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2012: Baccalaureate

The Good Life

Baccalaureate Address
By Jonathan T.M. Reckford, CEO, Habitat for Humanity International
Wake Forest University
May 20, 2012

Jonathan T.M. Reckford

Click to view a photo gallery from the ceremony.

Thank you …

Congratulations! You’ve made it, and I am honored to be with you today to celebrate your graduation.

I have to begin by telling you about the miracle of Habitat for Humanity.  One of the principal elements in our mission statement is that we bring people together….While our primary mission is housing, since the beginning we have been a vehicle for building bridges across various divides.  We began as a force for racial reconciliation in the South here in the US and between blacks and whites in Zaire.  We build with Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Christians in Egypt, Hindus and Muslims in India and even Democrats and Republicans!  I know this bringing people together thing is really working well, however, when I see Tarheels and Demon Deacons volunteering together. I appreciate your welcoming me across the great divide and into this pulpit!

You just heard my official bio, which often makes a career look much smoother than it ever feels along the way. The most interesting careers are increasingly unpredictable, and as I look back, one of the most important steps I took was considered career suicide by many of my friends.

I had made the decision to leave the business world to fulfill a long-delayed plan to serve in the non-profit sector. I turned down a couple of very good business jobs right away and then, for the first time in my life, all the doors closed. I went through a time of waiting and searching that allowed me to have wonderful time with my family, but it was often frustrating … and quite humbling.

I increased my volunteering during that time, continuing a passion for coaching pastors and helping churches grow. That led to an invitation to take a full-time leadership role at my church, something that was definitely not a part of my plan.

It would require a fairly drastic change in our family’s income and seemed to be moving me off my desired path, but as my wife, Ashley, and I prayed about it, it seemed to be what we were supposed to do, and I loved working for the church.

I’ve learned that my career has gone best when I have focused intently on serving others and furthering a mission I believed in, and it has faltered when I tried to exert too much control or made it about my accomplishments.

I feel very strongly about the idea of calling that I will speak about this morning.  When I was first invited to speak, I thought, What a great match! Your motto: Pro Humanitate — for humanity — and the organization that I love — Habitat for Humanity.  I felt even more compelled to be with you when I learned about the Pro Humanitate Center here on campus, which seeks to help students who are contemplating their vocational calling.

I’m going to ask each of you to consider 3 questions today that I hope will help you find your calling in this world.

I’m not asking what grad school program you might be considering or what profession you have chosen.  I’m asking you to think about how you will follow your passion, how you will discover, as Frederick Buechner describes it, where the deep gladness of your heart and the world’s great need meet.

I hope that pondering your responses will help you discover what God created only you to do.

  • Number 1 — Who will you allow to speak into your life?

  • Number 2 — How will you define “rich”?

  • And number 3 — What are you uniquely wired to do?

First … influence. Whose voices do you allow to get through the barrage of messages you receive every day? We’re all influenced by others. Look at your hair, listen to the phrases in your conversations and consider your smart phone, your iPad and even the food you eat. The people around us and the media hold great power to shape our behavior and influence our decisions.

That is why I believe it is critical to have strong role models.

My first … and perhaps my most influential role model … was my grandmother. Her name was Millicent Fenwick and she was quite a colorful personality. She was a civil- and human-rights pioneer and New Jersey congresswoman who encouraged me at an early age to care for the lost and the left out in our world.

Have you ever heard of the comic strip Doonesbury? The character of Lacey Davenport in the strip was modeled after my grandmother.

Grandma had a very imposing presence, and prior to her public life, she had written the best-selling Vogue Book of Etiquette, so in order to graduate to the “grown-up” table at her house, one had to be able to sit up straight, hold one’s fork properly and participate in a discussion of food problems in sub-Saharan Africa.

Every time I saw her she would challenge us to be “useful” and recite to me what she called her “life verse” from the Bible — Micah 6:6-8. Though it took me some time to live into it, this passage has become my life verse as well.

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
And to walk humbly with your God….

That passage of Scripture and my grandmother’s unconventional determination to fight for social justice were profound influences on my life.

So what about you? Who are the people who influence you the most? If you try to picture them, whose faces do you see?  What are they telling you?

Increasingly, you have the power to decide which people and which messages you’re going to pay attention to. You will figure out which ideas are important to you and which ones you will reject. You will find that the certain mantras play over and over again in your brain—and they do impact your behavior.

It sounds funny, but a practice that I’ve found helpful is to start each day reminding myself that “God is God and I am not God!” Amazing how much better things go with that bit of perspective!

Who will you allow to speak into your life?

The second question: What is your definition of rich?

Research indicates that many people equate rich to “someone who makes twice as much as I do.”  That definition holds if you make $30,000 a year or a hundred thousand.

