Rick Malloy, S.J., Commencement Speech University of Detroit Mercy
It was an honor and privilege to be the commencement speaker at the University of Detroit Mercy. Here's more or less what I said.... Toward the end they played the Chris Rice's Go Light the World ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evmTxfdlXhQ ) and ran pix of the graduates on the screens in Calihan auditorium (UDM's 8200 seat basketball arena).
Richard G. Malloy, S.J., Ph.D. University of Detroit Mercy. May 14, 2011
* There was this guy who called up the house of a friend one Saturday morning. His friend’s little three year old answered the phone. (Whispers) Hello. Hi Billy. Is your Daddy there? (Whispers) Yes. Can I speak to him? (Whispers) No!. Why not ? (Whispers) He’s Busy. Well is your mommy there. (Whispers) Yes. Can I speak with her (Whispers) No!. Why not? (Whispers) She’s Busy. Well, look Billy, I really need to talk with… (Whispers) Daddy is talking to the police. The Police? (Whispers) Mommy is talking to the firemen. The firemen? Billy, what’s going on over there? (Whispers)
Everyone is looking for me!
Everyone has been looking for you for a long time. From birth and baptism, through Tee-Ball and Teen years, to today when you commence your post college lives, we have been watching and waiting, praying to see who you will become.
It is a privilege and honor to share a few moments of this day with you. It is a pleasure to stand before you, with all who have served you so faithfully and so well these past years: Your outgoing interim President Mr. Joseph; Our distinguished honorary degree recipient Mr. David Stone, Esq. The many administrators, faculty and staff persons. The good Sisters of Mercy. My brother Jesuits. Fr. John Staudenmaier was kind enough to suggest I be invited to your graduation, so if you don’t like what I have to say, please complain to him. I also notice he is conveniently out of town today….
What I want to share with you today is first, what it means to be educated in the Mercy and Jesuit traditions, and, secondly, ponder what it means for you, and for all of us, that you do that here, in this great city of Detroit. And thirdly, I’d like to place before you this day a call and a challenge.
Who am I? I am a man profoundly influenced by the Mercy and Jesuit traditions in education. There were 65 of us little munchkins in my first grade classroom, squirming in the sweltering Philadelphia heat of September 1961. Sr. Grace Marian, a 19 year old Sister of Mercy, had to teach all 65 of us, all by herself. 65 first graders; one sister. That’s the way it really was back in the day.
What Catholic sisters have done in this country and across the world is nothing less than heroic. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Sisters helped the scared, and powerless Irish, German, Italian, and Polish immigrant communities move into the American mainstream. When they accomplished that, the Sisters headed out to march in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. They kept Catholic schools functioning in the inner cities of the USA. They have been at the forefront of welcome for Hispanic immigrants. Where ever there is a struggle for justice, a liturgy to be celebrated, a child to be taught or an elderly person to be comforted, you will find the sisters. Wherever there are homeless and hungry people to be served, or proud and pompous people to be brought down a peg, you will find the sisters. The Sisters don’t need to be investigated. They should be honored and cherished for all they do and all they are.
The Jesuits taught me in high school, St. Joe’s Prep in Philly. There I distinguished myself by spending a lot of time in “JUG,” i.e., Justice Under God, what most schools call detention. But my four years there had a profound impact on my life. Much of who and what I am, I owe to the Sisters of Mercy and the Jesuits. It is an honor to speak at the commencement of a university rooted in both the Mercy and the Jesuit traditions.
Catholic schools educate people of all classes, races and creeds. Albert Einstein and Barak Obama both went to Catholic Grade Schools. You’re in good company. Last year, Jesuit universities and colleges enrolled (and hopefully educated) 231,711 students. 25% of those students would be considered minorities. 54% are Catholic; 46% of students in Jesuit universities come from other faith traditions. There are 1,895,940 living alumni of Jesuit Universities in the USA. In a few minutes, you will join them.
From the sisters and the Jesuits, and the multitude of lay colleagues who carry on the mission of Catholic education, we learn that life is a gift and we are to share generously of our talents to make a world of peace and prosperity, joy and justice, faith and freedom, hope and healing, love and life. God is good and God loves us. People educated in the Mercy and Jesuit traditions should proclaim those truths to the whole world.
You too are now women and men educated in the Mercy and Jesuit Traditions. And you were steeped in those traditions in a particular place at a tremendous time: The city of Detroit at the beginning of the 21st century
Detroit. For some, a symbol of all that is troubled and troubling in our land and in our world. But it is also a place from which hope arises, a place to which young graduates like yourselves have come and prepared yourselves for a future full of challenges and choices; a future full, not of problems, but of possibilities.
