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Baccalaureate speech: the "challenge to whom much is given"

STANFORD -- "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." (Luke 12:48)

Just after the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr. passed through customs on his first visit to the African country of Sierra Leone, a group of children approached him.

"I thought they were going to ask for money," Smith told Stanford's 1996 graduates at baccalaureate ceremonies June 15. "Seriousness was stationed in their eyes. Their unashamed leader approached me and said, 'Mister, we want pencils. Do you have any pencils to give us? We need them for school.' "

The incident, Smith said, made him realize that "things that children take for granted in the West are in short supply in many places in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Yet many people in those countries are imaginative and creative and know how to accomplish much with very little. It did not take a long stay in Africa for me to learn that Americans are a people to whom much is given."

As graduates of one of the world's premier institutions ­ "studying with some of the best minds that can be found, taught by the leading scholars of the century, and blessed with loving and loyal parents, spouses and significant others" ­ the Class of 1996 is in the vanguard of those to whom much is given, Smith told the gathering in the Inner Quad.

As such, said Smith, the senior pastor of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, the graduates also are debtors, and he exhorted them to "contribute to the unity that can exist in the human community."

If the world were a village of 1,000 people, Smith said, 60 of those people would be from the United States, 80 would be from Canada and South America, 210 would be Europeans and 565 would be from Asian countries. Yet half of the world income would belong to the people from the United States.

More than 500 of those 1000 people would not be able to read. More than 700 would be suffering from malnutrition. About 800 would live in what we call substandard housing, and 700 would exist on an income of only 65 cents per day.

"The United States has 6 percent of the world's population but uses one-third of earth's non-renewable resources and one-fourth of the gross planetary production of goods and services," Smith said. Yet "greedy investors fire loyal, career-oriented workers under the nomenclature of downsizing, when in fact they are firing people to increase corporate earnings, while our politicians debate the issue of who is the best qualified to raise America's standard of living."

In truth, by the standards of the majority of the world's people, Americans are very well off, Smith said.

Smith told the graduates that "this is your long-awaited hour. Your hour has come. The world needs your work. The melody of history seeks your gifts of harmony. Will you balance your need for earning enough compensation to pay off your academic bills with a commitment to the community?"

He cited American poet Edwin Markham ­ "To everyone is given a day and her work for the day, and once and no more, she is given to travel this way. There is waiting a work that only her hands can fill, and so if she falters a chord in the music will fail."

Smith disparaged "mean-spirited leaders in high places" who are exploiting the fears of their followers and the "musical themes of chaos and conflict" that fill the news media. "The world is tired of the harsh, unpoetic sounds of those who deny human community. Perhaps, you, who have been given much, will contribute to the unity that can exist in human community."

Attacking the strain of materialism in American culture, the preacher argued that participating in the "music of the community" does not mean depersonalization. "God arranged [it] so that we use things and love people, but some of us have turned that around to love things and use people," he admonished. "People are not things for us to use but persons whom we are to respect. A cashier is not a hand with money. A clerk is not a voice with answers. A wife is not a cook with sex. A child is not a nuisance with need. A student is not a disturbing break in a professor's research routine."

Smith sent the graduates on their way with the message that "the task given to each one, no other can do, so the errand is waiting; it has waited through the ages for you, and now you appear; and the hushed ones are turning their gaze, to see what you do with your chance in the chamber of days."



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© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.