Commencement Address by
Bishop William P. DeVeaux

Howard University Graduation 2003

Thank you very much Mr. Dennis Hightower and President Patrick Swygert for your kind words of introduction. To the Howard University Board of Trustees, I pay respect and express profound gratitude for this high honor of selecting me to speak to the Graduation Class of 2003 from this, my alma mater. This is a deeply moving time for me, for in addition to myself, my wife and two of our daughters are Howard University alums. It goes without saying that this invitation has made me “somebody” special in my own household. My personal sense of gratitude is also extended to Pat Swygert who genuinely has set an admirable high standard as the chief executive officer of Howard University. Sincere appreciation to my classmate, Mr. Frank Savage, and the Board of Trustees who continue to give of themselves in selfless devotion to the task of keeping Howard University in its rightful place as one of our nation’s premier institutions of higher education.

Thanks to the faculty and staff of Howard University for staying the course in providing faithful service to this school that is so dear to our hearts. Special words of praise are due the parents and families of these graduates for the sacrifices that went into making this day a reality. Finally, I bow in the presence of the great potential that sits before me in the Class of 2003. You have already achieved a highly significant milestone in your life and it really does not yet appear what you shall become.

We come now to this day of celebration with all anticipation and some degree of anxiety. You will receive much unsolicited advice, some wise counsel, and a fair amount of words of caution. In the midst of all this rhetorical excess, please do not let anyone or anything steal your joy. We live in a nation and a world in which negative thoughts fly and positive messages move at a snail’s pace.

You will face your share of cynicism and negative feelings. Look upon your academic achievement as a sign that the “nay sayers” are liars. Hard work does pay off. And, success does come to those who are willing to make sufficient sacrifices.

This is your day! You earned it, now enjoy it to the fullest!! You have done what only a small percentage of the world’s population has managed to accomplish, you have attained a university degree. Now it is perfectly appropriate to have joy, to celebrate and bask in your accomplishments. By this I mean having joy in its most profound sense like peace, assurance, and resoluteness as well as in its most simple form of just being giddy and excited. I encourage and implore you to make joy, in all its dimensions, a critical element in your life. Use it as a standard for choosing professional opportunities, in building relationships, as well as in making long-term commitments.

The lingering impact of “9/11” is still very much with us. The effect and indeed the results of the War in Iraq have left a shroud of doubt and apprehension across the world. The environment is threatened and there now appears to be a strategy of retrenchment concerning the gains acquired during the civil rights struggle. These are just a few issues with which the Class of 2003 must deal. My task here today is to say something of meaning and significance that speaks in some profound way to the situation in which we now find ourselves. This task is not an easy one, but I do have a word to give. Let me begin with this story.

Recently, I was helping my four-year-old granddaughter put together a children’s picture puzzle. The task should have been a simple one; but for one thing, we had trouble finding all of the puzzle pieces. Finally, after about ten minutes, we had finished except for one piece that was missing. I told my four-year-old co-worker, “That is all I can do, I can’t find all the pieces.”

She patted me gently on the shoulder and said, “That’s okay Pop Pop, you did the best you could.” In these simple words of a child, I understood clearly the central issue that I preach and teach. My granddaughter was satisfied with my work because she believed that I had done my best. She was also convinced that her grandfather would never give less than his best when helping her. This, too, is a lesson for each of you, for the people and communities who supported you while you were at Howard University are awaiting your contributions with high anticipation and expectation.

The true measure of a man or woman is not determined by external standards alone. Nor can ability be totally imposed by institutional or social criteria. In fact, all we can reasonably expect from others and ourselves is that we do the very best that we can. We alone know with absolute certainty when we have given the best of our service.

My granddaughter tried to console me because I did not finish the task of completing the puzzle. She did not intend her comment as a sign of capitulation – “oh I did the best I could,” or even resignation – “what did you expect, that’s the best I can do.” Your best service should mean making a genuine commitment to excellence with the assurance that comes from standards that you have set for yourself. It means using all the gifts, graces, talents, and educational tools at your disposal to put together the pieces of whatever puzzles life presents to you. Sometimes the pieces will be immediately accessible. In all too many instances, however, they may be either hard to find or missing completely. In either scenario, only your very best will suffice.