“What’s a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well I’ll tell ya. More than most. It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel. Add hard work and conviction and the ‘know how’ that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That’s who we are. That’s our story. It’s probably not the one you’ve been reading in the papers, written by folks who’ve never even been here, who don’t know what we’re capable of… this is the motor city and this is what we do” (Chrysler Super Bowl Ad 2011).
Detroit has given the world many things, but one of the most impressive, the most meaningful, the most transformative gifts of this city was the Motown Sound. I was born three months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. There is no connection between the two events except in my own mind. Still, I want you to know I was born into a United States where segregation was legal, lethal and largely unquestioned. If you did try to challenge or change it, they wouldn’t just ridicule you on cable news shows; they would kill you. Nine years later, in 1964, the great Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the students of SNCC had changed our country and our world.
One of the cultural currents underpinning and supporting those momentous changes was the Motown sound that came out of Detroit. It was magical. It was wonderful. It was transformative. It was the sound, the distinctive and delicious, the infectious and invigorating, the motivating and moving, Motown sound.
(Sing) “Bum, Bum Bum, Bum, Bum Bum Bum DA bum. I need love, love to ease my mind; I need to find, find someone one to call mine cause Mama said you can’t hurry love, no you just have to wait….” (With my apologies to Diana Ross and the Supremes). You waited at least four years for your degrees. Your parents have waited twenty some years for many of you to grow up. It is time to go and find the love and give love to the world.
Anyone my age has etched deep in their soul the melodies and lyrics of the MOTOWN SOUND. The Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, on and on. The music that came out of this city paved the way for social and cultural transformations that made America and our entire global village a world more just and more gentle.
In 1961, a few weeks before I met Sr. Grace Marian in first grade, President Obama was born in Hawaii. Again there is no connection between the two events except in my own mind and in that I have a birth certificate, and so does he. Will someone tell Donald Trump! It is that MOTOWN SOUND that opened the ears and the hearts of Americans to prize diversity and drive social change. In part, that sound led to the Obamas and their beautiful daughters living in the White house today.
You and all of us are the beneficiaries of those changes. We still have a long way to go, but we have come a long way since Freedom Summer of 1964 when four young Civil Rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. We have come a long way since the events of the summer of 1968. We are in a world of Ipods and Ipads, not Jim Crow. We are in a world where women lead and no longer have to spend their lives in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.
We live in a world of urban centers. The future will be one where we perfect our cities and restore urban areas to greatness and beauty.
“ St. ‘Ignatius loved the great cities.’ They were where this transformation of the human community was taking place, and he wanted Jesuits to be involved in the process.” In the Book of Revelation we are told God will bring about transformation in the form of a Holy City, the radiant New Jerusalem.
You came to school in the city. You educated yourself here. Education comes from the Latin “educare” to lead forth. Go forth from this time and place and create a world of cities shining on hills.
Sing the songs of Love like “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Sing the songs of Justice like “We Shall Overcome” the amazing hymn filled with amazing grace, the song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Sing the songs of freedom like Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom, for all I ever had, Redemption song.”
That’s my generation’s music. What will be yours? Will.I.Am and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love”? “Take control of your mind and meditate; let your soul gravitate to the love, y’all, y’all”
Go forth from this place and begin to sing the songs, the songs of love and justice and freedom. Go and change the world. Go and change statistics like these: 80% of the people on planet earth live on less than $10 a day; 22,000 little children die every day from preventable causes.
Now, in these addresses the speaker is supposed to give you advice. I’m supposed to tell you how to live and thrive. Things like “Do Good; Avoid Evil”; “Keep your wallet fat and your body thin.” But I’m a Jesuit so I don’t really have a wallet, and, look at me. I obviously got the thin thing all backwards. So, I don’t have much advice. I don’t know how you are supposed to live. But I do know for what and for whom you should live. I have a call and challenge, a plea and a purpose, a demand and a decision to place before you today. Be a fire that kindles other fires. Light your candle and light the world.
There are people who need you; you and your talents and your abilities. Many of them are in the inner cities of our nation, places like certain areas of Detroit. I learned this as a young priest in Camden, NJ. Camden, NJ, often listed as one of the nation’s poorest and most violent cities.
Let me tell you about Eloise Squires. It was July of 1988. Newly ordained and “wet behind the collar,” I had just arrived in Camden to work at Holy Name Church.