If you want to thinking larger, being rich can mean amassing millions of dollars, multiple homes, and private jets!  Some of you have the ability to reach for and acquire all of that.

Of course, no one will ever win the quest for all the toys. Before we can learn all the functions and apps of the latest notebooks, we are tempted with a new generation or somebody else’s version that does more — faster, easier and glitzier! How many of you can ask your phone to remind you to turn in that second set of keys before you leave?

But you can also be rich in other ways … rich in friends and family, rich in opportunities, rich in blessings. Likely, your definition may change over time.

It certainly did for me — particularly when I come face to face with poverty in the world. Did you know, for example, that half the people in the world live on less than $2 a day?  That’s for food, clothing, shelter — everything. To put that in perspective, it is likely that the money you had access to every month as a freshman makes you among the richest people in the world.

My son, Alexander, and I learned quite a lesson about wealth, compassion and generosity a couple of years ago when we traveled to Zambia on a Habitat trip. We worked alongside the Phiri family to help build their house.

Although they had nine people living in a tent and several members of the family were ill with tuberculosis, they welcomed into their home four nieces and nephews who are AIDS orphans, along with a young man named Gift. (Names in Zambia are often taken from events surrounding the birth.) Sadly, after his mother died, Gift suffered horrible abuse from his father and ended up in the street.

The Phiris were already 13 in the tent, had very few belongings and made their way each day in circumstances that you and I can’t imagine. Yet they shared what they had with a young man in need.

When Alexander and I returned home and looked around at our comfortable house in Atlanta, we began to think about our lives compared to the families we came to know in Zambia.

If we measure ourselves compared to the Phiris in terms of possessions, bank accounts and cars, it is easy to see that we have more stuff, but I am not sure we’re richer.  I’ve not often seen such true expressions of love, hospitality, generosity and contentment as this family who opened their hearts and their lives so willingly. They may be better off than most of us.

At this point in my life, I’ve met many successful people. They are the first to tell me that simply making a lot of money is not very satisfying. Most successful people I’ve known — or known about — are deeply interested in solving a problem.

So when you start comparing yourself to others and thinking about the good life, I would suggest that you look to those who inspire you with greatness. And when you are considering lifestyle — consider being less concerned with stuff and more focused on making the world a better place.

You have the opportunity now to begin developing patterns and setting in motion a plan that can lead you to a very rich life. The question is … how are you going to measure your wealth?

The third question — and perhaps the most difficult for many people to answer — is “What am I uniquely called to do?”

If you don’t know what your passion is, think about the things that bother you.

I discovered the deep calling in my life when I left a job with a ferocious non-compete clause that prevented me from working.  I had a lot of time on my hands.

I took a trip to India working with the Dalits – the people commonly called “untouchables.” Among the Dalits, the Bhangi are the poorest, most marginalized group in the country.  The only jobs they are allowed to do are hand-cleaning latrines and cleaning up after dead animals.  Without some intervention, half of the children in those communities die before the age of 13.

Seeing children living in those conditions truly devastated me. It was what Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area, calls “holy discontent.” Often when people watch a terrible event on television, they shake their heads, say that someone ought to do something about that, and then change the channel. Holy discontent is when you watch the same event and it wrecks you.  It is when God seizes you by the scruff of the neck and gives you such a sense of urgency that you have to respond. That is what I felt in India.

At that point, I knew God was reaching out to me, and I was fairly sure I wanted to devote the rest of my life to helping the world’s poor.  You may not realize your calling today, and that is OK. In fact, it is quite normal. I was married, had children and had been a corporate executive for 15 years before I had that dramatic encounter in India.

The next season of your life is about exploring, evaluating and setting patterns so that you will be ready to respond to opportunities that can alter your course.

It is about pondering the things that grab your attention, learning as much about the world as you can and struggling with the things that you can’t get out of your mind.

This is also a time for making decisions about who you will become. I am an adamant believer in strength of character. Ultimately, your success will be measured not by what you have achieved, but by who you are.

Finally, I want to be very honest with you and tell you that following your heart will require sacrifice. But when you experience a moment of holy discontent, you simply have to respond.

I did not come directly to Habitat after my experience in India. As I mentioned earlier, I experienced a long waiting period, occasionally wondering if I had made the wrong decision, and then agreed to serve at my local church. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to serve and grow and it was exactly what I needed to be ready when Habitat came calling a couple of years later.

While my career path often seemed to take some surprising turns, I can now look back and see how all the experiences were preparing me for my current role.

I urge you to create space in your life for reflection and listening.  Continue to ask yourself:

  • Who will you allow to speak into your life?
  • How will you define “rich”?
  • What are you uniquely wired to do?

In closing, I would like offer you this traditional Franciscan blessing.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may wish for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.   Amen.