Winter Graduation Address by Marie Dennis ’64
Co-president, Pax Christi International
Thank you so much, President McGuire – and congratulations to all of you who are graduating today. Thank you for sharing your special day with me.
I am particularly grateful to receive this honor from Trinity Washington University – of course because Trinity is my alma mater – but especially because of the very important mark Trinity is making on our city and beyond – and because of Trinity’s obvious commitment to a more just and peaceful world.
Let me take a few minutes to look at this city in which Trinity Washington University is located. Many of you are native to the Washington metropolitan area – all of you have been here for at least a few years, so you know the city pretty well. You know that Washington, D.C., is actually several cities bound together by a common geography, common infrastructure, a common reputation and common challenges. Which city you see and how you interact with that city depend a lot on where your feet are planted and through which lens you are looking.
Rose Berger in her compelling narrative on the neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where she lives, Who Killed Dante Manning?, reminds us that perspective is shaped by what we see out the window every morning when we wake up…
The many tourists who visit our city see museums and galleries, memorials and monuments – a beautiful and welcoming city. Diplomats, political leaders and financiers from around the world see a city of power and prestige – also welcoming, often exciting. Students and recent graduates see a Washington that is full of interesting opportunities – internships and fellowships and great universities. Immigrants see a city blessed by diverse cultures, languages and traditions, but whether or not they feel welcome here depends on who they are, where they’re from, why and how they came. The Native American Piscataway community sees Washington, D.C., as their ancestral land. Some of us see a Washington full of people with high ideals and a deep commitment to peace, racial and economic justice, environmental integrity. But most of us here look out the window every morning and see a Washington, D.C., of ordinary neighborhoods, where people live and work, play and pray – and far too often struggle to make ends meet, to push back the violence, to feel secure
Among the most important gifts you have received from a Trinity education is the ability to look at our city and see the struggle for life and dignity in D.C. neighborhoods too poor to be on guided tours; the beauty, courage and wisdom found in those challenged neighborhoods that many of you have known for your whole lives and others have come to know quite well during these years at Trinity. This Trinity lesson will help you see the rest of the world wih the same clarity — through the experience of people who are perpetually disadvantaged or even through the experience of a threatened planet. It will help you know where to plant your feet – how to stay connected to the reality of life on the margins. It will help you seek beauty, courage and compassion where others see only violence and despair. It will help you see virtue (moral excellence, integrity) as you make fundamental decisions in this context about the direction of your life from now on.
I am not talking so much here about your career choice, although that is surely an important part of the fundamental option you are now making. I am talking more about where your center of gravity is located as you move through life; what your relationships look like; how you define success and security; where you look for meaning; whether you believe just and sustainable global peace is possible; and what your life says to a broken and violated world.
My work for Maryknoll and Pax Christi International has offered me many opportunities to encounter life in some of the poorest and most marginalized corners of the world. There, even in the context of horrific violence, I have seen incredible goodness and courage, creativity and reasons for hope:
- Women in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo forming an effective support network to push back the diabolical gender-based violence in their region.
- Youth in Cairo creating games and social media tools to learn new lessons about democracy and civic action.
- Farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, the altiplano of Peru, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania using old, tested methods of raising food that make possible the regeneration of the earth.
- Young people in Haiti, El Salvador, South Sudan, Colombia and here in Washington D.C. learning nonviolent ways to settle conflicts or accomplish social change.
- De-miners in Afghanistan trying to make a flourishing arbor safe enough for returning refugees to harvest grapes.
- Shopkeepers and students, women and taxi drivers gathering courage to rout oppressive politicians.
- People in the middle of wars teaching peace.
Environmentalist and author Paul Hawken writes, “What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.” (University of Portland, 2009
At the same time, millions of people around the world, including in Washington, D.C., struggle for a life of dignity, and balance on the very edge of survival. They are homeless and hungry and unemployed. They are caught in the crossfire of what seems like perpetual war – in Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Colombia, Juarez, in neighborhoods much, much closer to home. And the natural world with which their/our ancestors once lived in harmony is itself in grave danger.
Increasingly, we can see interconnected roots to many of these major global problems. Endemic poverty, war, climate change and other ecological problems are often “of a piece.” And the nightmare so many people are living has not just happened – like a bad storm or fire or random illness. Far too often its roots are planted in our own values, lifestyles, laws, trade agreements, domestic and foreign policies.
You know that decisions made on Capitol Hill, in the White House, on Wall Street, in corporate board rooms, in voting booths, in shopping malls – even around our kitchen tables – can have a significant positive or negative impact in our own neighborhoods. The global impact of actions taken and decisions made here can be just as dramatic.
The good news is that we can make a difference. We can, for example, all be peacemakers in a violent world. The struggle to overcome violence in our own society – so much on our minds these days – is connected to overcoming violence in Palestine and Mexico and the DR Congo. The struggle to overcome violence in our own society is connected to how we understand security; is connected to how we resolve conflicts that are an inevitable part of life, whether interpersonal or political. The struggle to overcome violence in our own society is connected to our local and national budget priorities; is connected to our capacity for national and international cooperation; is connected to the virtues we cultivate in our families, our schools, our neighborhoods – and to the virtues we apply (or not) in the public arena and political debates.
