Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Community College Address

Last Thursday I was privileged to be honored by North Iowa Area Community Colleg in Mason City, Iowa, from which I graduated years ago, and to give the keynote address to this year’s “Pathways to Success” leaders. Here is what I said (adapted for this blog).

Success in the American culture is often defined as getting ahead. Ahead of the line, ahead of the pack. But life is a journey of shared responsibility and mutual accountability. “Success” is often due simply to being someone others could count on. “Plan the work and work the plan,” a supervisor once told me. And I say to students, “Ministry merely promised is not ministry.”

Preparing for the Lutheran World Federation Consultation in Germany, participants were to have posted their papers on the internet a month earlier for all to read. A couple of people in our seminar group sent their papers by e-mail only a day before the conference began, saying, “Sorry, but I was busy.” Rev. Dr. Fidon Mwombeki from Tanzania, our leader, said very caringly, “I’m sorry about your problems, but it is not fair to people to expect them to read your paper at the last minute. We cannot bear that burden for you.”

So, whatever one’s gifts, no matter how much talent, fulfilling our responsibilities of completing things on time and keeping our commitments is essential. We honor people by not keeping them waiting, whether the CEO, the secretary, the custodian or the dean.

But being people others can count on does not mean picking up their responsibilities, as the Tanzanian professor said. People may say to you, “Oh, you’re so good at that…I know you’ll take care of this (for me).” That does not help others develop their gifts. And we wear ourselves out. That’s unhealthy for them and for us. To be mutually accountable is to respect people with whom we live and work. It honors the relationship.

In relationships of mutual accountability we sustain, support and give birth to new ideas together. It’s mutual promise keeping.

Leaders need vision, but vision without care for the community is to limit oneself to one’s own ideas. I challenge you to be a leader who creates and helps maintain healthy communities of diverse people, divergent ideas, and common welfare. North Iowa Area Community College a welcoming place. It’s open to all. That’s one reason I cherish it.

Sometimes we are afraid to listen long enough to one another to discover how different we are. Or, we assume that if we are in communities where are people are just alike, we will have less conflict. I’ve taught courses, led workshops, written a book on “Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration.” And you know what? Churches that have all the same kind of people in them have just as much conflict as those with people of many cultural, racial, linguistic, or social-economic backgrounds. Why? Well, because human beings have this perpetual capacity to misunderstand one another, to bicker and back-bite, and to hurt, and to kill, each. In fact, it’s in the family, the caring congregation, the close friendship group that we can experience the most pain. For example “mere” domestic violence is real violence. People are hurt, deeply hurt. How do we create safe environments, in schools, at home, in the community, in the world, for us to be different together?

In this country, people now say “We’re beyond racism aren’t we?” Well no! Because of the human condition, we are racist, classist, sexist, homophobic. But we continue to work at these issues. The answer is not to barricade our neighborhoods, put restrictions on our schools, pass restrictive constitutional amendments, buy more guns. The shootings two weeks ago in New York, Pennsylvania, California--and, yes, we’ve had our share here in Iowa, too--testify to that.

I challenge you to be a leader who helps create healthy environments that build relationships, that welcome the stranger, that foster trust. Be an empowering leader.

I am proud of my degree from North Iowa Community College and proud of community colleges. My husband, Burton, teaches ethics, philosophy and religion at Northeast Iowa Community College.

Pathways to success. Where do we go now? Well, walk through doors that are open—maybe only a crack--and then open them wider for all to enter.

Because of the era of change in my adult lifetime, I did become some “firsts”: One of first women to study at a seminary. The first deaconess to be ordained a pastor. The first woman professor at a seminary of the American Lutheran Church. I was a pioneer. But I didn’t set out to be. It’s not that I had courage to push doors open (others had more vision than I), but if a door was open a crack, I walked through and then opened it wider. You see, if you’ve been an outsider and then become an insider, the temptation is to shut the door on others.

In changing to a more inclusive society, people become afraid. Afraid of the unknown. If we have women pastors, men will leave the church. (I heard that a lot.) It didn’t happen. Or, your children will suffer. Now grown, they tell me they didn’t.

