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Holding onto Confidence, Even in a Dismal Economy

“Just do it,” Gloria White-Hammond tells Baccalaureate celebrants

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Gloria White-Hammond (CAS'72, Hon.'09) advised 2009 graduates: “Step up with courage. Step out with faith. And step forward with determination.” Photos by Winslow Martin

A Bach prelude played on the organ as graduates in scarlet robes filed into a packed Marsh Chapel for Boston University’s 2009 Baccalaureate Service Sunday morning. The mood inside was celebratory, students smiling for photos, receiving congratulatory hugs from family and friends. But outside, the weather was windy and ominously gray, an appropriate metaphor for the prospect of graduating in the worst economy in decades.

This year’s Baccalaureate speaker, Gloria White-Hammond (CAS’72), a pediatrician, a minister, a Boston civic leader, and an international human rights activist, sensed the mixed emotions, and her sermon was a pep talk drawn from the New Testament.

White-Hammond gave her address after the Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, greeted the congregation. Opening prayers and lessons were offered by Father Paul Helfrich, University chaplain for Catholic Services, Provost David Campbell, and President Robert A. Brown, who read from the Gospel of Matthew: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.”

Hill then introduced White-Hammond, co-pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. White-Hammond, who would soon receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in the afternoon Commencement ceremony, is the founder of Do the Write Thing, a creative writing ministry and mentoring initiative for high-risk black adolescent females. She also is cofounder, along with Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel Boston, of the Red Tent Group, which brings together Christian and Jewish women for Torah and Bible study.

In 2001, White-Hammond made the first of many trips to Sudan, becoming a tireless advocate for civilians in the war-torn country. In 2002, she cofounded My Sister’s Keeper, a nonprofit that helps bring HIV/AIDS care, girls’ schools, and grain-grinding mills to Sudanese villages.

“With all this before her,” Hill said, “it’s a marvel and a miracle that she had time to come and be here with us today.”

White-Hammond kept the mood light, thanking “the mighty, matchless Class of 2009” for inviting her to speak. After touching on the “oh my goodness” reality that a dismal economy might force some graduates back to their parents’ homes after so many years of preparation for independence, she quoted the Book of Hebrews:

“Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded,” she said. “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”

White-Hammond then summed up the lesson. “Just do it,” she counseled. “Step up with courage. Step out with faith. And step forward with determination.”

She recalled her first trips to Sudan and her “overwhelming sense of inadequacy” as she prepared to “confront the profound crisis.” After a night of prayer, she said, “God told me I was in the place I needed to be,” and that many others had come before her and persisted in the face of adversity to enable her to be in this position to help.

“We don’t come from people who became overwhelmed and shrank back in dire circumstances,” she told her audience. “You go, Class of 2009!”

She concluded with a bit of tough-love encouragement:

“Clip the ‘ifs,’ can the ‘ands,’ kick all of the ‘buts,’ and just do it.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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