My third or fourth day in Camden the rectory doorbell rings. A woman is there and she asks me to come and pray with her father. I say, “Sure.” She says, “We’re not Catholic.” I say, “That’s no problem. Here in Camden we all work together.” I go with her a few blocks over and we approach a house that from the outside, looks like it’s falling apart. Boarded up windows, shingles falling off the roof, a rickety porch. We go in and the first floor is immaculately clean. In the room there is only a small table, a couple of folding chairs, and one bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The only other thing in the room is a hospital bed with an IV pole next to it.
In the bed is a 63 year old man, Eloise’s father. We talk. He tells me about his life. Years filled with troubles and trials. He hadn’t always been proud of his choices. But he’s reconciled with his daughter. He’s made amends where he can. He has no illusions. The cancer is advanced, and to tell the truth, he’s ready to die. He is grateful his daughter has taken him in during his time of need. We pray and I give him a blessing. He asks me to come again. I say I will. As I’m leaving, Eloise asks if she can come to the Rectory the next day and talk to me. I say, “sure.”
The next morning she shows up. A little dressed up in her best Goodwill outfit. She sits down and starts talking. She speaks in the soft lilting litany of the poor. She tells me the story of her life, years filled with hurt and hunger, pain and poverty, sadness and sin; she more sinned against than sinning. Abused and raped by cousins as a young girl, drug use and teen pregnancy, high school drop-out, one bad boyfriend after another. One bozo loved her so much he drove the cab of a Mack truck through a building she was in to show how much he cared about her. Hers was a story hard to hear, difficult to comprehend.
And all the time I’m sitting there. I haven’t said a word (uncharacteristic for me…). I’m sitting there thinking, “She’s gonna ask for money for the funeral.” Now I didn’t know if the parish had money for situations like this. I didn’t know what I’d say to her. Then she looks at me. This tells you how the poor can read us. She says, “I don’t wants money.” I wants to know something. Is this it for me? Does God want this for me? Does God hate me or what?”
That was the day I learned what my job as a Jesuit priest is. Somehow I am supposed to let the poor of the world know that God does not hate them. All of us who claim the name Christian, all of us educated in the Mercy and Jesuit traditions, are to let those suffering poverty and despair know that God loves us and wants us to love one another. God wants us to make a good world for one another to demonstrate that his love is real and effective.
A few years later I went to Eloise Squires’ funeral. I was the only white person in the funeral home. She had suffered an asthma attack, had been taken to the hospital and died. She was 44 years old.
It is my privilege and duty to let graduates like you know about people like Eloise Squires. It is my privilege and duty to urge you to do something to make our cities, our country and our world a better place for people like Eloise.
How will you love? Who will you be like? “Be like Mike” was a saying from the 1990s. Who do you want to be like?
Be like Brad Pitt rebuilding New Orleans. Don’t be like Charlie Sheen. Be like Tyra Banks and her TZone foundation that strives to build sisterhood and help girls from low income families. Forget Lindsay Lohan. Better pray for her. There are a lot of good people in the world. Don’t let the Bernie Madoffs make you think everyone is a cheat and a liar. Realize there are a lot of Elizabeth Taylors who have the courage and conviction to speak up for those who have no one to speak for them. Don’t be like Snooki and the Situation. Be like Bill and Melinda Gates.
Be like Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit in Los Angeles who has spent decades reaching out to and helping gang members get out of the Thug life. Be like Sr. Mary Scullion, the Sister of Mercy who has transformed the situation for our homeless brothers and sisters in Philadelphia.
Go forth from here and rebuild our cities. If you make a lot of money doing so, come back and give a lot of it to the University of Detroit Mercy. College costs money. We all know that.
I am sure you and your families have made great sacrifices to pay for your education. And I hope you will use the talents and abilities you have developed here at UDM to help those less fortunate than you.
Our world needs all of you to be fires that kindle other fires. “It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” Our world needs you to light your candle and be light for the world. Look at yourselves. You are our future.
Be a fire that kindles other fires.
Go out into the world and light your candle. Sr. Helen Prejean SSJ, whom Susan Sarandon portrayed in Dead Man Walking, says, “When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ’ ” Go forth from UDM. Move this town. Move this world. Spread God’s love and light, God’ peace and prosperity, God’s joy and justice.
Go and make this world a better place for the Eloise Squires of the World.
May God grant you joy for the journey, courage for the choices, faith for the freeing, hope for the healing and love for the lasting.
May God bless you, May God bless Mercy and Jesuit Education, and May God bless the University of Detroit Mercy.
There’s an old children's story, I Love You. In the story the mother sings to her little boy, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always…” Well, We’ll love you forever, We’ll like you for always. As long as the University of Detroit Mercy exists, our graduates you will be.