By opening doors of opportunity to all, people become afraid, “Everything will change.” “The family will change” No! I don’t know how many times I heard, “How many more of you are there outside?” “If we let all those women in…” Or, all those Hispanics, or all those…..you fill in the blank. The token stage is the most frightening. Now that there are more equal numbers of women and men, a more truly multi-cultural society, people are not more, but less afraid.

Whatever doorways you walk through and then open wider for others to follow, you will become a role model. People are looking at you. That’s ok. Perhaps you will become a mentor. Do not bid others be just like you. But listen and help them discern their own gifts. In this present economic situation of fear of finding--or losing—a job, remember “Life is not meant to be a competitive sport.” Open some doors…for opportunities for others. You have power to do that.

Start something and keep at it. At a Mason City High school PTA meeting in 1916 some people asked the school board to start a junior college. It opened in September 1918 with 28 students and six instructors. Ninety years later: 3500 students. Amazing. Way more than that handful of people in 1916 could have imagined.

There are a lot more pathways now. For girls in my and my sister’s time it was mostly teacher, nurse, secretary. No girls’ athletics. Whatever your pathway, just start out and just keep walking.

Maybe you’ll even get into a little trouble along the way. You will get into trouble! When you do, make it for the right reason. In the mid 1960’s, in my call as a deaconess in St. Louis, a border state, Burton and I were deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement. After the Birmingham bombing in which four Sunday School children were killed, we marched. Some members of my congregation happened to see me on TV. Now that was a problem for them. “We like Norma,” they said, “It’s just that she likes Negroes.” Trouble! Well, I couldn’t even to the church council meting to defend myself because women weren’t allowed to attend. But, I kept my job, and Burton and I just kept on marching for justice.

Twelve years later, we were lived in New Haven, CT. where Burton was a pastor. I, a mother of three sons, stayed home with our children. Not uncommon. Burton took care of our children once a week so I could to the grocery store and do other shopping. One week, instead of shopping, I went up to Yale Divinity School and enrolled…. Three years later, after graduation I was invited to teach there. Well, there’s more to the story than that, but you get the idea. Just keep on walking.

I have lived with a chronic illness for over 25 years. Athletics may not have been a pathway open for me as a young woman, but I asked Burton for my 70th birthday present last fall to be that we walk the 26 miles around Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. And, on a beautiful fall weekend we did. So, whatever pathway you set out on…and maybe some you never figured on…just keep on walking!

I remember Journalism here at the community college and especially Marie Schalekamp, a mentor of mine who said that. She also helped me when I couldn’t have afforded a second year of college. She not only taught but wrote our text book on communication studies. When I published my first textbook, “The Church as Learning Community,” the dedication includes Marie Schalekamp.

My writing was facilitated by working on “The Troy Tribune,” now called Logos
One time, we were invited to an all state conference for college newspaper staff. As editor of the Troy Tribune, I sat on a panel between the editors of the newspapers of the University of Iowa and Iowa State. No matter the difference in size, and prestige I knew a community college student had something to say. So do you!

Writing is going public with your ideas. Editing books with multiple writer helps others have voice, maybe people who didn’t know they had something to say: women clergy, my own faculty, international teachers.

Just as important as books, was starting a neighborhood newsletter. Living in inner city Detroit, after the riots in 1967, there was much fear. Our son, Joel, was born a few weeks later. When he was but 2 weeks old, we went around the neighborhood getting to know one another in order to create community. We published a block newsletter. When the turbulence came again the next spring when Martin Lutheran King Jr. was assassinated, we knew each other and didn’t have to kill each other.

To this day, I write books, yes, but also a networking newsletter, now on the web, “The Persistent Voice,” addressing issues of gender and justice across the globe and working toward full partnership of women and men. (Google “The Persistent Voice) as well this blog.

Our pathways are long and interconnected. While a student here I remember going to Oklahoma for an international youth gathering. Before that I had not been out of the state of Iowa except to the Twin Cities and Chicago. Today we have many opportunities for global interchange. I’ve been privileged to lecture and learn in Namibia, shortly after their independence from apartheid; in Australia, as the country struggled saying “We’re sorry” to Aboriginal peoples and a church body continues to struggling with gender justice; in China, shortly after Tieneman Square, and across this country.

