Grace Christian School

2004 Graduation Address

Welcome, graduates, students, families and friends. What an exciting time! I am honored to share this moment with you, and I appreciate your graciousness and patience in sitting through a speech when I know all you want to do is get something to eat and go to a party.

I have spent the last week thinking about what I want to say to you, what I wish someone had said to me when I was your age, which wasn’t that long ago. I polled friends of mine, who had several enlightening things to offer. One of them wants me to admonish you, “You do not want to see his CD collection. That is not what he wants to show you anyway. The CD collection/lava lamp/poster is inevitably in his room where you must NEVER EVER go by yourself.” Another offers this bit of wisdom: “It may seem like a really good idea to wash your clothes in the shower using shampoo. But it’s really hard to get the soap out of the fibers and it has a tendency to bubble up when it rains.” These are both worthy pieces of knowledge, which is why I pass them on to you.

But what I kept coming back to was this: fear not. “Fear not,” says God in Isaiah 43, “for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” Some of you are terrified of what comes next. Some of you aren’t, because you have no idea what’s coming. And some of you are scared of things you don’t even know you’re scared of.

So by way of reassuring you, I want to tell you that things probably won’t turn out as you have planned, and you will probably fail. And these things will be a great gift to you. At 17, I imagined myself at 27 as a writer in New York, wearing a little black dress in a swanky bar sipping a gin martini and dropping witty one-liners to the worshipful crowd: very Dorothy Parker, minus the abortion and suicide attempts. I did not envision myself working at a homeless shelter where sexually precocious six-year-olds are my area of expertise. I did not envision living in Houston, the city I grew up in and which I swore I’d never come back to. Then my sophomore year of college, when I was pursuing my carefully mapped out plan of becoming a newspaper reporter, what had been a tangential interest in race and justice started to blossom. I became very critical of the church for not doing more, for conforming to the culture, for not being a more powerful voice for peace and justice, for becoming so self-absorbed–what my relationship with God can do for me and my family and my finances and my job–all me, all the time. Even our focus on sin is highly individualistic–we talk a lot about sexual purity but never about the dangers of materialism or militarism. Do Old Testament codes about treating workers well and paying them fairly apply to corporations? And since, in a consumer society the consumer–you and me–is the boss, what is the Christian response to sweatshops and exploited workers? Should I not buy Nike? These are the questions I grappled with. Then I went home for the summer, and the job I had lined up fell through, and it turned out the homeless shelter needed interns to run the summer program for the kids. I didn’t want to do it, but I had talked a big game about how the church should do more–what my dad called letting my hippopotamus mouth overload my hummingbird behind. So I took the job, a baptism by fire in a sense: the first time I saw up close the glaring inequities in American life, how crushing poverty can be to the spirit, and the physical manifestations of the spiritual ill of racism. It also introduced me to children who were bright and resilient and funny and savvy in the face of anguish, who demonstrated unshakable faith and irrepressible spirits. It was the first time I had to be in the minority, when my skin color and my hair were the aberration rather than the norm; the first time I had to acclimate to someone else’s culture rather than expecting them to acclimate to mine. And it generated a host of other questions: why are so many more residents here black than white? Why are blacks disproportionately poorer? And if I search Scripture, don’t I find that the blame for poverty and injustice is rarely put at the feet of the poor but rather at the feet of those with much, those who benefit from the prevailing powers and principalities and are in a position to change them? If black Americans are like the Israelites in the Exodus story, a narrative they have taken personally since slavery, then aren’t we Egypt? And what do we do about that? Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camera said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist,” and I felt like that sometimes; hard questions can be unwelcome questions. But they were the probing of the Spirit, leading me slowly off the road I had been groomed for, the road to worldly success and respect and influence and the kind of stuff your dad can brag about on the golf course, and into something that was going to challenge me every day, show up every weakness I had, play on all my vulnerabilities, invest me with responsibility I don’t always discharge well, and put me in the midst of the salvation drama. I am forced to live beyond myself every day which means I am forced to call on God every day. I get to be a foot soldier in the prophetic tradition of Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St. Francis and Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, all those who really believed the Sermon on the Mount was not just an ideal but an idea to be incarnated, who knew the call to discipleship was radical but was the only call worth answering. There was a time a couple of years ago when I was dealing with a very difficult little boy who had just been removed from his mother and placed in foster care. I was writing to his mother, Philicia, while she was in prison, and a friend of mine asked me why I do what I do when it appears so hopeless. I had never been asked before, but I knew immediately what drives me. I am short-tempered and petty and impatient; I veer wildly between grand egotism and great insecurity, I tend to self-righteousness and pride and a lot of other ugly things. But I get to be the person who writes to this woman, a drug addict in prison who has lost her children and is dying from AIDS, and say, “Philicia, you are loved. Philicia, you have a shepherd. Your life is not a waste. Your children will be cared for. You are a daughter of the King and He is present in your suffering and He thinks you are beautiful and He can still redeem and bring you to glory.” This imperfect vessel gets to be a conduit of perfect grace, and that’s why I show up every day. Don’t be afraid when your plans change. God has things for you you haven’t yet had the guts to imagine for yourself.