The U.S. Army once had this slogan that captured the message of self-development – “Be all that you can be.” This slogan has now been replaced with, “An Army of one.” I personally prefer the former slogan a lot better. It claims that the Army can help develop the potential that lies within each of us. If this is true, then everyone should join. The results would mean that we develop the latent talent that will finally release the fullness of our potential. It is only in being our best that we can expect to give our best.

If we are to give the best of our service, there are some things we should do.
1. Remember how you made it to this present moment in your life. We are the beneficiaries of a very rich cultural, social, spiritual, and intellectual heritage. This intellectual heritage includes a combination of things we learned at home, along with resources acquired at Howard University. The “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us includes family, teachers, religious leaders, and concerned members of the community. Often with limited resources and little access to opportunities, these entities sacrificed for us – giving the best of their service.

There are critical truths that have stood the test of time and continue to guide us. We learned as children that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Moral judgments are not made because of convenience or personal aspirations. The means do not justify the end. One principle that I learned in Douglass Hall here at Howard can be applied in every situation that I have ever encountered. It covers the gamut from classroom behavior, to strategic planning and corporate ethics. Its message is unequivocal; lies are never the building blocks for truth, wars are not the prelude to peace, and broken promises cannot be the basis for lasting relationships.

Over one hundred years ago, W.E.B. Dubois in “Souls of Black Folks” spoke to the United States on behalf of all African Americans. “We will accept not one jot nor tittle less than our full manhood rights. We demand for ourselves and our posterity every right that is due freeborn American citizens. Until we receive these rights, we will not cease to assail the ears of America.”

Dubois’ challenge along with Edmund Burke’s admonition that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” helped establish the marching orders for social transformation throughout the world. Howard University graduates must be change agents. You must step up and speak out on issues of justice and righteousness.
Our philosophical underpinnings are intertwined with our spiritual foundations. Together they chart the course for where we are going. We have learned from the cradle that we were not made only to serve ourselves. The leaders of every major faith taught that duty, love, and compassion for others were essentials for a fulfilled spiritual life.

We were not given the great privilege of attaining a higher education only for ourselves. Our search for educational development and intellectual integrity is based on the premise that we will be servants to a world in need. We must answer critical questions such as who have you lifted, what difference have you made, and did you stay on duty until the job was done? And finally, did we give the best of our service?

2. Block out and reject all that is self-defeating and demeaning to the human spirit. In our quest for meaningful lives we must disassociate ourselves from persons, places, and practices that are negative. We must consistently avoid developing dependency relationships with people who think little of them selves or us. Our social contacts and our professional circles should be made up of “winners,” individuals who understand both their worth and responsibilities. The day has long past for African Americans or any ethnic group to apologize for who they are or what they do not have. We must require our government officials to maintain an affirmative action policy while functioning in every aspect of life as though we do not need said policy.

Positive people make life-affirming decisions. The Bible provides a classic example of what happens when the “wrong crowd” has the final say. The people of Israel missed their first opportunity for passage into Canaan because they allowed “losers” to speak for them. From the banks of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight, the Israelites forgot who they were, abdicated their responsibility, and missed the opportunity of a lifetime. They reported, “All the people we saw are of great size…. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33 New International Version) The moral here is quite plain and simple. If you think you are a “grasshopper” then so will everyone else. Grasshoppers do not lead, nor plan for the future, nor serve anyone’s cause but their own, nor leave a legacy of service. Grasshoppers come and go with the seasons. They provide no service.

3. Strive for goals that transform and enhance your life as well as the people you serve. Focus on that which appears beyond your reach with the assurance that you can complete the task. In 1962, President James M. Nabrit, Jr. challenged my graduation class to “support just causes which seek the betterment of mankind. You will thereby make the most noble and worthy use of all that which you have gained from your study and learning.” The people who invested in all of us are expecting that we will make a difference to our immediate communities and the world. Our promise to do the best we can will lead to the fulfillment of their expectations. However, Peter Drucker reminds us “unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes but no plans.” We are required to go beyond rhetoric. We must move beyond slogans, platitudes, and worn out clichés. The call now is to action and service.

