiving your twenty-page papers. I said, that’s a lot of grading! And she said, yes it is, but I’m looking forward to it. Curious about what you have learned, what you have to say, and how you will express it. We have loved being a part of your learning.
You have inspired us and compelled us forward with your eagerness and determination to learn, to play, to perform, to compete, to serve, to have fun. It has been our privilege to be in the arena with you these several years, to strive with you, and to learn to know you. You have done well.
As you commence into the next chapters of your lives, many others will delight in learning to know you and will benefit from your talents. You matter to this world. As you step into new arenas, be yourself. Bring your whole self. Keep learning how to use your voice — it takes a lifetime. Make yourself and your ideas known. I am excited by the talent you are bringing into the world.
Goshen College has been your community, and I hope you will feel that it is always your community. And as you commence on the next chapter of your lives, I hope that you will find and make and keep new communities. There is power in connection; in community. Make connections. Bring people together. Keep belonging to the world.
The Persian poet, Hafez, wrote 700 years ago:
Of a great need
We are all holding hands
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
And so it was with the two brothers in our old old story. Eventually, after a long period of separation, the brothers arranged to meet once again.
You may have recognized by now the story of Jacob and Esau, from the book of Genesis. The next part of this story is told from the perspective of Jacob. And Jacob was afraid to meet his brother.
It is hard to face the wounds of the world, especially when the wounds include our own wounds, and wounds that we have inflicted.
And so Jacob struggles. On the night before he meets up with his brother, he wrestles all night long with a stranger, perhaps God or an angel, or perhaps himself. Jacob stays in the arena and wrestles, to the point that the stranger strikes Jacob in the hip, leaving him injured.
Here’s what I find most important about this story for today: Before leaving the struggle, Jacob asks for a blessing. And the stranger agrees to bless Jacob, because he struggled. Jacob leaves marked and blessed, and goes to meet his estranged brother.
We have all been marked by our struggles; we may be limping. But let us claim our blessing, let us work for the gifts and new possibilities that are arising out of our struggles:
Communities that are healthier and more merciful and more generous, where everyone — everyone! — has a seat at the kitchen table.
And so I give you this blessing, beloved class of 2021,
I bless you for all that you have learned — what you wanted to learn, and what you did not want to learn.
I bless the knowledge and skills that you have gained, and for your striving toward this day through setbacks and uncertainty, as well as your most satisfying successes.
I bless you as you are becoming more and more capable, courageous, creative, compassionate; I bless your strength, your artistry, and your intellect.
I bless you for befriending each other, for all of your awkward moments and the laughter and love and tenderness you have shown; knowing that we are each a part of everyone’s story.
I bless you for belonging to this wounded world and especially for belonging to this Maple Leaf community for these years and for years to come. You will be a gift to the many communities that you will weave and enjoy throughout your lifetimes.
I bless you for believing in the mighty mercy of God, and I bless you for doubting and questioning and ignoring God, because God is love and God will always be there for you.
I bless you for beseeching this world for justice, for challenging our institutions and assumptions, for saying what you see and what you need to thrive and for this planet to survive.
I bless your struggles and I bless your dazzling accomplishments.
I bless your commencement from Goshen College, each of you, becoming, befriending, belonging, believing, beseeching.
You, most beloved, and beloving class of 2021.
Be well, keep learning, and stay connected.