Melissa Rogers

Baccalaureate Address
Melissa Rogers, special assistant to the President and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships
Wake Forest University
May 18, 2014

Thank you so much. President Hatch, members of the Board of Trustees, graduating seniors, your families and other distinguished guests, good morning and congratulations. It is my great pleasure and honor to be here with you today. I bring you greetings and congratulations from our President, Barack Obama. I’m thrilled to be able to share this moment with you, and it’s also a thrill to be back at Wake Forest.

As President Hatch said, I taught at the divinity school and left that post to take a job in Washington, D.C. Now you may be asking yourself, “Why has someone who lives and works in Washington, D.C., been invited to preach to us on any subject? That is an excellent question. But that doesn’t mean that no good advice ever comes out of Washington, D.C. It is said, for example, that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing his son to give a speech, Roosevelt told him, “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.”

I promise you this morning that I will do my very best on all three counts.

Of course for the graduating seniors, this morning marks the beginning of an exciting, new chapter in your lives. In this new chapter, you will be very busy with career and family and making many fresh starts that will consume much of your time and your energy. Those things are very important. But I’d like to talk with you this morning about something else: stewardship of the blessings we have received, both as individuals and as citizens of this great country.

Scripture teaches that as each of us has received a gift, employ it for one another as great stewards of God’s varied grace. We are all blessed with gifts. Our gifts come with responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is to use those gifts to care for one another. So, graduating seniors, as you enter this next busy chapter in your lives, I’d encourage you to remember to make time to serve those around you, using the gifts that you have been given. There are so many needs in our country and in our world and so many ways for you contribute. I’d like to highlight just one story this morning.

A few years ago, a pastor friend of mine and his church began to ask: “How do we address the root causes of poverty?” Now, this church, like many, is politically diverse. It includes Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and so they had to work through this issue very methodically to identify a vision they all could embrace. And through a series of conversations, the church learned that everyone agreed that helping children get a good education was one of the keys to overcoming poverty.

And so they decided they would work with public schools in the city to find a way to give thousands of children in six elementary schools a better future. They chose these six schools because almost all of the children in them were on the free- or reduced-lunch program, which was an indication of the deep level of need in the schools. Well, more than 2,000 church members signed up to volunteer at these schools over a long period of time. They built playgrounds at schools that didn’t have them. They re-painted the inside of schools when the schools lacked the money to do it themselves. They volunteered as tutors to read to the children. They purchased books and gave them to children to take home and read. They discovered that many of the children were coming to school hungry on Monday because they didn’t have enough to eat over the weekend. So then they decided they would pack backpacks for the children to take home on Friday with nutritious snacks so they would have food over the weekend and so that they would be able to come back to school on Monday well fed and ready to learn.

When these church members learned that hundreds of these children slept on the floors or on couches of their homes, the church members bought beds, sheets, blankets and pajamas for the children and took them to their homes. And on Christmas Eve, church members voted to give away their Christmas Eve offering to projects benefiting struggling children. They collected the offering, and as they did so, they challenged members, saying, “Would you consider giving an amount equal to the amount you will spend on your own children this Christmas? They decided to give half the money to projects benefiting orphans overseas and the other half to projects benefiting children in the city. And that Christmas Eve, the members of this church gave $1.2 million to these projects.

That’s just one example of a meaningful difference that dedicated, caring people can make. I know many of you during your college years have been deeply invested in community service. Be sure to continue to make service a priority in this next chapter in life. As you work on starting your careers and perhaps starting a family, keep your eyes open. There are people in need all around us. Find ways to help.

Also as you enter this next chapter in your life, remember that we have not only been blessed as individuals; we are blessed to be citizens of this great country. One of these blessings is laws that protect our freedoms, including a freedom that is fundamental to the American experiment: the right of religious liberty. President Obama described this right in a February speech. He said, “We believe in the inherent dignity of every human being, a dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is the freedom of religion: the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose or to choose to practice no faith at all and to do this free from persecution and fear.”

We were reminded this week of the true importance of this right by a horrifying case in Sudan. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag was sentenced this week to be flogged for adultery and to be hanged to death for apostasy simply because she married a Christian man and refused to renounce her Christian beliefs. The White House has expressed its outrage at this sentence and called on the government of Sudan to respect Ms. Ishag’s right to freedom of religion, a universal right enshrined in Sudan’s own constitution as well as the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights.

