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Jersey City Mayor Says Faith Is Crucial

Published in The Beacon in the August 25, 1993 issue
A transcript of the speech given by Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler to the 1993 graduating class of Academic High School in Jersey City, N.J.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that it is legal to burn the American flag, but that it is illegal to open or close school graduation ceremonies with a prayer.

Apparently, it believes that the expression of hate is protected speech, but that in school, at least, the expression of faith should be banned. That is unfortunate. Faith is crucial not only for successful living, but also, in my opinion, for the saving of our society.

The Court has specifically ruled that school administrators cannot schedule a prayer, although students who spontaneously want to pray in the course of comments they make, may do so.

I don't know where that leaves Mayors who are invited to be guest speakers, but I don't want to take any chances, so I won't lead you in any prayers tonight. But because prayer is important to me, I will say one personally.

You can listen in if you'd like.

"Lord, we often despair for our suffering society. Please, help us have faith in your abiding love, so that we may never lose hope, but instead may find meaning, joy and fulfillment in committing our lives to the struggle to make this a better world. Amen."

Now, on with my speech.

I am going to speak to you, our graduates, about your personal futures -- about what each of you can expect in the immediate years ahead.

I am going to share some thoughts with you, from my life experience, about how faith can help you confront the challenges you will face in your lives.

Let me tell you know what I know plainly: the only thing that is certain about your futures is that few of your current expectations will come to pass.

At times, this will make life confusing, because there is a certain comfort in thinking that you know what you want to do, and in having a goal which is personally important, and which you would like to work towards achieving.

During my first year in college, I had an idea of what I wanted to do in life. But it was entirely different from what I am doing now. Change is a part of growing.

Yet, what made going through changes difficult for me, and what will possibly make such changes difficult for you, is that besides becoming less certain of what you would like to do in life, you will also begin to think about numerous other questions: questions regarding lifestyle, faith, morality and values.

Some of you will, perhaps for the first time, begin to contemplate global questions of truth and justice.

Most trying of all, will be that question which searches you out wherever you are, and impresses upon you how quickly the days, weeks and years are slipping by, and ceaselessly forces you to wrestle with that most personal of questions -- are you really who you want to be? Is what you are doing truly what you want? In this short, one shot life, are you living life to the fullest?

I left school for a while in my junior year of college and went to live in Israel. I determined before leaving that I was going to use my time away to arrive at my own personal conclusions as to what life was all about. I considered myself fortunate to have an opportunity to leave everything behind, and, in a new land, all on my own, to think deeply about these troubling questions and answer them for my life.

Six months of deep thinking later, I came back to the United States wiser, but still with few definite answers.

In the Broadway play, The Man of La Mancha, the imprisoned Cervantes speaks of witnessing death on the battlefield. He tells of holding fellow soldiers, friends, dying in his arms. In bitter agony, looking heavenward, many asked with their final breaths, "Why, why, why?!" At first he thought they were asking God why it was that they were to die. But then, eventually, he realized that what they were so bitterly asking, is why they had ever lived: what is the meaning of this life we live amidst so much suffering and death?

I would like to suggest to you that this great question will follow some of you through the rest of your lives, even to your own dying day. Relative to this, and many other great questions of life, your youth has been an Eden to which you can never return. Your only recourse is to move forward: to learn better how to deal with these great questions of life.

That will require faith.

Faith is different from knowledge. Unlike an object of knowledge, which can be seen, an object of faith is invisible.

Faith is commitment to that which you hope for and believe to be true, yet can never know. Moreover, faith demands action to be real. Let me give you an example from the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. When Martin Luther King came on the scene proclaiming that racial discrimination was wrong and that the time for patience was over, many good-hearted people, including Church people whom Dr. King respected, challenged his use of non-violent direct action.

They said, "Martin Luther, your methods are wrong. Your protests are turning the whole South on its head and ruining the progress we've made towards racial reconciliation. You are dividing the country, and making things worse instead of better."

Even President Kennedy asked Dr. King to take things a little slower; to hold off just a little bit.

How did Dr. King respond? Did this criticism from so many quarters discourage Dr. King?

Of course it did. Martin Luther King's sermons and writings are full of the admission of discouragement, full of the admission of doubt, and full of the pain of having to make great decisions affecting the lives of many for good or ill.

But did Martin Luther King allow discouragement and doubt to paralyze him? No. He made the hard decisions, and stepped forward in the faith that what he was doing was right.

Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of what he wanted said at his funeral. He Said that he did not want his Nobel Peace Prize mentioned, nor any of his other awards, but that he simply wanted the eulogizer to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. "tried" to lead a committed life, "tried" to feed the hungry, "tried" to clothe the naked -- "tried" to do what was right!

He did not say, "I did do right," because he believed that such is for God to judge. He did not say that he "wanted" to do right, because true faith demands action, not mere desire. He said he "tried" to do what was right. Martin Luther King acted upon what he believed. He acted upon what he hoped for. He stepped out in faith.

Now I have spoken about faith in general. I would also like to speak about some "faiths" in particular -- specifically, the world's great religions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even, I might add, Humanism, are different in many respects. But I believe that at least two central principals are the same in each: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.

