Rev. Ron Johnson with students

Beloved Community

2014 Wofford College Baccalaureate Address
Ron Robinson
Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion

If you had been part of the community that gathered in in this very place on July 4th,1851, when the cornerstone for Main Building was put into place, you would have heard Dr. William Wightman tell the 4,000 people present on that day, that “The college structure which is to rise in majestic proportions and elegant finish, on this foundation, will combine Temple and Academy: will be sacred at once to religion and letters.” It is that connection, one that has endured and evolved across three different centuries, that we acknowledge and celebrate today.

The Baccalaureate Service actually originated in 1432 at Oxford University. Each bachelor’s degree candidate delivered a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. During its earliest years, each Wofford student did a similar thing. Some traditions are worth keeping, and some are worth changing. Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service in this country. And we follow in that tradition today.

But back to July 4, 1851 for a moment. According to the Spartanburg newspaper, one of the attendees was a man named William Walker--Singin' Billy Walker. He was the author of a hymnal entitled Southern Harmony. He is buried across the street in Magnolia Cemetery. Singin' Billy was the person who first took John Newton's words and put them to the tune to which we now sing Amazing Grace-probably the best-known hymn in the American Songbook. You never know who is in the crowd.

Class of 2014, we celebrate you this weekend. Let’s get some perspective. The year you were born Tiger Woods became a professional golfer. That same year people were listening to Boyz II Men and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Guns-N-Roses and Billy Ray Cyrus (remember Achy Breaky Heart?). Miley Cyrus is one of you, and so are Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas and Kyrie Irving. For you the Soviet Union has never existed and there has only been one Germany. For you, reality shows have always been on television and, for you there has never been an organization called the Moral Majority.

You came here from 21 states and from Rawanda, Pakistan, South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Canada, Sweden, Ethiopia, Iran, India, Japan, China and South Korea. You arrived on campus in 2010 listening to Flo Rida and Taylor Swift , The Black-Eyed Peas and Kanye West, Trace Adkins and Jason Aldean, Lil' Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Drake, Bruno Mars, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Lupe Fiasco and Lady Gaga. No one genre of music, no one point of view, no one set of experiences can accurately encapsulate you.

And you came together, to form a Class, and social groups and teams and cohorts and clubs and roommates and housemates…friendships that, in many cases, will last a lifetime.

Now I know that I’m idealistic—that comes with the territory when you are a college chaplain. But I hope and pray that somewhere in all of these relationships you have come to know something of what it means to be part of a “Beloved Community”—or at least that you have had a glimpse of what such a community might be.

“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the by Josiah Royce. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who popularized the term. The Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth; in which all people can have freedom and hope and opportunity and justice. The key word is all. Through your service and your philanthropy, your activism and your advocacy, through your willingness to engage the larger world, many of you have been proactively building this Beloved Community.

We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1964 with us this weekend. Many of you have returned today because half a century ago you made important connections with the people and the place you remember as Wofford College. 

Think back a moment: You were listening to:

  • Sugar Shack,
  • The Beach Boys Surfin USA,
  • Wipe Out,
  • My personal favorite, Da Do Ron Ron,
  • And the Cascades, The Rhythm of the Rain

Shipp Hall was completed in the fall of 1963, when they arrived to start their senior year. Milliken Science Hall opened during their time at Wofford.

Among the bands who performed on campus were Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and Ernie K. Doe who had recorded Mother-in-Law. I looked up the lyrics. Class of ’64, don’t ever complain about the lyrics of songs of the Class of ’14.

But the times, they were changing, and so were many of you. You were also listening to If I Had a Hammer and Blowing in the Wind. These were turbulent times.

The bombing in Birmingham at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls in Sunday School, occurred in September of your senior year. You saw segregation rear its ugly face on campus several times during your career. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of your senior year. You were to be the last class to graduate from an all white Wofford College. Your baccalaureate speaker was the Rev. Ted Jones, a member of the Class of 1934, who championed desegregation. He graduated from Wofford 80 years ago this spring, and I can only imagine the courage he had to have in taking the stands he did. But something about his character and perhaps something he learned here shaped him into a leader.

Some of the members of the Class of 2014 have interviewed some of you for their senior capstone projects. And they have learned something very important: People can change. Groups can change. You know that is true because some of you changed in dramatic ways while you were here. Several of you have earned strong reputations for championing civil rights—not a popular cause when you came here.

And Class of 2014, you know people can change, too. Ponder for a moment some of the ways you have changed since you arrived here in the Fall of 2010.

In a rigorous academic setting such as this we sometimes have the mistaken impression that it is only here we are about the big questions, out there in the world those questions are inconsequential. But the deep meaning of a liberal arts education does not always emerge from high-level discussions of human nature or free markets or reason or free will or the purpose of the universe, as important and stimulating as those discussions are. Rather, the product of a liberal education more than likely emerges in the dispositions and sensibilities of people who find themselves in the midst of conflicts over

  • how this community will spend its money, 
  • over who has a place at the table when decisions are made, 
  • over who may or may not choose what students read, 
  • over who may love whom,
  • over exactly which newcomers will be welcomed into our midst. 
  • questions about who is in and who is out of the Beloved Community? 

The prophet Micah found himself in a situation of addressing a generation of listeners who were stuck in the conversations they were having. Micah questioned their belief system and he challenged them to change: to engage their lives rather than sacrifice their animals. “What does the Lord require: Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,” says Micah.

Upendo read the story of the Good Samaritan. The underlying issue in this parable is that it shows that the religious regulations and mores had become more important than the people….and this goes to the heart of the major teachings of Jesus: people matter more than laws.

Last Tuesday I spent some time with a woman named Veronica. She is a grandmother. She told me that about a year and a half ago her daughter gave birth to a baby girl—Veronica’s granddaughter. She noticed that something wasn’t quite right about her granddaughter’s vision. She kept asking the physician if there was a problem—could the little girl see? The physician shrugged and said, “ She doesn’t have sight.” “Is she blind,” Veronica asked. “Well, we don’t like to use that term. She doesn’t have sight” “Is she blind? Can she see?” “No, she can’t see.”

Veronica said to me, “I didn’t get sad; I got busy!” And after some research she found what appeared the best institute to work with her granddaughter. She called and she said, “Hello. I am Veronica. But I want you to think of me as Michelle Obama—the first mother of the United States—calling about Melia and Shasha. I am trusting you to treat me and my family as the most important people in the world. This is a time of sacred importance.” She got her appointment. It is how we treat each other that matters. It is how we live out our ideas and values. It is how we put the words and tune together that matters.

Singin’ Billy took the words of John Newton, the captain of a slave ship by the way…I once was lost but now I am found; was blind but now I see…He took the words and put a tune to them. It is time for you to do that with your education.

Class of 2014, tomorrow as you graduate the college bell will toll once for each of you. It tolled on your first Sunday here. It tolled as you processed here today. And someday it will toll to mark the end of your earthly life, as it already has for one of your classmates, Randall Heffron. Those tolls connect you to this Beloved Community.

Between the tolls you and I are the ones who’ll decide where we will go and who we will be and what we will do. We will decide the words we use and the tune we will play. My hope is that you will always feel a strong connection with the Wofford Community, and that the amazing grace of God will continue to change you. My prayer is that because of you, the Beloved Community will become much, much bigger. It is a matter of sacred importance.