Don’t be afraid to disappoint people. It can be the most liberating thing in the world, to refuse to be held hostage by the expectations of others, even when those others are incredibly loving and well-meaning people like your parents. And ultimately the call of Christ is one that only you can discern. So go ahead and disappoint some people and show yourself that it won’t kill you. And if you need an example of how to do that, look no further. I disappointed my dad by choosing Wellesley, a liberal women’s college, over Dartmouth, which he could more easily have bragged about. I disappointed my grandfather, who despite the fact that I declared a religion major my sophomore year always seemed to believe that I was stealthily pursuing an economics degree that I could surprise him with on graduation day, along with my six-figure job offer at Pricewaterhouse Coopers. I disappointed professors who said I was throwing away a great future as an intellectual and a scholar by pursuing my interests in race and poverty issues. I disappointed editors who were grooming me for bigger things by leaving journalism. And you know what? I’m still standing. Disappointment hasn’t made me wither up and die. I stay as close to the call of Christ as I can, I start over when I mess up, and I get over it when people aren’t happy with me. And I am a bit freer than I was at 17–not all the way there, to be sure, but a little farther down the road.

Don’t be afraid of the world. Some of us seem to feel so under attack by the culture that we sequester ourselves in little communes with other people just like us, and it’s understandable but it’s the kiss of death, spiritually and intellectually. You have nothing to fear from the world–Christ has already told you He has overcome it, and what He has overcome, you have power to overcome. Engage it. Understand it. Know why people think the way they think and what they care about and what they’re afraid of and what makes them laugh and what keeps them up at 3 in the morning. Remember the first Bible verse you ever learned: “For God so loved the world.” God loves the world. And one of the signs of a God-lover is to love the things He loves. And you can’t love what you don’t know. One of the most unnerving news items I’ve come across in a while is the founding of Patrick Henry College, a university exclusively for home-schooled children. The only major they offer is government, and many of the students say they want to go into government or sit on the Supreme Court. These are people who want to shape the culture and have never bothered to engage it. They have the extraordinary hubris to try to come in and change that which they don’t even understand. Don’t be like that. Read books that challenge your ideas. Read people you don’t agree with. Better yet, get to know people you don’t agree with. I would wish for each of you friends who your parents disapprove of. Get to know people of other races, other cultures, other religions, other political convictions. Know some people who are activists for causes you think are ridiculous. They will give nuance and texture to your world, and they will be part of the fire God uses to test and refine your faith. I have many gay friends. When I go to vote, or when I listen to a joke, or when I hear about a gay-bashing, it’s not an abstract issue that affects faceless people; now it’s Shawna, the girl who was in the Noah’s Ark play with me at church when I was four and whose son or daughter I will be godmother to when it is born in seven months. Now that does not change the way I understand God’s plan for human sexuality; God’s word is eternal. But it makes me aware that when I vote and when I speak and when I consider my commitment to human rights, I am affecting the fate of real people. At the very least, it will make me think harder and pray harder. And that is never a bad thing. And of course the cultural exchange works both ways: they will never be able to listen to stereotypes of evangelicals as mean, narrow-minded bigots without seeing your face.

