Monday, April 26, 2010

“A Niche for You — Immortality”

Commencement Address by Ronnie A. Yoder, chief administrative law judge of the U.S. Department of Transportation, 112th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ronnie A. Yoder of Alexandria, Va., is the chief administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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My name is Ronnie Yoder and I’m immortal. My father graduated from Goshen College and your college has made him immortal. Now you have completed four years of effort at Goshen College, and you can be immortal, too. My comments are my own and not those of any other person, organization or entity. That’s a standard disclaimer. I bring you three words: a word about my father, a word about me and a word about you — and your niche.

My father grew up as a Mennonite in Wakarusa, Indiana, and graduated from Goshen College in 1931. He finished a life dedicated to religion and art and family in 1997, just short of his 88th birthday. When he died we followed his wish to create a scholarship at Goshen College for art and sculpting. Since that time, 14 Goshen students have received a Ray Yoder scholarship to help them in their work with art and sculpting. I want to congratulate each of them on their achievement and thank them for their letters acknowledging their selection. Dad will continue to live as long as Goshen College continues the Ray Yoder scholarship. So you see, he is immortal.

None of Dad’s siblings went to college, but he decided that he needed to; so in the fall of 1927, he started at Goshen College. He stayed in Coffman Hall after it was built in 1929 and sang with my mother in the Goshen College A Capella choir. He worked at Kline’s clothing store in Goshen and the Studebaker factory in South Bend, and borrowed money from friends and relatives to help finance his education—not that different from those of you who had to borrow in order to go to school.
Dad’s love was art but he also wanted to be able to get a job in the middle of the Great Depression. So he majored in art and science, with a minor in math, and found his first job teaching math and science at the Methodist Mission School at Pitman Center near Sevierville, Tennessee. But he knew his niche and within two years, he was teaching art there and at Park Junior High School in Knoxville where I was born. He went on to serve as a consultant at 33 schools in 11 southern states, and taught art at public schools in Waynesboro, Virginia, and for the University of Virginia, for more than 30 years. He obtained an M.Ed. from U.Va. in 1954 and helped to found the Shenandoah Valley Art Center before authoring his book on  “Sculpture and Modeling for the Elementary School.” Although he had taught and studied at many schools, there was no question where he wanted his scholarship — Goshen College.
Last year a fan of his art, who was then unknown to me, wanted to do a show of Dad’s work to honor his 100th birthday. That show resulted in a permanent exhibit of his paintings at the Waynesboro, Virginia, library and gave rise to sales of reprints of his art and his autobiography and a contribution of nearly $1,200 to his scholarship here at Goshen College.

When Dad was at Goshen College the president was Sanford C. Yoder — one of my many Yoder cousins. Some of you are here today and seven are graduating. The Yoders are a tightly knit group.  My father and I were 5th and 6th cousins. I’m not my own grandpa; but I’m my own 6th and 7th cousin. My mother and father were sixth cousins, descended from John Hostetler, son of Amish immigrant Jacob Hochstetler who came to America from Switzerland in 1736.

So I’m Mennonite and Amish genetically; but I’m also black. You probably didn’t notice, because I’m light-skinned. I often describe myself as light-skinned to emphasize the brotherhood of man and the universality of God’s love; both anthropology and the scriptures affirm that we are all descended from a single ancestor. Science now affirms that a small black lady in Africa was our common grandmother 100,000 years ago. However you figure it, we are all cousins; it’s just that some are closer than others. So we must find ways to bring our family together. You can do that.

They say that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. On Sunday, I attend as many as five churches in order to bring our family together and spread the news that we are one family of whatever race, color or creed. Presently, my churches are Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Congregational. Three of those churches are predominantly black; two are “open and affirming.”

I have four children and nine grandchildren — one Chinese, three Chinese-American, one Japanese-American, two English-American and two American-American. So I’m a Chinese grandfather, a Japanese grandfather, an English grandfather and an American grandfather. I’m doing my best to bring the world together. In the course of all this, I have come to understand and embrace Gandhi’s affirmation of himself as a Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jew. Since I view my life and self-understanding through the eyes of Christian symbols, I sometimes describe myself as a Christian Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jew.

