Beginning a Life of Service
For me, love and gratitude are intimately connected. How many times my teachers, friends, and advisors have tested the limits of my academic thought. How often my parents have surprised me with their unending love and support.
I will never forget teaching mentally and physically challenged children at Chandler Tripp School. One little boy, Pedro, quickly became a good friend. When I would give Pedro spelling exercises, he would refuse to do them as I wanted. Instead he would color on the table and laugh about it. Instead of just me teaching him, he also taught me. I had to give up my ideas about how Pedro would learn, and I was reminded how to laugh and how to be patient. Pedro reminded me to love, to have fun, and enjoy life. Although Pedro did finally learn to spell, I think that he gave me the greater gift. He gave me the gift of love, and for that, I am most grateful.
I used to think that I should come to a full spiritual enlightenment before deeply engaging in social justice. Now, I see that there is no static attainment of enlightenment. It is a lifelong quest if it is anything at all. We must simultaneously work for justice and strive to purify the inner heart. In a way, these two things are the same. Trying to make the Kingdom of God more present means that we must transform both the inner and outer world. Our work then becomes our spiritual practice, and our prayer becomes an act of solidarity with all life. These two modes are like two sides of the same coin.
A wise teacher once said, “You have to have one foot in the library and one foot in the gutter.” During an immersion trip to Immokalee, Fla., my friends and I joined the farm workers in their struggle for justice. We witnessed the inhumane conditions in which migrant workers live, and this, too, was an experience of love. I realized that my happiness is bound up in the happiness of these farmers. When we encounter real people, we can no longer treat them as statistics and numbers. We begin to understand that there are human beings living in these situations who have families and dreams and hopes. Only in solidarity can we hope to find any real justice, and only in justice can we find real peace. Therefore, our work must begin with a great love—love in solidarity and connection.
After we returned from Immokalee, I was inspired to study all the more fervently, because I knew the faces behind the statistics and numbers. Analyzing the situation from numerous academic perspectives meant looking at social psychology, economics, and ethics. My friends and I organized a teach-in and a rally in order to raise awareness. We did not expect anything to happen as a result of our action, but we knew that, as people of compassion, we could not remain silent while our fellow humans suffered.
To our surprise, this past winter, the multinational corporation that is largely responsible for the economic plight of the farmers agreed to pay its workers a living wage.
Structural change is possible! I am so grateful for this knowledge. It is not just abstract knowledge, but knowledge with conscience that allows us to think critically and to transform this culture and this world. We are here today not to end our study, but to begin our transformation of the world. Commencement is about beginning a life of the mind, the mind in service of and in union with the heart.
This is an edited excerpt from the address given by Class of 2005 Valedictorian Chris Wall at the June 11 Undergraduate Commencement. Wall earned bachelor of arts degrees in religious studies and German and a bachelor of science degree in psychology.