Don’t be afraid of the church, in all of its multihued, chaotic, messy glory. I grew up a Southern Baptist in Texas. I wasn’t sure Presbyterians were Christians. Some of you might not think Southern Baptists are Christians! And truthfully, as you know more and more believers of all stripes, there will be days when you think: God has no standards and no taste. Other days, of course, this is what gives you hope for yourself. If you stay fenced in behind a narrow, legalistic version of Christianity, if you let yourself get caught up in petty theological squabbles, you will miss some of the greatest blessings God has for you. Again, this is something I learned experientially. I have two women whom I would consider spiritual mentors, two women who are the first ones I would turn to for prayer or counseling and who God has used to shape my faith and refine my understanding of my calling. They are both named Mary, and I promise you that is where the similarities end. The first Mary was my chaplain in college. She was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a lesbian in a long-term relationship. She had some crazy theology, she had a very different understanding of atonement than I did, she read Scripture differently than I did, and obviously she led a very different lifestyle than I did. But she loved Jesus, and she got grace better than anyone I’ve known before or since. She just got it. She rested in it. She depended on it. And she dispensed it to others. Her presence as leader of the Protestant community became a very divisive issue my sophomore year, and as evangelical Christians said mean, hurtful things about her, she always responded in love and urged us all to listen to God’s Spirit, whatever it was telling us. She had worked at churches in Harlem and the Bronx and in seminary, on her days off, she would go to the hospital and rock the AIDS babies that everyone else was too afraid to touch. Her commitment to justice, to the poorest and most oppressed of God’s children, radically shaped my own understanding of these things. When I first began in urban ministry, she talked me through everything: my first encounters with overt racism directed against my kids, my first AIDS baby, my first broken child who I just couldn’t fix, my first drug relapse. And she offered me what still stands as the best advice for working in the midst of such agony that I ever received: “You bear witness to the suffering. You stand with them in the trenches. You tell the stories of the miracles because we know they do happen, and you don’t pretend that it doesn’t break your heart.”

The second Mary attends my current church, which is an intentionally interracial congregation. This Mary is the person who, when I first joined the church, looked like the person I was least likely ever to have a conversation with. She is white and upper-middle-class and a stay-at-home mom and a Republican, just like my mom, and I was running away from that world as fast as my feet would carry me. She’s not anyone I would ever be interested in knowing, I thought, when I thought about her at all. But I’d hear people talking sometimes, and the consensus was always that if you needed prayer, she was the person to go to. And one day I did need it, and I called her to explain the situation and say look, it’s really no big deal, I’m not in a rush, I know you’re leaving to visit your son in Europe, let’s talk when you get back. And in her characteristically direct manner she said, “I don’t think this can wait until we get back, can you come over tomorrow morning?” And we have been talking ever since. This Mary is a charismatic Christian, prodigiously gifted with prophetic and intercessory gifts. She has the gift of tongues. She plays a tambourine with streamers on it in the worship service. She is so not my type. And what I was forced to realize–what I am being forced to realize, because I can’t say the work has been completed–is that I shied away from charismatic Christianity because of what people might think. I prided myself on being someone who didn’t bother with other people’s opinions, but I realized this kind of Christianity–this Spirit-filled, supernatural Christianity, which goes beyond the rational mind–scared me not because I thought it was theologically unsound but because I was afraid my friends would think it was weird. Most of my closest friends from college are not believers. But they are OK with my Christianity because what they see is someone who works with homeless kids and lives across racial and cultural lines and is an advocate for justice and votes a straight Democratic ticket, and that’s cool with them. It’s sort of like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. They’re OK with my Christianity because they like what comes out of it, and too often I don’t make them worry too much about what’s behind it. I am like the author Anne Lamott, who also travels in progressive circles and jokes that her friends don’t really believe she’s a Christian but that she’s Christian-ish, and she is sometimes tempted to go along with it, presenting herself as a vaguely Jesus-y bon vivant, all the while terrified that someone will blow her cover and find out she’s just a couple of months away from slapping a fish decal onto her car. Mary makes me confront this side of me–the ugly, intellectually proud side of me that’s a little bit embarrassed of Jesus, that wants to dress him up in activist clothing and quote St. Francis of Assissi and Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day but shies away from words like “healing” and “deliverance” and “savior” because it might suggest that we need those things, and surely we are too hip and self-assured for that. But the truth is I want what she’s got, her worshipful heart and her assurance that God is big enough for whatever comes—a message I so often need in my work and in my life.

So fear not: not the world, not the church, not your own unique callings and paths. And if you jump down about 18 chapters in Isaiah, you find this: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah prophesied it; Jesus fulfilled it. And because you are part of the glorious Body of Christ, it is your job description. Imperfect conduits of perfect grace; ordinary people with extraordinary callings. I am honored to count you as brothers and sisters, and as co-laborers in the greatest venture on earth. Be well, be blessed, and thank you.

Shannon Wright