Dad devoted his life to his family, his church and his art. My experience at home led me to center my life in the theology of my parents and the teachings of Jesus. I never belonged to a Mennonite church, but the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. I grew up with a number of my parents’ pithy aphorisms:

  1. Can’t never could — so set your dreams high and don’t give up on yourself or your dreams.
  2. Leave a place better than you find it — so seek the betterment of others and the world, wherever you may be.
  3. Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today.
  4. When in doubt, don’t.


Those admonitions and the 23d Psalm have shaped my responses to life’s challenges — and perhaps yours as well.

By sending me reports on Dad’s scholarship each year, Goshen College encouraged me to start my own scholarship and become immortal, too. On July 10, 2007, my 70th birthday, Virginia Theological Seminary announced the creation of a unique scholarship for students enrolled at VTS. Applicants write papers on the theme: whether love is an appropriate philosophical center for Christianity and all the world’s religions and peoples. The Ronnie A. Yoder Scholarship invites essays, poems, or music exploring the centrality of love in Christian doctrine, scripture, creeds, liturgy, worship, music, and practice, and in other world religions. In the first two years, 17 papers were submitted and three awards given.

My Dad and I experienced mind-boggling changes during our respective lifetimes, and you will, too.

  1. When Dad was born, there were no cars, no planes, no movies, no TVs or computers. When he died there were Mach 6 aircraft, earth satellites, and space shuttles; the atom had been split and DNA testing, cloning, gene therapy, and Internet communications were blossoming.
  2. He never expected to use a computer and refused to explore the possibility of computer-generated art.
  3. He couldn’t believe there were telephones he could carry with him and use to call from anywhere.
  4. Dad grew up as a Mennonite and never expected to be a drillmaster for new Navy recruits; but during World War II, that’s where he wound up. He hated it, but he did it; and he kept his dream alive.

When I was growing up I never expected to see:

    • Computers, which automatically correct my spelling errors.
    • A world linked immediately by electronic media — e-mail, Tweets, and Facebook.
    • Skype video connections to my son and his family in Vienna, Austria.
    • Quarks and strings smaller than atoms.
    • Men on the moon.
    • Eleven dimensions in a multiverse of universes; black holes, dark energy, and dark matter.
    • The fall of the Berlin Wall.
    • The end of the Soviet Union.
    • The election of a person of color as President of the United States.

After 10 years of practicing law I never expected to see:

  • Myself as a federal judge. OK, I’m a federal administrative law judge, but we are the only merit-selected, decisionally independent federal judges holding hearings for agencies. I didn’t even know they existed when I finished law school. I am also the only federal judge who carries clown noses in his pocket at all times. I hand them out to interested children and the young at heart. When asked if I am a clown, I tell them “everybody is, it’s just that some people know it.” Think about it. In Washington, we are reminded of that truth almost every day.

     I never expected to see:

  •  Myself singing with the Washington Opera for 10 years and writing my own songs without ever taking a course in music.
  • Myself as a 73-year-old basketball player.
  • Myself as a heart surgery survivor.  In 2005, they stopped my heart and lungs; so but for modern medicine, I was clinically dead. Then they gave me a quintuple bypass, reconnected me, and brought me back to life. So I’m only 5 years old in my new life, but I try not to act my age; and I’ve kept my dream alive. You can, too.

The world you enter is vastly different from the world my father and I entered.  The world you live in will grow to be vastly different from the one we see now. Hubble spacecraft technology detects light sources millions of light years away, and we decipher the DNA of Neanderthals. We now know that, long after T-rex, chickens sharing their DNA roam the land as mute testimony to their ancestors’ dominance of the planet for more than 150 million years. Super computers do more than a quadrillion calculations per second. Laser technology can fix eyes, perform surgery, and zap mosquitoes to prevent malaria. We have found a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy and many others, and imagine an infinite number of universes, with as many stars in our own universe as there are grains of sand in all the beaches of the world. We have come to see that we can not only build sandcastles and dam rivers; we can change the environment, melt glaciers, and alter or destroy the planet.

 The economic distractions of recent times may seem to raise clouds over your jobs and dreams.  Be not afraid. You can embrace the future. You can affirm that future. You can change that future. You can fulfill your dream.

You will find your niche. It may not come from careful planning. I became a lawyer, because my roommate in 1954 suggested that I transfer from engineering school to the college and become a lawyer as he planned to do. He dropped out of UVA, but I found a niche and completed his dream. I became a judge through a similar leap of happenstance. You can leap, too.