In order to have a participatory democracy we must have an educated citizenry. I’m proud of the Iowa Caucuses. I tell people Iowans know that have a special role in the path to selecting a president and take that responsibility seriously.

Community colleges play a central role in preparing an educated citizenry. Therefore, our pathway must be one that seeks justice for all, that serves others and loves people with a love that liberates rather than dominates,

President Obama in addressing an audience of mostly college students in Strausberg recently was criticized by some for seemingly apologizing for his nation. Actually he said to Europeans, “In recent years we have had honest disagreements over policy. But there’s something more that has crept into our relationship…instead of seeking partnership to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive. But, in Europe there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious.”

I am pleased that the G-20 summit, with much work yet to do, made a common commitment to helping poor of countries suffering the most in this economic crisis. To quote U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressing the U.S. Congress, “Let us not forget the poorest; perhaps the greatest gift our generation could give the future is for every child in every country to have the chance to go to school.”

We are called to pathways of partnership, working towards healthy interdependence of liberating and life-giving care for the earth and justice for us all. President Obama said, “I hope you will consider ways you can serve, because the world has so many challenges right now. Get involved. Sometimes you will be criticized and fail and be disappointed, but you will have a great adventure and be able to look back and say I made a difference.”

In the United States we often begin a sentence, with “I’m been busy….” Not “I am…” or, “I Do…” But “I’ve been busy.” People in other global cultures find this curious. Now we are an industrious, creative, people. However…and I’m speaking to myself now as much as to anyone here…we also have the gift of rest. Whatever your faith tradition, there are holy days: Islam has Prayers and Fasting; for Christian and Jews the Hebrew Bible begins with the work of the Creator God and with Sabbath. God rested.

So, rest. You know how to do that!
Enjoy. You know how to do that!
And give thanks to God and for so many other partnerships in life.


Anonymous said...

Graduations are amazing moments of Kiros time. God's time. Times when people, regardless of faith, join together to sit vigil (even if only for an hour) to witness the wonder of God's transforming power. Yes, work of students, work of teachers, administrators, and staff, and yes, words of wisdom for the journey - but yet God's work to bring something new out of the old. The graduates know. They know their life will never be the same once they walk out of that auditorium.

Some would say it was a silly formality, and others would label graduation as simply a day of transition. I disagree though, because I know a God, my God, who makes all things new - not just in the future, but now, continually. A transition, yes, but a transition made possible by the grace of God. And, it is more than a formality, it is the gathering of people to stand in awe together - together as the body of Christ - to tremble at the greatness, laugh with joy at the transformation, impart wisdom from those who have known God's transforming power before, and rejoice for God's ability to make all things new!


Leigh Newton said...

Hi Norma. These days I'm teaching grade 5 children at The International School of Azerbaijan where we run the Primary Years Program of the I.B. Grade 5 for us is the Exhibition year as they are graduating from primary school. They have a special day of giving their presentations in front of the school community and then another day attending their displays and sharing their new knowledge.

Our theme, (remember, these are 10 and 11 year old children) was Thought Ignites Action. I am thankful for your wisdom in your seven points and would have liked to share these points as inspiration at the start of their Unit of Inquiry. The children, here in Baku, visited orphanages, a home for disabled, and a shelter for Rom street kids. They raised around US$1500, built web pages, titioned the General Secretary of the UN, approached the US Embassy, which donated 2 flat screen computers, collected enough new and second materials to fill two 20 seat buses. Purchases included a TV, books, wheelchair, crutches, toys and sports equipment.

While we can't tell at this stage what long-lasting empowerment these children absorbed, they certainly are aware of how significant these donations and gifts are to the people of these institutions, some of which have zero institutional funding and are run and funded completely by volunteers. Imagine how significant a wheelchair and crutches are to people who have no mobility. The wide-eyed look of amazement in their eyes and their proud smiles was something to behold.

They reminded me of how significant are the steps we take (little and large). Right now, I'm very much enjoying Point #7.

Joy and Peace and Hugs