Since 1999, the United States has described Sudan as a country of particular concern for its ongoing, egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom. We will continue to pressure Sudan to fulfill its promise of religious freedom and to respect the fundamental liberties and human rights of all people.

Those of us who enjoy the protections of our fundamental freedoms have a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who lack such protections. In other words, part of being good stewards of the gifts we enjoy, including the gift of freedom, includes interceding on behalf of those who suffer – especially those whose very lives are at stake because they live in places that do not respect those fundamental rights.

And this is not just the job of the government, of course. American citizens play a crucial role in educating their communities about these matters and elevating them in national and international discourse. Your voice on these issues truly matters, and I hope you will use it to speak out on many issues that affect us as citizens of this country and this world to better the circumstances of those around us.

Carrying on our American traditions, including the tradition of religious freedom, is not just about speaking out on international issues; it’s also about how we live our lives here at home. We have precious gifts as Americans. To be sure, when we talk about religious freedom, we don’t always agree. We have our disagreements and our debates, that’s part of our freedom, too. But even in the midst of these disagreements, I think all of us would say that America often gets religious liberty remarkably right. To take one example, Americans not only believe religious communities should demonstrate a posture of openness to people of other faiths; we actually live our lives that way every day.

An illustration of this is drawn from a recent tragedy. A community in Kansas recently experienced a horrific attack, one that cut down three previous lives. These attacks happened at a time of great significance for Jews and Christians, with the Jewish community celebrating Passover and the Christian community marking Holy Week. During these high holy days, a madman went to two Jewish-affiliated communities in Kansas City and shot and killed a 69-year-old Overland Park doctor, William Corporon, and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Underwood. The killer was targeting individuals for no reason other than he believed they were Jewish. That Sunday afternoon, Dr. Corporon had been taking his grandson, Reat, to a singing competition at the local Jewish Community Center. Dr. Corporon and Reat were members of a Methodist church in town. Also killed in these attacks was 53-year-old Terri LaManno who worked as an occupational therapist. She was killed on her way to visit her mother, who lived in Village Shalom, a Jewish-affiliated assisted-living facility. LaManno was a longtime parishioner at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in town.

The killer clearly did not understand the value of human life; he had contempt for it. The killer also clearly did not understand religious life in America.

He went to institutions affiliated with the Jewish faith with the evil expectation he would find and kill only Jewish people. He ended up killing two Methodists and a Catholic. The mission statement of the Kansas City Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom notes that they are built on Jewish values and heritage. Not in spite of that mission but precisely because of it, they serve people of all faiths and beliefs.

At an interfaith memorial service that took place at the Jewish Community Center just days after the shooting, Reat Underwood’s father spoke of the diversity of the crowd. He said it was nothing unusual for the Community Center. He said, “This place always looks like this.” He also underscored the importance of understanding across faith communities. He said, “With our connections, we have the power to move past hatred and to a life based on love.” The Kansas City killer also did not understand that an attack on any one American, because of his or her perceived faith or lack thereof, is an attack against all people and will be treated as such. As President Obama said after the attack, “We have to keep coming together across faiths to combat the ignorance and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, that can lead to hatred and violence because we are all children of God, we are all made in his image and we are all worthy of love and dignity.”

The Jewish community has a special sorrow and concern due to these attacks, but we pledge that we will all bear that burden together. As Dr. King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are caught in an inescapable network, mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. The killer cut down three previous lives in Kansas City, but he did not, and he could not, diminish our commitment to a powerful American pluralism, one where people of all faiths and beliefs join hands in a million quiet ways. Each human being is recognized as having infinite and equal value. We remember Dr. William Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri La Manno, and we lament their loss and the excruciating pain of their families. Even as we grieve over the lives that have been lost, we can be proud of the kind of country we can be through our stewardship. We are a country where people of all faiths welcome each other or celebrate and communicate. We grieve together over losses, and we work together to advance the common good. This morning, we give thanks for that spirit, and we remember how special and fragile it is.

So as you go forward from Wake Forest today, I’d like to ask some things of you. Continue to serve others as you have done during your college years. You will be very busy, but make time now and always to see the needs around you and to take steps to meet those needs. Also do your part as American citizens helping to strengthen proud American traditions like the tradition of religious freedom for people of all faiths. We need you, graduates. We need your energy. We need your compassion and creativity. We need your thoughtfulness and perspective. We need you to bring all you have learned at Wake Forest and all you have become, and we need you bring that and put it to use to better your community, your nation and your world. So as you leave this place, may God richly bless you and may God guide and keep all of us as we seek to be blessings to one another.