You can change the world. Two thousand years ago a visionary proclaimed a new Kingdom open to all people who chose to embrace the God of Love he saw as Father. You can break the barriers of creed and doctrine that people have developed to separate themselves from each other — not through proselytizing but through demythologizing, not through adherence to creeds and doctrines, but through embracing the brotherhood of man and the unity of the human family.

Jesus said to love the children of the world — not black children or white children, or Baptist or Anabaptist, or Christian or non-Christian children. He did not say love as the scribes and Pharisees — the people of the church. He said love as the enemy with a different religion — the Samaritan who loved his neighbor. Jesus was radically inclusive. He talked to the Samaritan woman at the well, dealt with lepers, ate with tax collectors. He grew up and lived as a Jew; but the heroes in his parables were Samaritans who were foreigners hated by the Jews. He never permitted religion or creeds to stand between himself and all the people he invited to share in a Kingdom of Love — where a God of Love was available to all people. In his radically inclusive way, he invited all others to do the same — every gender, religion, culture and creed; and we are called to do no less.

The conflicts of the world are philosophical and we must learn to address those conflicts philosophically. If we are to confront ideologies of hate, we must be prepared to live, explicate and promote a philosophy of love, unbounded by symbols and creeds, but seen and understood by looking through transparent symbols and creeds to the truths beyond them to which they point.  Not just a touchy feely love, but an intellectual search for an appropriate philosophical center to measure religious doctrine and practice, beautified and clarified, but not obscured or distorted by myths and creeds and doctrines. 

Love is neither soft nor easy. Ask Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa.  Consider the Philippine independence marchers, the Vietnamese response to Americans following the Vietnam war, the Amish response to the murder of school children, and Dietrich Bonheoffer’s conclusion that his God of Love required him to kill Hitler.

When I was growing up, I was told to live a life of prayer, of perpetual relation to the God of our fathers, or the center of our being, and that relationship would never let me down. There may be no atheists in foxholes, or prior to open-heart surgery, or final exam nights, or preparing commencement addresses, but there may be non-deists who have created for themselves a center of love within them.

Consider what center you are asked to affirm. When called upon to affirm the Crusades or the Inquisition or the persecution of the Mennonites or the exclusion of non-Mennonites, or the non-Aryan, or the non-deist, or the non-straight, consider what center you are asked to serve. With a center of love above creeds and doctrines and theologies, would the Inquisition have been necessary? Would the world have experienced the Crusades or the Salem witchcraft trials?  Would we need to kill Anabaptists, because they wouldn’t baptize babies? Would we need to blow ourselves up to get 72 virgins in a never-seen paradise?

Feel free to seek your own center, but understand that you must acknowledge implicitly or explicitly some center in your life; and, living in community, it is helpful if not essential that the community understand itself in terms of the same symbols. Pick your center carefully, and make it real. Communicate with your center regularly and constantly, and you will strengthen your self and your center — whether your center is a Heavenly Father, an Imaginary Friend, your ultimate being, or the highest and best of your aspirational spirit. Create a spiritual presence in your center for strength and encouragement, and you will find that you can always call upon its depths for strength and understanding. Relate to your center, pray to your center, sing to your center, and you will build a center that will never fail you. Don’t expect it to violate, but to fulfill, the laws of creation. Let your center free you to accept yourself and the world and its people as your neighbors.

Having identified and affirmed your center, you will find your niche.  Having found your center you can affirm it in ways that will never end.  You can be immortal. Goshen College made Dad immortal by allowing his family to create a scholarship in his name to recognize students in art and sculpture. You can be immortal, too. All you have to do is care enough about something—your own center — to invest the price of a fancy new car in creating a scholarship, here or elsewhere. You can complete your dream; you can become immortal.

Let me close with the last verse of my song “Ode to Hope”: “Then who is our neighbor deserving our favor? The God of Love calls us to love all mankind. For God loves all creatures; that’s what scripture teaches. And all true religion embraces God’s love. We all are his people, in mosque, temple, and steeple. We’re Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Jew. With love at our center, the Kingdom we enter — with love at our center, the hope of the world.”

God Bless you, God bless America, and God bless all of our brothers and sisters around the world. God bless our efforts to fulfill the dreams of our better angels. Keep faith alive, keep hope alive, and keep love alive. Go forth into all the world and Worship a God of Love that love may be manifest in your lives and in God’s world.

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