So what will your life say to this broken and violated world? Where will your center of gravity be located? What will your relationships look like? How will you describe success, define security? Where will you look for meaning? Will you live as though you believe a more just and peaceful world is possible? Do you have the courage to be hopeful?
For a long time I have been fascinated, though at first a little disturbed, by the challenge of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who insists that we can only stand straight if we move our centers of gravity outside of ourselves. (A Theology of Liberation, Pg. 118) On the one hand that seemed right-on in the context of our ad-saturated, self-centered culture bent on instant gratification. On the other, it felt off key to women and most disempowered people whose survival usually depends on tending to urgent needs close to home – and even more so on a healthy self-esteem.
I used this image years ago in a workshop. Immediately after I finished speaking, one of the participants – a dancer – offered a great correction. In a dance (he said) – whether it involves two or twenty people or more, the center of gravity during the dance is always in the center of the dancers. Everyone participates, everyone gives, everyone receives.
In life , we are called, I believe, to keep our centers of gravity out there in the dance, making sure that everyone has what they need (the ingredients for a full and dignified life, social and economic justice) and the space (a healthy planet) to dance with gusto!
That means never turning completely in on ourselves; always staying hopeful and engaged in the struggle to create a more just and peaceful world; weaving that commitment (however we can exercise it) into our lifestyles, how we parent our children, how we relate to spouses, friends, and perhaps especially to those we think of as opponents, enemies, competitors, even threats. Such a commitment will affect how we think about and use financial and natural resources; how we exercise civic and political responsibilities; how we manage our businesses; how we do our work, whatever it happens to be; and on and on.
Keeping our centers of gravity “out there” and evaluating the reality around us from that vantage point will help us to discern more accurately how a given decision or action or inaction is likely to affect the lives of people living on the margins here and around the world or the well-being of future generations or the survival of our planet.
This dance of life is a cosmic dance, choreographed to depend on right relationships within the human community, within the whole earth community. The moral compass that you have received from Trinity will help you hold onto the virtues, the integrity necessary for this dance – virtues like justice, honesty, truthfulness, compassion, nonviolence.
Perhaps the greatest challenge as you take the next steps on your journey, whether they are first steps toward a chosen career or new steps on a familiar path – the greatest challenge will be to claim enough autonomy, enough independent soul space, to determine for yourself how to measure “success,” how to define security; how to find “meaning” in your life.
We are all subjected to a constant barrage of messages that describe success in terms of wealth, power, fame and possessions. Trinity, I have no doubt, has encouraged you to move in a different direction – toward the common good, integrity, servant leadership and sustainable living.
We are all subjected to unquestionable assumptions that rest security in higher walls and stronger fences, more sophisticated weapons, bigger prisons and fear of the “other.” Trinity, I have no doubt, has encouraged you to define security in a different way – as freedom from want, freedom from fear, solidarity and community.
You have the tools to sustain what Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer in his new book calls “authentic hope.” You have the courage to look at the tremendous moral challenges that face us in this yet-young 21st century and you have the values that make hope possible anyway. You have experience on the margins of our city and our world – where hope and despair are in constant tension. You have the skills to gather accurate information and solid analysis that can point to the roots of critical issues. And you have the opportunity to bring all of this plus the Gospel in living color or the tenets of your own faith tradition into every dimension of your life.
Believe Howard Zinn, who said: “to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet, writes Maya Angelou, [are]
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms …
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean …
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger …
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence …
[When we come to it, she said,]
… out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe …
Your education at Trinity has surely pointed you toward that “brave and startling truth” where songs of exquisite sweetness replace the drums of war, the cries of hunger, the groans of a wounded planet. As you continue the search, I have a few suggestions:
- Don’t play it safe. Stay fully engaged with life, especially in places you know where poor people live. Cross borders – move out of your own comfort zone – spend time on the other side of town, the other side of the tracks, in another country, with another culture – or stay home in those places where poverty and powerlessness, even violence, rule. You will continue to see life there and to learn lessons that you will never learn if you walk away or stay in safer places.
- Decide to make your life meaningful. Allow the core values of your Trinity education to determine the fundamental direction of your life. Make a commitment for life to something you believe in. Don’t let your passion for peace, social justice or ecological integrity be a phase in your life. Know yourself as a peacemaker, an activist for social justice, an environmentalist and be proud of that identity.
- Identify root causes of the major issues. Look for accurate information and analysis that includes the perspective of impoverished people and the planet. “Go upstream” to find out why millions are hungry in a world where there is plenty of food; why war is more durable than peace; why life as we in the global North are now living it is unsustainable; and on and on.
- Be a player, not a spectator. Join or stay active in a movement for social justice, peace or to heal the earth; get involved in political debates; buy less and pay attention to what you buy – who made it and of what – how far it travelled before it arrived in your local store; let politicians know what you think – write to them, go visit them; participate in demonstrations that express your point of view; pray for peace; fast for justice.
And remember, always remember, that your life is a work in progress. Be open to the movement of the Spirit. Watch for new opportunities to do good; to be peace; to nurture right relationships.
You will face great challenges in our own city, our country and around the world in the coming years, but you are part of a global community that is filled with energy and life and is already creating a better world.
Again, Maya Angelou:
When we come to it [this brave and startling truth]
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it. (A Brave and Startling Truth)
Congratulations – and, again, thank you.