BETHANY, W.Va. – A celebrated social justice advocate and pastor imparted on the Bethany College class of 2020 the importance of the three C’s – care, change, and conclusion – during the college’s digital graduation ceremony on Saturday.
“As you graduate and embark on your continuing journey through the corridors of life, I would like to first issue to you a call to care, to care about something beyond what kind of job you will have, what car you will drive, what kind of house you will stay in,” the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber said in his address.
Barber is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.; founder and president of the Repairers of the Breach; and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people everywhere to question their own mortality, their own resources, and their relationship with the world, he said. He also noted that it’s bringing to the forefront the inequities in society caused by poverty and systemic structural racism.
Before COVID-19, Barber said, 140 million Americans were poor or low-income; 62 million people did not earn a living wage even though they worked every day; 80 million people were uninsured or underinsured; and 700 people died each day from the effects of poverty.
He likened the pandemic to “a contrast dye exposing what we should have cared about” even before more than a million people were infected and millions became newly unemployed.
“And in light of this, some people just want to get back to normal,” he said. “But instead of going back to normal – which was 140 million people living in poverty and low wealth, and 700 people dying a day from poverty – I want to issue to you a call to care, to care, and I also want to issue to you a challenge to seek change. We cannot go back to normal, or just a new normal.”
Instead, he challenged the graduates to use their education and influence to be instruments of change, referencing the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25:45, “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.”
“We can be a society where everyone has health care and living wages as a basic human right if we change things, if we hear and accept the challenges to seek change,” Barber said. “The hungry can be fed, the sick healed, the immigrants welcomed, the environment saved.”
Barber also asked the graduates to consider their conclusion, particularly in a time of a heightened sense of mortality.
“If you knew you had 48 hours of breath left, what kind of world, what kind of society, would you fight for?” he asked. “Yes, I know, you’re young, but even now I want you to think about the fact that one day there will be a conclusion, that one day we will all have to stand before our creator, one day there will be a final graduation from this world to the next. … That day the questions will be how did we use [our degrees and accolades] for change? How did we use those things to care? How did we make a difference in an often difficult world?”
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced shelter-in-place orders, social distancing, and students and educators to adapt quickly as institutions closed physical locations in favor of remote learning, was evident throughout the ceremony. As was the unique bond it gives the class of 2020.
“Today we honor each of you, our graduates, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can take this milestone from you,” Bethany President Tamara Nichols Rodenberg said in her opening remarks.
“This moment is yours to cherish, and this diploma is yours to own. Congratulations. By every measure, you are a class that will inspire future generations. You conquered unprecedented challenges to reach this day, but you did more, so much more, you showed compassion and sacrifice in staying home in order to save others’ lives.”
In her student address, graduating senior Logan Mayhew, of Morgantown, W.Va., expressed disappointment at being unable to the share the moment in the presence of her classmates but spoke of how Bethany helped to prepare them to adapt.
She asked her fellow graduates to look back on their time at Bethany and remember one thing that they’d never imagine they would do while in college.
“Now that you recognize your ability to do what you thought was impossible, hold on to that feeling,” she said. “You had no idea how your college experience would play out, and you may have no idea how this next step will play out, but you will take a step forward, one day at a time, until you take a look back and see how far you have come. We will take this moment in history one day at a time until we take a look back and see how far we have come. Change is the only guarantee. It may startle us, but we adapt.”
And Bethany, she said, is a family that will continue to help you and cheer you on along the way.
Dean of Students Jerry Stebbins announced all of the new graduates, and Provost Joe Lane recognized Rebecca Lee, of Huntington, W.Va., as the recipient of the 2020 Oreon E. Scott Award, which recognizes the graduate with the top academic standing throughout her college career.
Lane, who also is dean of faculty, recognized retiring full-time faculty and conferred new titles on each: John McGowan, professor emeritus of physical education and sports studies; Virgil Thompson, professor emeritus of business and accounting; and Kathy Shelek-Furbee, professor emerita of social work.
Saturday’s virtual ceremony took the place of the Bethany’s originally scheduled graduation ceremony, at least for the time being. Graduates are invited back to campus for a traditional ceremony scheduled for August.
ABOUT BETHANY COLLEGE
Bethany College, founded in 1840, is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.