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A Methodist minister as well as president and CEO of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, Cornell William Brooks returned to his alma mater today, May 17, to deliver the 2015 Baccalaureate address in what he called a homecoming to the “historical, powerful chapel” where he drew spiritual sustenance as a theology student.

His tone uplifting and his message pointed, Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15) called upon “the most important graduating class in history—the class of now” to retain and act upon the sense of social justice they acquired at BU. He acknowledged that like the nation at large, the University finds itself “wrestling with some profound issues of diversity.” In a time of high-profile cases of police brutality against people of color, “people of your age have engaged the world in a conversation about racial justice,” Brooks told the graduates and their families who filled Marsh Chapel to overflowing. He spoke of how BU, with its historically groundbreaking inclusiveness, was founded on firm principles of diversity, but went on to note that the nation faces a gaping racial divide, as graduating seniors have watched the news coverage over the course of four years of the deaths of young black men from Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner. “We are at a crossroads of our history and our personal narratives,” he said, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “These are no ordinary times. This is an extraordinary moment.”

Nearing a year at the helm of the nation’s oldest, largest, most widely respected grassroots-based civil rights organization, Brooks was later awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at BU’s 142nd Commencement. A graduate of Yale Law School, he has worked as a civil rights attorney, a social justice advocate, and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Early in his career, as a former US Department of Justice junior attorney, he worked there with 2014 Commencement speaker Deval Patrick (Hon.’14), who would go on to become a two-term governor of Massachusetts. Brooks came to the NAACP from his post as president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

He delivered his address at an interfaith service led by the Rev. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, punctuated with music by the Majestic Brass Quintet and the Marsh Chapel Choir, under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett (CFA’99,’08), the chapel’s music director. University Provost Jean Morrison read the well-known “For everything there is a season” verse from Ecclesiastes, and University President Robert A Brown read the lesson from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which included the words, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering” (12:12).

On a lighter note, Brooks pointed to a national decline in unemployment. “Some of you will leave here and not return to the bedrooms you left four years ago,” he said.

He recounted how he came to BU after the School of Theology dean offered him a scholarship—before he had even filled out an application. At the time he had been torn between the ministry and law school. (He ended up accomplishing both.) “As a consequence of my years here, I’ve spent every day of every year of my life working for social justice,” he said. “God speaks to us through circumstances, and he spoke to a dean at a school I’d never heard of.” One of the many lessons he learned at BU is what can happen “when you open the door wide. Because we at BU know better than anyone the power of diversity.” Now is the time, Brooks told the congregation, “to call out to your friends who are Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Christian, or, God forbid, Methodists like me, and ask, ‘Can we come together to bring about justice in our time?’”

As the scripture selected for his address, Brooks took the Old Testament the story of Queen Esther, an orphaned Jewish exile formerly named Hadassah, who was chosen by a Persian king for his bride. Although confined to harem life, Esther learns through her cousin Mordecai that Haman, one of the king’s high officials, has ordered the extermination of Persian Jews. The story is a timeless one, Brooks reminded the congregation, reminiscent of so many peoples’ long histories of exile and the persistence of genocide. When Mordecai asks the vulnerable Esther—who had virtually no rights—to stand against the king even if it means her death, he says, “Who knows if you are here for such a time as this?”

To the Class of 2015, Brooks posed the same question: “Have you been appointed to this honored place for such a time as this?”

Brooks concluded with a line from the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: “Let us march on until victory is won.” The congregation rose to its feet in applause. 

More information about Commencement can be found here.