We do not all think of God in the same way. Two people of the same religion may think of God in different ways. The Humanist may think of God as just being Nature. Yet truly to commit yourself to loving God -- or, again, if you are a Humanist, to affirming life -- and to loving your neighbor, is to begin a life of faith in accord with the world's great religions. Allow me to state further, that I believe that living such lives of faith is essential not only to your own spiritual salvation, but again, to the renewal of society and to the saving of this world. Yes, I know we are prone to questioning, "What difference can one faithful man or woman make?"

Armed by faith, one person can do plenty.

No act of justice, said Robert Kennedy, or standing up for what is right is in vain, no matter how small. For the acts of good men and women, like pebbles thrown into a pool, send out ripples and currents which joined together form a tide -- a tide against which the walls of injustice, callousness and evil cannot stand.

I want to draw out this point. What can one man or one woman do? What change can you make in the world?

First, you can make a sacred thing of your own life, You can make it a thing of beauty and courage, count it precious and live it in devotion to God or Nature for favoring you with it.

In the book of Genesis, God looks out upon creation and declares that "It is good." The Old Testament book of Job further exhorts us to affirm creation, affirm life, affirm our lives, not because of circumstances, but in spite of circumstances.

It is a radical thing to do, yet when we can trust in God's goodness, or Life's goodness, despite evil; when we can confront crisis as opportunity and fight wrong resolutely; when we can finally come to grips with that gift which is life, and knowing it in its nakedness, its bare essence, smile, and say "Thank you, there is something here worth living!" -- then we will know the incorruptible gift which the religious call grace, and being thus saved ourselves, we will finally truly be ready to help others.

Second, one man or one woman can also be a mother or father, a brother or sister, a wife or husband, and a friend, and bless those most beloved -- one's family and close relations.

You who are graduating must realize that the greatest impact you will have in this world is upon the life chances of your own children: for their happiness or sorrow, their success in their endeavors or failure. Graduates, make a pledge today that as parents you will properly raise your children so that they might be blessed -- and so that they might bless the world.

Third, one man or one woman comes into contact with many persons each and every day, and becomes a part of their lives. I have been influenced by many people and owe a debt to many people whom I hardly know: the people who bake the bread that I eat and who fix the sidewalks that I walk upon.

We all owe a great debt to one another. We should view our work in this light, and strive to make our work a good work, benefiting to others to the maximum extent possible. Doing so invests work with meaning and mission and blesses us even as we bless others. Finally, as Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa of Calcutta demonstrated, one man or one woman can ultimately make a more remarkable difference, for heroes are in no way different from me or you. In fact, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement used to say, "Don't call me a saint, I don't want to be dismissed that easily."

The important thing to remember is that we are not meant to be more than one man or one woman; we are not expected each to be the world's solitary savior; we are simply meant to do our best at being what we are: to affirm the life that has been given to us, and to love others as we can. This is no esoteric theorizing. It means something concrete. It means always doing what is right, instead of merely what is popular. It means never looking back and saying, despairingly, "Why, why?" and cursing fate. It means instead looking back and giving thanks!. It means never looking at the present or future and fearing it, or ignoring its responsibilities. Instead, it means grasping life, affirming it as good, viewing it as a gift, and endeavoring to live it well, in service to others as well as to ourselves, as we strive to make this world a better place.

For me these are important tenets of faith which hold the key to the good life.

When I was in college, I was once visiting with four friends during our last semester together and they were talking about what level of success and income each would heed to achieve before being happy. I had to ask, "Does this mean that you are each unhappy now, and that you will not be happy until you reach these stated goals?" If so, what a way to squander youth: waiting, always waiting. Life is too short to wait until tomorrow to be content, or depend upon external circumstances for happiness. Learn to be happy now even as you struggle through life and work hard to prepare yourselves to be of greater service to others.

Who am I? What is right and good?. What career path shall I pursue? What can I do to make this a better world?

These are questions that only you can answer for yourself, and that will be impossible to answer with certainty. But you will have to answer them. You will either answer them for yourself consciously, through faithful commitment, or you will find that you have answered them for yourself by default. Either way, the way you answer these questions will decide not only who you are, but also, as I have stated, the shape of the world to come. This nation is involved in a great struggle. The battle is not between Republicans and Democrats. Rather, it is a struggle as John F. Kennedy said, against the common enemies of man: poverty, hunger, disease and war.

Giving, caring, building a better world, is not just the obligation of elected officials. It is the moral responsibility of each and every one of us. Government can be a tool for making ours a better world, but we must accept responsibility as the craftsmen who hold our free government in our hands and who can use it for good or ill

You are the answer to America's future. You are the caretakers of the earth. By affirming the world's goodness not because of, but in spite of the circumstances you confront, you will gain the power to carry on the struggle which is the good life and to love your brother or sister as yourself. But if you do not grasp hold of a faith which affirms life, you will find that fate can at times be bitter, and that there may come a day when you will look at life and wonder, like Cervantes dying friends on that battlefield, if life is anything but a cruel joke.

That's why so many of us, especially many among your parents, pray for many of you every day. We pray that you will give thanks for what has been; that you will say "yes" to what will be; and that you will love your neighbor.

You, Graduates, are our future -- and we all pray that you will give thanks ... and love!


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