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Thank you very much. It is indeed a great honor and privilege to be with you this morning. It is especially a double honor to be introduced by my good friend, Maureen Waldron. I’m an expert on nothing. For twenty-five years I worked with gang members. Apparently, Fr. Schlegel thought that made me eminently suited to address the Class of 2009.
Yesterday, when I was flying here, I got a cell phone call from a distressed gang member, named Eddie. Apparently, he had been stopped by the police and they wanted information about one of his homeboys, so he says to me, “They’re threatening me. If I don’t give up the information, they’re going to charge me as, you know, an ‘accomplishment.’” So, class of 2009 – Guilty as charged! You are an ‘accomplishment.’
Your education does not end here, with this diploma. Learning ends in the grave yard. I’m learning things every day. The homies have been teaching me, lately, how to text message: OMG, LOL. They have a new one – OHN – which apparently means, “Oh, Hell, NO.” I’ve been using it quite a bit lately.
I’m with a homie, named Manuel, and we’re driving to give a talk, and he’s an older guy in his late twenties, works in our clock-in department – we have 372 employees he clocks in, all rival gang members. And, a text goes off on his cell phone. I said, “What is it?” He goes, “Aw, it’s dumb. It’s Snoopy, from the office” – his co-worker in the clock-in room – we just left him fifteen minutes before. I said, “Well, what’s it say?” “Eh, it’s me, Snoopy. Yeah, they got my ass locked up at the County Jail. They’re charging me with being the ugliest vato in America. You gotta come down right now and show ‘em they got the wrong guy.”
Well, we died laughing. Then, I realized that Manuel and Snoopy are enemies – rival gang members. They used to shoot bullets at each other. Now they shoot text messages. And, there’s a word for that: Kinship.
What Martin Luther King said of “church” could well be said of your time at Creighton. “It is not the place you go to. It is the place you go from.”
And you go from here to create a community of kinship, such that God might recognize it. You go from here to bend the world to grace. You imagine a circle of compassion. And, then you imagine nobody standing outside that circle. And, to that end, you walk to the edges of the circle and you walk with those on the margins. And, you stand with the poor and the powerless and the voice-less. You stand with the easily despised and the readily left out. You stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear. You stand, in fact, with the demonized, so that the demonizing will stop. You stand with the disposable, so the day will come when we stop throwing people away. You seek, as you leave this place, a kind of compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. And, a great many people will look at you, standing at the margins and will accuse you of wasting your time.
The Prophet Isaiah writes, “In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste,’ there will be heard, again, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voices of those who sing.” You go from Creighton University to make those voices heard – in a sense new belonging and kinship.
Recently, I went to Washington, DC. I took two homies with me, Louis and Joe – big huge guys, been to prison, heavily tattooed. They’d never been to our nation’s capital. We gave a briefing to a bunch of Senatorial and Congressional types. The next day we toured DC and we went to the Washington Monument and we went to the Holocaust Museum, where we spent three hours. We met at 3 o’clock, after our tour, in the lobby, and we debriefed about this very emotional place – a very powerful experience. And, we noticed over here there was a desk, and behind the desk was an old man, maybe early 80’s. He was reading a book and there were two chairs in front of the desk, empty, inviting you to sit and talk with him because there was a sign in front of the desk that read, “Holocaust survivor.” And, Joe and I looked at each other and said, “What would we say to somebody who has suffered so much?” But, Louis is fearless. He said, I’m gunna go talk to him.” So, he sits down. The man’s name was Jacob.
Louis shakes his hand and says, “So, what camp were you in?
And, Jacob says, “Auschwitz.” He entered like a thirteen year old boy and he left the place, when the camp was liberated, when he was seventeen years old. Both parents killed there. Five sisters and brothers executed there. A niece and a nephew killed, right before his eyes. He was a worker, so he survived.
And Louis listens. Then Louis pulls a card out of his pocket and he hands it to Jacob. “I work at Homeboys Industries. It’s the largest gang intervention program in the country. I hope you come and visit.”
And Jacob looks at the card. And Louis says, “I’m 27 years old. I’ve spent eleven of those years locked up.”
And Jacob gets a little dismissive of American prisons, “Your own room, a mattress, a pillow. I slept on boards. They’d pull you out of line if you spoke and they’d beat you right there.”
And Louis listens. And he says, “Yeah, I was beat down many times at County Jail. Once they dragged me out of line. They beat me so badly, my head – I looked like the Elephant man. They threw me naked in a cell and I slept on a metal sheet.”
And Jacob listens.
This is when I stopped Louis. I said, “Louis, let me see if I got this right. You were comparing your experience to a Holocaust survivor?”
And he was quick and clear and he said, “No, I wasn’t ‘comparing.’ There is no comparison between what he’s suffered and what I’ve gone through.” And then I watched, as he made an additional calculation in his head. And, his eyes filled up with tears. He said, “No, I wasn’t ‘competing’ with him. I was ‘connecting’ with him.”
Exactly right. Suddenly, kinship so quickly.
The measure of your compassion lies not in your service of those on the margins, but in your willingness to see yourselves in kinship with them, connected to them – to move beyond the service of the other, to a solidarity, where your heart is in the right place – and, now finally, to a place of kinship, where your feet are in the right place.
And, Creighton University has taught you to listen to your heart, and if you listen to your heart, it’ll bring you to your feet. And, everyone will claim that what you are doing when you do this is indeed a waste of your time.
“But, in this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste,’ there will be heard, again, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voices of those who sing.”
Make those voices heard. Listen to your heart. Allow it to bring you to your feet. And, may the God who loves you without measure and without regret, bless you, the Class of 2009.