The Rev. Gail E. Bowman

The Rev. Gail E. Bowman, chaplain at Dillard University in New Orleans, told the Stanford Class of 2011 that people can't predict where their faith will take them. (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

You don't need to be perfect to live a successful life, Baccalaureate speaker tells Stanford's Class of 2011

In her Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2011, "The Possibility of God," the Rev. Gail E. Bowman drew inspiration from several places, including a scene from The Matrix and a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Steve Fyffe

Saturday's Baccalaureate ceremony was a festive celebration of thanksgiving and inspiration for the future.

The Rev. Gail E. Bowman told members of the Stanford University Class of 2011 that they don't need to "live perfectly just to be successful."

"Just be your excellent, talented, hard-working 'spirit of Stanford' selves and all shall be well," Bowman said, speaking Saturday in the Main Quad at the Baccalaureate ceremony, a festive celebration of thanksgiving and inspiration for the future.

"If you demand a mate who is a perfect person, you'll be single," she said. "If you wed expecting a perfect marriage, you’ll be sad. And if you try to run a perfect business, nobody will want to eat lunch with you. And if you come to the point when the imperfections of your parents are obvious and unavoidable, let me remind you, 'the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.'"

Bowman was the featured speaker at the hour-long ceremony, which is led by students under the auspices of the Office for Religious Life. Since 1998, Bowman has served as university chaplain at Dillard University in New Orleans, where her responsibilities include teaching as well as preaching.

The Baccalaureate Celebration opened with a Buddhist call to prayer and ended with a drumming blessing performed by Stanford Taiko. In between, there were prayers from the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. Talisman A Cappella performed spirituals from Africa and the African Diaspora.

In her 12-minute address, Bowman said people cannot predict where their faith – whatever it is – will take them.

"But wherever that is, go, go," she said. "And leave your 'score card' app behind and just relish the experience. Study, shape, find, forgive, struggle, weep when you need to, laugh when you can, love. Hold, please, the knowledge that wherever, whenever, why-ever, whoever, however time and events touch you – or are touched by you – there is yet and always the possibility of Amen."

Bowman asked the graduating students to consider that their life plans may not go as planned, and "that sometimes the things that do not go as planned, the things that are not executed perfectly, have a power all their own."

She said sometimes they will have to "launch a leap too short over a gap too wide," and predicted that what they launch will get completed – somehow.

"Picture in The Matrix, Morpheus launching out of the building, with Neo launching out of a helicopter, closing the gap – you with me?" she said, to appreciative laughter from an audience familiar with the 1999 science-fiction/action movie. "It's messy. It's imperfect. But it works."

Bowman said that twice in her life, she has "done a re-boot."

"The first time, I initiated it," she said, referring to her decision to become an ordained minister, after working for many years as a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

"The second time, events initiated it. There's nothing like a headlong collision with a $125 billion hurricane to re-arrange your plans," she said, referring to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a storm that caused heavy damage to Dillard.

"But I wouldn't have had it any other way; the best of my life is in the unexpected of my life," Bowman said. "I planned well, but God planned even better. You don't have to be perfect to be marvelous; you're already there."

In her address, Bowman also drew inspiration from a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, "One Wants a Teller in a Time Like This."

She modernized the last stanza of the poem by changing the word "rubbers" to "rain boots" and inserted new phrases – in brackets below – to suit the multi-faith nature of the celebration. She substituted "Keep the Golden Rule" for "Go to Sunday School," and changed "God's actual" to "that which transcends is actual."

Put on your [rain boots] and you won't catch a cold
Here's hell, there's heaven. [Keep the Golden Rule]
Be patient, time brings all good things – (and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)
Love's true, and triumphs; and [that which transcends is] actual.

Samuel J. Gould, who offered the student reflection, said the relationships he had formed on the Farm had changed his life forever, and that friends and classmates would "carry the community that is Stanford" as they make their way in the world.

"I know I will never forget the biology professor who challenged me to develop an ecological model using my background in economic theory," said Gould, a graduating senior who majored in biology and minored in economics.

"Or the coach who pushed me to become not only the best athlete, but also the best person I could be. Or the cook who did not speak English, but still became a second mother to me, and the friends who have seen me at my best and worst and love me always. So as we go down our different paths in life, we do not travel alone."