Dr. Nabrit was correct when he maintained that the tools gained at Howard University are the instruments for noble and just causes. Mahatma Gandhi expressed the essence of social responsibility by saying, “Be the change you want to see.” He places the obligation for social transformation in the hands of each of us. He suggests that we are more than able to fulfill our role, but only if we give the best of our service.

Is it possible for a university education to provide specific answers to every question, circumstance, or problem you will face? Can graduates expect that their education will provide a road map that will guide them around every pain, setback, and sorrow that may come their way? The answer is clearly no.

Nevertheless, what you have gained at Howard University are the skills of analysis and planning. You have also learned how to accomplish tasks that at first appeared beyond your grasp. More importantly, I sincerely hope that you have also developed a sense of self worth, assurance, and confidence that comes close to arrogance. It will be these strong virtues that produce a sense of security that will be the most important problem-solving instrument you will ever need. It will be confidence in who you are that will set you free to give the best in service to others.

Shortly after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the late Fred Rogers, who we knew as “Mr. Rogers,” was asked what adults should say to children. He replied, “What children need from us adults is that they can talk to us about anything and that we will do all we can to keep them safe in any scary time.” The Class of 2003 will encounter some “scary times.” In this “post 9/11” era in which we live, we have wars and rumors of war. We exist in an environment of apprehension and fear.

We could choose to live sheltered and withdrawn from the everyday world of human intercourse. We could worry ourselves to death about the shift toward conservative leadership, denial of affirmative action, or even the dissolution of the ozone layer. “Chose your problem and sit down,” can be our mantra. However, we have other choices as well.

Our fore parents have dealt with many “post” something eras. They survived the antebellum period, “the peculiar institution,” American slavery, Reconstruction, and Post-Reconstruction, and now even something called the post-civil rights era. As a nation, we still encounter post-Watergate syndrome and its accompanying loss of confidence in leaders not only in politics but also in every aspect of society. It is now difficult to find genuine heroes and heroines who are willing to stand the test of media scrutiny. Pessimism and skepticism have replaced acceptance and trust as primary evaluative tools in social contacts. If that were not enough, many scholars are convinced that currently we are in a period of “post-modernism.” This era features such phenomena as the information technology explosion, the loss of faith in authority figures, and the denial of basic core values.

We have gone through so much and experienced so many ups and downs in this journey called life, yet, what have we learned? Our mothers and fathers gave us the insights and skills to deal with seemingly insurmountable problems. They would often simply say that “this too shall pass” and “trouble don’t last always.” These simple and yet profound statements uttered generations ago have been restated throughout the ages. They form the basis for the faith commitment that brought us to where we are today. Mothers and fathers believed not only in God but also in themselves. They knew they were not “grasshoppers.” They had confidence that they would not only survive and achieve but also give birth to a powerful progeny.

Howard University has adopted the central features of this rich tradition in its mission statement and its spirit is captured in “The Long Walk: the Placemaking Legacy of Howard University.” The University’s motto “Veritas Et Utilitas,”(truth and service) also resonates this tradition. It is in the search for truth and in the commitment to serve that Howard students become aware of who they are and where they are going. The faculty and staff have done their best in being true to Howard’s mission. Now it is left to you to be living examples of the dynamic relationship between truth and service.

You are the beneficiaries of a rich legacy. Your mothers and fathers kept you safe in the midst of some very “scary times.” They sheltered you, guided you when the way was not clear, and they sent you off to Howard University. Here you let your mind explode with new knowledge, you broke through provincialism to see the vastness of the universe. More importantly you developed an extraordinary sense of personal worth and an extravagant degree of self-confidence. Now you not only can survive, but you can and will prosper and make a difference.

Some years distant from this day, as you reflect on your graduation, I hope that a broad smile will break out across your faces. I covet for you the thrill of knowing that you live a productive, joyous life and continue to bring joy to others. It will also be acceptable and appropriate to review the material gain and professional status you have attained. I sincerely hope that you will be able to say the following upon reflection. “I may not have accomplished all that I set out to do. Life’s puzzle did present quite a conundrum. Sometimes the pieces were not easy to find and often they were missing. Nevertheless, I did strive to excel.” After all is said and done, be able to say to yourself, “I gave the best of my service.”

God bless you all.