Ruth Messinger exhorts students to be strong, bold, courageous

L.A. Cicero Ruth W. Messinger

Ruth W. Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, gave the Baccalaureate Address, 'Justice as Spiritual Practice.'

Take risks. Be bold, courageous and strong. And remember: You are what you do. Not what you think or want or dream—but what you do.

That's what Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, told the Stanford University graduating class of 2009 during her baccalaureate address on Saturday, June 13. American Jewish World Service, sometimes called the "Jewish Peace Corps," is an international development organization that provides support to 350 grassroots social change projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In a talk titled "Justice as Spiritual Practice," Messinger's biggest mission was clearly to urge students toward greater involvement: "Hone your political will and your moral determination. Act with integrity, allow time for learning and reflection, but do not shy away from action."

The Baccalaureate at Stanford is a multifaith religious service that is "a festival of and for the world," said the Rev. Scotty McLennan, Stanford's dean for religious life, in his welcoming remarks during the uncharacteristically chilly and overcast June morning on the Quad.

The event was determinedly interfaith and multicultural: a Buddhist singing bowl sounded the call to prayer, a Stanford Taiko drumming blessing provided a dramatic finale, readings from Jewish rabbis jostled with Julian of Norwich, and Menlo Brass Quintet's performances of pieces from Bach, Handel and others. Most notably, Talisman A Cappella performed a stunning and exuberant Zulu song, "One By One."

Messinger exhorted the students to "strive to make a mark on the society in which you live." Citing the writing of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, she encouraged students to "search out 'the sparks of sanctity in our mundane lives,'" adding that "while most of us may never be recognized as heroes, there is a kind of heroism in finding these sparks of holiness, in taking what may feel like mundane actions in our daily lives and 'investing them with something transcendent.'"

Messinger, praised and awarded for her efforts to end the genocide in Darfur, emphasized that it is "important to be involved on a personal level—to feed the hungry, work directly with the poor, be of service in the world. "But service alone is not enough. Be ready, also, to tackle the root causes of injustice, to demand new policies and to embrace advocacy."

Messinger pointed out that, "astonishing as this sounds," the 500 richest people in the world earn more than the 416 million poorest. "There are 27,000 children a day—yes, 27,000 children a day—who lose their lives to an abject poverty which is a both a cause and an effect of hunger and disease."

Messinger repeated a theme she has stated elsewhere: "Do not retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed....

"There is work for us to do, and these children need our commitment if we are not to lose more of them to inequity and injustice."

By pursuing social justice, she said, "We can understand in the deepest recesses of our souls what it means to be alive, why God put us on Earth, what is our value to humanity."

Her remarks were followed by those of Sohail Razzaq, who is receiving his master's degree in management and engineering along with a degree in economics. Razzaq is also president of Stanford's Islamic Society.

The Pakistani graduate commended the students he had met during his time at Stanford. "I have faith we have a Martin Luther King here today" who could address an economic inequality so great that one billion people live on less than a dollar a day, he said. "I believe we have a visionary like Gandhi among us" who could take on health care and children dying the world over from preventable diseases.

"Our resources may be finite, but our impact doesn't have to be," he said

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others," he said.