I’m back.

Thank you, President Wente, and thank you, everyone. Everyone here for the gift of sharing in this very special day.

Two highlights from my time at Wake were running on the women’s cross country team and taking a course with the iconic professor Ed Wilson on the romantic poets. Unfortunately, that course didn’t help my dating life while i was at Wake.

A year after my graduation, I met a super-smart, super-cute runner from Boston. For me, it was love at first sight. After we’d been running together two or three weeks, i said to this runner from Boston, “Hey, you remember that first day we met? i remember thinking that first day, I really like this guy.’ What were you thinking that first day?”

He paused and responded, “I was thinking, ‘She really likes me.’ “

Clearly, I have no game. But I have been married to the runner from Boston for the past 41 years.

Nine years ago, we were hiking in a remote rainforest in Indonesia when I fell 30 feet into a pit, shattering both of my legs. Without skipping a beat, a man from that region of Indonesia scaled the rockface to the bottom of the pit and kneeled beside me. As I went in and out of shock, he scooped me up in his arms and bench pressed me onto the rock jutting out above us.

Then he climbed up. Again, he bench-pressed me onto the next rock. And then climbed up. And again and again.

After two surgeries, extended time in a wheelchair, ongoing physical therapy, and some ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, there is one thing I know more deeply than I knew it before:  No one gets out of the deep pit on their own.

Honestly, no one accomplishes anything of lasting value on their own. For the past 40 years, I’ve had the privilege of walking alongside individuals emerging from the deep pits of trauma and the results of trauma. I’d like to share just a few things I’ve learned from these courageous individuals about purpose, power, and proximity. By the way, I learned about alliteration right here at wake forest.

Graduates, you leave Wake Forest steeped in Pro Humanitate. You understand that what gives purpose and meaning to life is not what we get, but what we give.

But today, you enter more fully into a dominant culture hellbent on convincing you that life is about acquiring more and more of what will never satisfy your deepest longings. Today, you enter more fully into a dominant culture where there is little agreement about what is true.

Commit to a daily practice of listening to the deepest truth within yourselves. That practice might be prayer, meditation, time in nature, or simply some time each day off of our devices, for as theologian Howard Thurman warns, if you cannot hear that truth within yourself, all of your life you will spend all of your days on the ends of strings that someone else pulls.

When I think of finding purpose in what we give, I often think of Jenny. Jenny was sexually abused by an older brother and became pregnant at 14. Her parents sent her to a home for teen mothers where she was exposed to an array of illegal drugs. She spent the next 12 soul-scorching years addicted to heroin.

As Jenny began to heal from her trauma, she began to ask, “What gift do i have to give?”  

One day, she burst into my office at Recovery Café and she told me, “As an IV drug user, I was awesome at finding veins. I’m going to become a phlebotomist.”

She enrolled in a medical technicians program and was rated best in her class.

Which brings me just to a couple of things I learned about power. None of this is new to you, but there is a power, a love force, within us all. It is not just in some of us. It is in all of us.

And every single human, regardless of past experiences or painful realities, has a unique power to influence others.

One Easter Sunday, when my daughters were ages 4 and 6, we were standing on the steps of our ecumenical church in Washington, D.C., when a friend who had a special relationship with a 6-year-old approached and handed the 6-year-old a basket filled with tiny chocolate eggs.

When the 4-year-old realized that this friend had not brought a basket for her, she began to wail.

Fortunately, I had recently completed an eight-week parenting class, so I knew exactly what to do. I dropped to one knee to establish eye contact, and then in the most empathetic voice to validate her feelings, I said, “Phoebe, you’re feeling left out.”

In a voice three times her size, Phoebe screamed, “I’m not feeling left out; I have been left out.”

As you know so well, an unconscionable number of people in our nation and our world have been left out. They have been left out by racial inequality, socioeconomic inequality and disparities in healthcare and education.

Many years ago, our nonprofit in D.C. called Samaritan Inns was given no choice but to sue the District of Columbia for violation of the fair housing laws of the civil rights amendment.

The case ended up in a 13-day trial in federal court, at the end of which the judge ruled the District of Columbia acted in gross violation of the fair housing laws. This ruling has been used across the U.S. in support of fair housing.

That would not have been possible without our pro bono attorney, who died unexpectedly shortly after the ruling on our case.

At his funeral, his grieving widow said to me, “Working for the people your nonprofit serves was the most meaningful and joyful work of my husband’s 36-year career.”

Graduates, you may become a lawyer, a teacher, a software engineer, a pastry chef, a parent, or a phlebotomist. Whatever ways you give your life, use your unique power to influence on behalf of some individual or group being left out until their suffering becomes your suffering, until their joy becomes your joy. Then under their leadership, inspired by their courage, enlist in the struggle to transform systems that perpetuate exclusion. For we deny the oneness in the human family at our own peril.

Which brings me to my final “p” word: proximity.

During the very violent final year of apartheid in South Africa, some members of our community spent time with a community in South Africa risked their lives to bring an end to apartheid.

One of the members of that South African community shared something with me I have never forgotten. He said, “I am grateful for all those who have joined in the struggle but struck by the fact that many of them do not have one single real relationship that crosses a racial, socioeconomic or political divide.”

Graduates, you understand that proximity makes real relationships possible, that real relationships are what change us and will ultimately change our world.

John experienced a lot of trauma as a child. As a young man, his aching for belonging landed him in a violent gang. He covered his body with tattoos proclaiming his identity as a member of that gang.

Eventually, it was methamphetamines that beat him nearly to death, not a rival gang.

He struggled through the door of our Seattle Recovery Café so weighted down by shame, he couldn’t look us in the eye. But he kept showing up, forming real relationships.

One day, after he’d been showing up day in and day out for nine months, he said to me, “I turned my gun over to the police this morning.”  

“What gun?” I asked.

He said, “The one that’s been strapped to the bottom of my leg underneath my pants every day I’ve been coming here.”

And then he went on to explain, “You see, I’m learning to live from love instead of fear.”  

I wonder what gun some of us need to turn over. What do we use to protect or defend ourselves?  For some, it’s our insistence on being right. Or on blaming or demonizing others.

Whatever it is, may we all learn to live from love. Instead of fear.

May we scoop others into our arms, bench-press them out of deep pits, and discover in the process of liberating others, we ourselves are being liberated.

May we experience that it is in giving our lives that we find life. Full of meaning and irrepressible joy.

Thank you so much for listening.