Commencement Address

Concordia University-Wisconsin December 17, 2005

Dr. Ferry, members of the Board of Regents, Mr. Hecht and Pastor Klaus, who receive honorary degrees today, faculty, staff, parents, friends, and of course, particularly, today’s graduates.

I am very honored to be here and to have the opportunity to speak to you on this day of your commencement, especially during Concordia’s 125th anniversary. I remember as a young child when the 75th was being celebrated. And I know my father and mother were most pleased to be here in 1981 for the 100th anniversary. My dad, Walter Stuenkel, was president of Concordia from 1953 until his retirement in 1977, several years before some of you were even born, I expect.

It pleases me that one of the focuses during this jubilee year is on the contribution of women to Concordia. The Women’s Leadership Institute begun by Dr. Ferry here at Concordia and currently under the leadership of Dr. Mary Hilgendorf is a wonderful acknowledgement of the significant contribution of women both in education, business, a variety of professional domains, both private and public, and in the church as well. It seems significant to me that this campus has an institute such as this, for I believe Concordia, Milwaukee, was possibly the last Concordia to become co- educational.

There were about 75 of us who came to Concordia in 1965 as the first class of women accepted into the college - well, kind of accepted. I wish I had saved some of the editorials in the Quill, which was our college newspaper, that first year to read to you today. I can’t say we were enthusiastically welcomed by all.

But they did get used to us. In fact, many of them married many of us. My husband Mark and I were one of the couples to emerge from that first year.

I can also remember starting some of the traditions that go with co-ed student bodies. As Student Senate Secretary, I suggested that we begin a queen and court for Alumni Weekend, which was like Homecoming. Since it was my idea, the rest of the Senate suggested I take care of that. So I did. And I guess my classmates figured I suggested it because I wanted to be it, for they elected me – not really what I had in mind. My dad crowned me and the tradition was begun – but I ended up a bit embarrassed by it all. There were definitely some awkward moments for me and for women here at CU-W those first years.

I also recall a costume Halloween party when my best friend Lenore Wisch Chandler and I dressed up as early 1900s suffragettes and led all the women around the gym behind our placards about giving women the right to vote. It may have been a moot point for the country, but it was actually still an issue for Missouri Synod Lutherans in congregational life.

I have come to realize that being a part of the first class of women at Concordia was just the preparation I needed for future firsts. I am currently the first woman in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod to be nominated, then elected, and now serving on a seminary board of regents. As many of us have come to realize, no experience is for nothing. It does seem we are always being prepared for a next step of some kind.

What about you? Perhaps you already are appreciating how your years here at Concordia University have prepared you for future challenges, or perhaps you are just glad to be done. No matter which, I know that you will think back to experiences here throughout your life and see over time the influence on you as you face the challenges that will be there in your future years.

As I look back on the years living on Concordia’s campus, I know I learned a lot, and it seems to me that it was all about GRACE. And so your theme verse for this 125th stands out to me – “one blessing after another,” or, as another translation puts it, “grace upon grace.” The examples of loving service that surrounded me during my life at Concordia, first as a child observing my parents, faculty members and their families, and many outstanding students, then as a student myself are living testimonials to the GRACE that has been the theme for Concordia’s work with students every one of these 125 years - the grace we know in Christ and His saving love. And I would suggest that as a theme for your years ahead as well. If you are paying attention and willing to be honest with yourself, I believe you will be overwhelmed with GRACE experiences and GRACE people, both behind you and before you.

I recall with great admiration watching my parents during their years here at Concordia and after. The way they would greet and converse with each student, parent, Ladies Aid member, staff member, really each person they would meet as if the person before them was the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON they knew. Their example taught me about giving and receiving GRACE, about being blessed and sharing those blessings.

I work with elementary school children in a low-income school. Many of them have very little in financial resources and not much potential to enter an academic world such as CU-W. But they offer us on staff their smiles, hugs, compliments, and best efforts at growth in learning every day. I am there to serve them, to be a blessing in their life, but I am daily humbled by their far greater capacity to show grace to me.

Andrew comes to mind – he was in a therapeutic foster home because of serious abuse from his parents. On his first day at kindergarten, the teacher asked me to take him to my office to eat his lunch because he had hit and pushed a child in the lunch line. As I knelt next to him and asked him in my best counselor voice and with my well seasoned “Love and Logic” choices, “Do you want to come to my office holding my hand or not holding my hand?” he slapped me on my cheek, hard enough to knock off my glasses and throw me back. He actually gave me my first and only black eye in that encounter. About a half hour later he was eating lunch in my office with me and generously and graciously offered me some of his potato chips.

