Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Man Who Cried. Thoughts on Liberty University Commencement 2017

So, I’ve been working at my alma mater, Liberty University, for three years now. Because I started in August, 2014, I missed that years’ Graduation and by the time Commencement 2015 rolled around I was already knee-deep in side jobs and had no time on weekends to come see the kids walk. Besides, I knew how bad traffic could get, and if you don’t have a very good reason to be there, it’s better to stay away and watch the live stream.
However, this year a dear friend of mine was walking and she came up from Pensacola to do so, so I promised her I’d come out and see her graduate.
My friend Stephanie is a single mom, who raised four great kids, two of which are college grads and two who are in college right now. She works full time and in 2012, right after I graduated, she got inspired to finish her degree. In fact, I talked her into it. She was wanting to be a teacher, and couldn’t figure out how to balance full-time motherhood, and a full time job, with getting her degree. I told her about Liberty University Online, where I completed my Bachelors, and she enrolled.
Other than talk her into it, all the credit is hers. She did the work and put in the hours and earned that special education degree.
So, that was my reasoning for being in attendance yesterday. Yes, President Trump was speaking at Commencement, but honestly…I’d heard him on campus already, and while I LOVE our president, I hate crowds and traffic, and commencement is the poster baby for both. I was there to support my friend.
(As a side note, the evening before, James Robison delivered probably the best sermon I’ve ever heard at LU’s baccalaureate service. I wasn’t there for that but I wish I had been)
My daughter is in the University Choir and was singing at the ceremony yesterday morning, so I had to be there to drop her off anyway. I met up with Stephanie’s daughter and her mother and we trudged through the puddles, through the body scanners and found some wet seats in the bleachers. Thankfully the rain had stopped and the sun began making infrequent appearances as the morning progressed.
It was exciting having the president there. Even the extra security, and the Secret Service presence, and the hovering State Police helicopter lent an air of importance. The roar of the crowd when president Trump arrived was deafening.
The ceremony was wonderful. It was an emotional tribute to the grit and determination and vision of our founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. It was a source of pride for me as an alumnus and as an employee of the college. It was a testament to how very well Jerry Falwell Jr. is guiding this ship. There were so many moments of great pride for me but the one moment that burned itself into my heart, that will stay with me until I pass one day, was missed by anyone who wasn’t fortunate enough to have been watching at just the right moment.
We were seated in the bleachers, waiting for the student processional to finish. This takes a long time, since about 7000 students walked yesterday. The ones who had already filed in were standing together, talking, taking pictures, and waving to the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they knew. The camera crews were roving the audience, taking brief shots of the students and streaming them onto the two giant video boards on the field. There were beautiful ladies and handsome young men all smiling and mouthing “Hi Mom!” or “Thanks Dad!” to the crowd. There was every race, color, and nation on that field. It was already a beautiful, heartwarming microcosm of what Liberty is and does. It reminded me of the line in the classic Andrae Crouch song “Soon and Very Soon” where it says: 
                      “We have come from every nation.  
                          God knows each of us by name. 
                           Jesus took His blood and he 
                              washed our sins away.” 
In fact I was singing that song silently in my heart as I watched the sea of humanity in front of me. And then I saw it. I don’t know how many others in that massive crowd saw it, but I saw it. The cameras picked up on an older Asian man. He was probably around my age and his regalia told me he was there for a graduate degree of some sort. He turned and looked at the crowd, his eyes taking it all in and suddenly, he broke into sobs and his hands went to his face, overcome with emotion. I don’t know if he saw family in the stands or if it was just that the enormity of his remarkable accomplishment suddenly hit home for him and he was overwhelmed. From my vantage point, the latter is what it looked like.
I started to well up myself. Five years ago, that was me. I was homeless, broken, desperate, and holding on to whatever hope I could find. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Religion and Biblical studies mostly from the front seat of my car. Or the public library. Or the Fed-Ex Office work stations. Or the pavilion in Pinkerton Park in Franklin TN, where I lived. (or rather, where I parked my car to sleep in) Sometimes it was in a motel room while I was traveling home to Philly to work for my cousins for a week or so, when they had work for me.
The only thing that consistently gave me hope during that six years I was homeless was my daughter, and the pursuit of my degree.
I remembered, as I watched that brief flash of emotion on the screen, how I broke down in my car on the Thursday before my Commencement as I turned off 460 onto the ramp that leads to University Blvd, realizing that I would never again come to this campus with the gnawing feeling that I was not yet a graduate. I wept again when I took a walk on campus and reminisced at how it was when I was there as a resident student 20 plus years before. I got teary-eyed when I got to campus that Saturday morning and saw the last sunrise I would ever see cresting that mountain without being a graduate.
It took a heck of a lot of work, and determination, and grit to finish my degree, living the way I did. I don’t know the story of that Asian man I saw break down yesterday, but I recognize the emotion, and I’m sure his story is every bit as amazing, inspirational, and wonderful as anything I endured.
That man was the lasting memory I’ll take from yesterday. More than President Trump and his terrific speech. More than seeing my dear friend reach her goal. More than hearing the choir and knowing my daughter was in there singing. More than my pride as an alumnus and an employee.
That man…that emotion on his face and those tears…that’s why we do what we do at Liberty. That man’s dream came true yesterday and the importance of that dream showed in his weeping. I don’t know what part I played in his succeeding. I don’t know what his degree is in, or whether any of my business units on campus touched him directly. But I know that somehow, some way my job intersected with his success and so it made it worth it.
The academic year is furious and hectic for those of us who provide support services here at Liberty. It seems as if we just send off a graduating class and another group of freshman arrives without us having a chance to catch our breath. Somewhere around February you burn out a little, and begin to wonder if it’s really worth it. You watch another group of kids move on and you see a new batch coming in their place.
But once in a while you watch a man or woman break down in sobs because this thing they’ve dreamed of –maybe for as long as they can remember- is happening, and there were times when they wondered if it ever would. You realize that this is why you’re here.

And it’s worth it.

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