by Adam Kirtley
Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life
Baccalaureate Speech, May 22, 2010
Born and raised in central Indiana, I actually never traveled west – never crossed the Mississippi River – until the age of 27. Where was I headed? Walla Walla, Wash. Denver, Santa Fe, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle… you get all the press. But, I was headed to where the real action was… a little town whose name made me giggle. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was sort of being dragged here for a visit by the woman who would eventually become my wife. She’d accepted a job as the Whitman College swim coach, and she brought me out to show me the ridiculous little place that would soon tear her away from me…okay, I was grumpy. I was grumpy, but I must admit I was reasonably pleased to finally lay my eyes on the Pacific Northwest. In my mind’s eye, this region was a hip, environmentally conscious, naturally lush and beautiful part of the country. And indeed, when our flight landed in Portland, I was struck by the surrounding green forests and the majestic mountains. The whole place reminded me of a bottled water commercial. We rented a car, hopped on I-84, hugged the storied Columbia River, and soon stopped at Multnomah Falls. Yes, the Pacific Northwest was just as I had pictured it. We got back in the car, Jenn agreed to let me get some rest, and somewhere around Hood River, I drifted off to sleep. About one hour later, I woke to rather shocking, somewhat unsettling desolation. Jenn silently observed my stunned reaction as I watched a tumbleweed roll across the interstate in front of us. I turned to her, “Where are you taking me?” I demanded.
Many of you probably have similar stories about how you happened upon Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. And in August of 2006 you finally arrived, temporary residents, strangers in a strange land. You were greeted by the oddly compelling stench of fermenting grapes wafting in the breeze, the frustratingly slow drivers, and the sappy, smiling, look-you-in-the-eye locals. Yes, you had arrived. You had begun perhaps the most important chapter of your lives to that point, embarking on a college career which would be defined not simply by your intellectual challenges and achievements, but perhaps more importantly by a transition to independence and relative autonomy. Most of you were strangers to this place, strangers to each other, and, I might add, strangers to your selves. Figuring out who you were and what you stood for was about to be discovered, dismantled, and rediscovered. And I suspect, way back in August of 2006, your feelings about this transition located themselves somewhere on the spectrum of pure excitement and anticipation on one end, to near paralyzing anxiety and fear on the other. But that was way back in 2006, right? Yes, you were sojourners in this place, prepared to borrow a bit of its charm and resources for your personal edification. And presumably, in return, you would give this place your intellectual curiosity, your hours of community service, your vibrancy, creativity, and, yes, your tuition dollars. It is a beautifully symbiotic relationship we the static Walla Walla, Whitman College community have established with you, the temporary resident.
You arrived a stranger to this place, to each other, to yourselves, but we hope you experienced the welcome embrace of a community anticipating your presence. While you may have felt the outsider in the beginning, we made efforts, some more successful than others I’m sure, to quickly connect you on emotional and intellectual levels so that you would soon see this place as a home of sorts, and your peers as a very large, albeit slightly dysfunctional family.
Of course the “community” formed in colleges like Whitman is by its very nature artificial. Not everyone is allowed to join our community. The application and admission process allows us to decide who is in and who is out, though the articulated goals of the institution include the laudable ideal of creating a diverse, balanced, and certainly talented student body.
But the question of how a community (not the artificial ones like a work place or a college) chooses who is in and who is out carries terrific weight, and merits thoughtful examination. And since we are liberal artists we look to what the ancients say about our topic of interest. And since you find yourselves at a Baccalaureate service and I am the college’s wink and nudge to the religious heritage of this traditional commencement weekend affair, I will consider not simply ancients, but sacred texts specifically to see what is said about the questions at hand. How do we treat the stranger? How do we decide who is in and who is out?
The Hindu scripture Taitiriya Upanishad tells us: “The guest is a representative of God.”
The Torah tells us in Leviticus: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19: 33-34).
In the New Testament, Jesus tells his followers to welcome the stranger for “What you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me” (Mathew 25:40).
According to the forth sura of the Qur’an we should “serve God… and do good to… orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, and those who have nothing. (4:36)
Whether you find it in these sacred texts, or even reading Homer in Core, the ancient prescription for dealing with the stranger insists on the extension of hospitality. And it sounds nice. Treating the stranger, the sojourner, the person in need, with dignity and hospitality seems like a reasonable and actionable principle. And yet, it is so difficult. Time and again human beings are driven to inhumane treatment of the stranger resulting from such base motivations as greed, ignorance, and fear. The question of “to whom shall we extend citizenship” is at play throughout history. And we must recognize the heritage of our own nation’s long reluctance to accept those who are different.
As you know, the Arizona State Legislature has passed a sweeping and controversial immigration bill authorizing police officers to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand proof of citizenship. The law has sparked tremendous outcry from those supporting immigrants’ rights, and it has served to push from the fence many who were ambivalent about the immigration issue. It has pushed them from the fence because the law’s demand to “see papers” represents a failure to protect the most basic rights of human beings from profiling, harassment, and abuse.
I would not argue that dealing with the stranger in general or the nation’s response to immigration specifically is a simple problem with a clear solution. But certain standards should never be compromised. We must come to understand more fully the immigrant’s cry that “no human being is illegal.” We must recognize and fight policies, be they put in place by our government (or perhaps latently welling up within us), which dehumanize the other.
You were once strangers in this place, and now you’re pushed out into the big, bad, world strangers yet again. And some of you, perhaps many of you, would acknowledge that there exists some anxiety in this transition. You must also recognize, however, your position of privilege relative to the many strangers in our world currently seeking basic hospitality.
Most speeches you’ll hear this weekend are likely to congratulate you, slap you on the back, and generally offer encouragement to you as you boldly step into your future. And while I’m impressed with your achievements and look forward to your future successes, that’s not what this talk is about. Rather I ask you to find that fear and anxiety that is within you (for some it is an easier search than others). I ask you to find it, take hold of it, and never let it go. Hold on to it now, but more importantly hold on to it when you find yourselves professionally, socially, and financially more stable than you feel today. For it is your identity – our identity – as sojourners which allows us to stand against the powers of oppression and persecution. When we see the stranger as our self we are driven to compassion. So whenever you discover the alien in your midst, be it resulting from cultural, financial, class, religious, lingual or any other differences, resist the natural human impulse to focus on their otherness. Rather claim the sojourner within you, and stand strong for the rights of our common humanity. And so with that I’ll offer my slightly qualified back slap. Congratulations Class of 2010, and Godspeed.