Or there was Brittany, who had to witness her dad taking a drunken fall as they were exiting from a light rail car and then help him up. She was being moved to live with other relatives. As she was walking out of our school on her last day, she saw me sitting in my office and came in to give me the sweetest kiss on my cheek I have ever had. I never saw her again but can still feel the shiver from that gracious gesture of affection.

Or Chelsea, who had written a note for me to give to April, the class reject. She had written the note to let April know she was a secret friend to her. She went on to tell me that she really liked April, but she was the reject last year and only recently had been accepted as a part of a group and could not bring herself to risk that by being openly friendly to April. She was giving what she could, more than anyone else in the class was willing to give.

Or Jeremy, who, when it was his turn to do morning announcements, started that Friday morning for our school with his lovely boy soprano voice making the song “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” resound clearly through our hallways.

Or Juan Carlos. I had cancer five years ago and had the hair loss resulting from chemotherapy. Anxious to be done with the wig, I took it off when I had very short but obvious hair of my own again. First grader Juan Carlos graced me with a compliment of sorts, “ You look great! You look like a boy, but you look great!”

Or Cody, who gave me a personal thrill as he reached into his backpack for a half sheet of paper that had a conflict resolution wheel I had given him in a class lesson the year before, saying he had just found it again and put it in his backpack, knowing he just might be needing it to help him solve problems on the playground now that school had started again.

Or the fifth grade students who reported the suicide threats of a Native American classmate to staff, allowing us to alert the student’s mom, who took the threat very seriously and got immediate help for him because the mom’s brother and several other high school classmates had killed themselves the year before.

Or Adina, who spent every day after school for a week this fall selling pictures she had drawn to raise money for Katrina refugees, 50 cents if colored, 25 cents if not colored.

I happen to think that perhaps children are the most gracious of us all. You graduates represent a variety of careers, I know, quite different from the intended future pastors and teachers that made up the bulk of our class. It is very exciting to consider all the ways you are going to impact our world with your knowledge, skills, and service. One of my hopes is that your time here at Concordia has embedded in you the willingness to be a gracious person yourself, wherever you go and whatever you do. I also hope that you will find your way into the life and heart of a child, perhaps in your career, but maybe even outside of your career as a mentor in a school near you.

How much time and energy Americans on both sides of the issue devote to arguing about the rights or non-rights of unborn children and how little time some of those arguing spend encouraging and supporting all the born and struggling children in every school in our country. There are those whose calling it is to speak for the rights of the unborn. But I stand here today to represent those already with us. Those children deserve the best we adults can give them.

It is said that among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors. They asked one another: "And how are the children?"

It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, "All the children are well." Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good (Adapted by Pat Hoertdoerfer from an excerpt of a speech by Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O'Neill) for everyone. But maybe the reverse is also true. If life is NOT good for the children, can it really be good for anyone else?

This is something to take with you into whatever workplace or community you find yourself. The children are there to be the beneficiaries of your skills and training, but also to give of themselves to us all, freely and with great joy, if you choose to find them.

But don’t just take my word for this. One of my favorite contemporary writers, Robert Coles, psychiatrist and Harvard professor, has devoted most of the 60 books he has written to studies of and with children. Scott London, a reviewer of Coles’ work, tells us that, based on his extensive work with volunteers of all sorts, and as a long-time volunteer himself, Coles believes that service can have a transformative influence on those who heed the call. . . He finds that the volunteers who are most successful are those who genuinely like the people they meet, who quickly lose the sense that they are martyrs making a sacrifice and, most importantly, who realize that they are getting something in return. Again and again, Coles' stories affirm that service is not a hierarchy but a reciprocity in which the distinctions between teacher and pupil, giver and receiver, helper and helped constantly dissolve.

And none of us can beg off by saying we are “too busy.” One of Coles’ more recent books, entitled Lives of Moral Leadership, features an African-American man named Al Jones who ended up driving his and neighbors’ children to more affluent schools in Boston in the 1960s to give them a better chance to reach what you have achieved today. Mr. Jones commented that some folks do not take action because they are too busy. His answer to that was:

“It’s important to be busy, but if you don’t find time to change the world, then you’re busy keeping it the way it is.”

Another word of encouragement comes from Mr. Fred Rogers, who considered all children his neighbors:

“When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.”

And finally from our Lord Jesus Christ himself:

“Let the young children come to me and do not hinder them. For the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16)

So that is why I am glad to be here to talk to you today, because I am one of the blessed ones, whose life has been “grace upon grace.” But so are you - no matter what your background or circumstance. Your graduation is a sign of blessing and grace in your own life. No matter how hard you worked, many have helped you get to this point. You have been well prepared for what comes next. And like the children at my school, you have much to graciously offer to others.

May you be continually blessed in your life, as you watch grace upon grace unfold before you. Congratulations to each and every one of you. .