For well over a century, Seattle University has served as an incubator for those believing in the possibility of a better world and learning how to make an effective effort to start making it happen, and our graduates keep telling us (and showing us!) that this is what our degrees do for them. The Class of 2014 graduates will join a proud tradition of practical idealists from past generations. They will engage the world like many former students did when they went on to serve as dedicated pastors and chaplains, heads of social service agencies, couples and family therapists, teachers and consultants, school and university professors and administrators, artists, inspiring business and governmental leaders, lawyers and politicians, compassionate healthcare professionals…and in many other professions.
Although Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is only 17-years old, this is the 42nd year Seattle University has celebrated a group of graduates majoring in masters’ level theology and ministry degrees. Since most people consider a generation to change somewhere between 25 and 40 years, the school is into impacting its second generation of students.
For those who are baseball fans, the number “42” is important. It is the jersey number for one of the world’s most famous baseball players, Jackie Robinson. When the Brooklyn Dodgers started Robinson on first base on April 15, 1947 the team ended six decades of relegating black players to the so-called Negro Leagues. More significantly, the day he walked onto the field he and the Dodgers set in motion the destruction of the “color line” that had divided the United States since before its founding.
Jackie Robinson went on to do many things, include becoming the first black vice-president of a major American corporation and a powerful social activist. But, it was his baseball playing that ignited a spark that grew into the forest fire of social ferment we all know as the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of years of stereotyping African-Americans began to unravel as one man demonstrated his superior skill in a game with 18 players and a little white ball. This is counterintuitive. But so is most of the ways God works with humans and the seriously flawed world we have created.
Jackie Robinson was not hatched a fantastic athlete. He had family and friends rooting for him, coaches mentoring him, and teachers teaching him. They not only taught him the content of authenticity, but helped him achieve one of the most difficult things for humans to learn–faith in oneself to make a difference. Robinson had a deeply devote mother, and a dynamic pastor who nurtured his faith, Karl Downs. He was also supported by the man who hired him, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, a person equally serious about his Christian faith. Jackie Robinson only did what he did because of a cloud of witnesses coming before him and walking along side of him in times trial and glory.
It was this mixture of influences that gave Robinson the courage and discipline to turn the other cheek when he regularly received racial insults on the diamond, from the stands, and on the streets. In the process, he modeled the Jesus-like behavior that served as the primary political and social methodology of the Civil Rights Movement.
Not everyone becomes a Jackie Robinson. Civil Rights came about because there were people doing small but great things from the moment the first African slave stepped off of a ship onto American soil. Like water wearing down rock, these people and their efforts accumulated over generations to make slow, incremental changes in the environment, creating a growing hunger for a more just, humane, and kind world in congregations, schools, communities, and ultimately the entire nation. Because of mostly invisible women and men of faith and vision over many generations, America was ready to experience a fiery call for justice when Jackie Robinson crouched next to first base on what is now tax day in 1947.
In order for change to occur in the world, you first need scores of humans tilling the soil and planting the seeds for a new age. Those seeds may take root in a year or two, or maybe not for another 20 or 30 years. Or, like most of the great social causes in human history, perhaps it will begin to emerge long after the original instigators of change have passed from the scene. This multi-generational commitment is the only way to make real, lasting change in the human condition. Some of our graduates will never have a prominent role or visibility in society. Others will assume positions of prominence in church and society, and still others may become a Jackie Robinson and show up on cable news shows.
But, all of them will wear away the rocks that keep us from embracing God’s vision for our world.
Jackie Robinson changed a nation by hitting and catching a little white ball because he made the journey to authenticity that allowed him to make the most of his time in the sun. It remains to be seen how the graduates of our 42nd year change the world. But, they, too, have taken the long road to authenticity and it will be fun to watch.