(Photo by Andrew Strack)

Leymah Gbowee’s 2018 Commencement Address, Eastern Mennonite University

Urgently Needed! Defenders of Peace and Justice

Thank you, President Huxman.

This is really a lot of pressure. In one hundred years of EMU’s existence, who would have told anyone that a girl from West Africa, a tiny village, a tiny country, who came here to validate and to justify her inclusion in peace building work at the community level, would come back several years later as the first honorary degree awardee?

It is really special and I want to thank you all. Thank you, President Huntsman. And I pray that I can continue to live up to the expectations of this great university in this wonderful community.

I would like to say congratulations to the graduates. It’s a special day for me because I have one student graduating with her undergrad degree, Delight Tigoe.

(Photo by Andrew Strack)

Several years ago, my daughter Amber was probably 12 when she walked into the room and say, “Mama, you want to invest?” Of course I want to invest with all these many children in need of firm financial backing.

I would know later on that when Amber asks you to invest, don’t take her seriously.

Then she said, “I have a friend at school whose father is having a rough time and she’s about to be put out of school. I want you to invest in her.”

From about seventh grade until today, I have been on this journey with Delight, so it’s a real honor to be here and watch her graduate with her bachelor’s degree but also graduating as magna cum laude. That’s awesome. Congratulations, Delight.

You know when you’re the commencement speaker, and you have a child that graduated from EMU, they will ask you to do something. So Kennedy Okereke, Josh says, “Congrats and well up!”

Now, to serious business.

President Huxman, members of the board of trustees, faculty, staff, parents, well wishers, graduating class of 2018, ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a great honor to be here.

This is, indeed, another day, week, month, year, decade and century that the Lord has made and we should all rejoice and be glad in it.

EMU President Susan Schultz Huxman and Provost Fred Kniss with Leymah Gbowee, the university’s first honorary doctorate awardee. (Photo by Jon Styer)

A few days ago I was on a flight from New York to Minnesota Saint Peter’s, where I was supposed to speak at the Gustavus Adolphus University. We sat on a flight, and it was a normal flight, very pleasant, some very pleasant individuals on the flight, and all of a sudden our flight attendant, a man said, “Look at the skyline! Oh, beautiful city, Minneapolis.”

This old man excitedly jumped into the conversation, said, “Yeah, it’s really beautiful from this side and that side and the other side.”

It was a really pleasant conversation, and then this old man made the mistake of asking the flight attendant, “Are you from Minneapolis?”

“Oh no. Oh my god, I hate big cities.”

At that moment it was like the floodgate of pessimism opened. “The world is horrible. I’ve lost faith in humanity.”

One minute, we’re talking about the beauty of the skyline, and the next minute this guy’s conversation, just like a downpour of rain, like damping everyone’s spirit. He said, “I stopped believing in humanity. Oh my god, it’s so horrible, and you should see the way they leave the flight when they’re getting off. I’ve given up on this world. I’ve given up on humans.”

As I sat there I was tempted to say, “Lord you need help.” But then I was also tempted to offer some hope, but being the only black person, almost, on that flight, trust me I know I’m enough, but I told myself, “Stay out of this one, Leymah.”

(Photo by Jon Styer)

So I just sat there, thinking, “What in the world could have brought this man to this place of pessimism, to the place of misery, and to the place of lack of belief in humanity?”

Then, as part of my life, I’m officially crazy, except that I haven’t gotten any certification from a mental institution. I know that because I’m the only person who goes to this website called Gun Archive, to look at the number of shootings in the US, and go to this other website called List of Terror Incidents in the World, and to this other website of wars in the world.

But after getting off that flight, I said to myself, “It’s been a while. Maybe this guy visits these sites. Let me go and see what’s going on.” And it would amaze you, or some of you already know: Twenty-nine conflicts in Africa, 241 insurgent groups. Sixteen countries in Asia in conflicts, 173 insurgent groups. Ten European countries, between eighty one insurgent groups. Seven countries in the Middle East, 257 insurgent groups. In the Americas, six countries, between 28 drug cartels.

Let’s also take a look at the numbers of terrorist attacks in May. In our last check on Saturday since the beginning of May, there have been 23 terror attacks in different parts of the world including Central Africa Republic, and there have been a total of 206 deaths and thousands of injuries. This is from the first of May to the fourth.

In the month of April, there have been about 106 terror attacks, with a total of 1,585 deaths and thousands of injuries. In the U.S. alone, gun violence, there have been a total number of 19,578 gun related incidents in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, with a total of 4,854 deaths. Children between zero to 11 years account for 202, teens account for 857, and there have been a total of 83 mass shootings. If you go back there today, the number has surged because last night it went up.

Beyond these numbers, when we look around our world, especially in places that people never really think about, you have issues of the housing crisis, you have rape and exploitation of women in different parts of the world, the threat to the environment, and many other vices.

A few years back in New Orleans, a little boy said to me, “Miss Leymah, I don’t watch TV anymore because when you watch TV, all you hear is murders, murders, murders and more murders.”

The question we are burdened, with even you as graduates and those coming out of CJP with fancy degrees in conflict transformation or restorative justice: Who’s going to fix our world? Who’s going to give hope to the hopeless? Who will solve the problems of our world?

I get this question all of the time: “Do you think there’s hope? Can we ever get to the place where humanity will respect the way of life of people?”

The problems of the world – many problems are calling us to turn to them urgently. Between Tuesday and Saturday, it is not normal for a country like the U.S. to have at least 500 incidents of gun violence. This is a major crisis that needs extra and urgent attention.

Outside the US we have the Rohingya crisis, ethnic cleansing happening on the watch of many individuals, unfortunately my own fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. You go to the DRA Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, women and men suffer at different rates of rape and abuse.

Several years of ago I found myself in the middle of a room with 100 women rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo and these women, one after the other, told their stories of pain and suffering.

On the last day of my trip in Congo, this doctor from Doctors Without Borders came to have dinner with me, and he sat down, took out his iPhone and handed it to me, and said, “Tell me the age of this child.”

I look and say, “Well, she’s probably eight or ten.”

He said, “No, she’s almost 18. This is a young girl that was kept in the mines and repeatedly raped for six months. When they had no use for her sexually, they took a knife and stabbed her in many different places, threw on the roadside for her to die.”

She lived. A group of doctors were driving along saw this creature and decided to investigate because it was moving. Took her and took her to the hospital and they had been treating her, when I saw that picture, it was almost six months of intensive medical care.

You have issues of “Me, too” and “Time’s up” and people in huge places and big places using their powers and the authority they have, to exploit and abuse women.

Every day in the world that we live in, we have a crisis. South Sudan is crying out to us. Central African Republic is crying out to us. Mali needs our urgent attention.

Unfortunately for us, the United Nations, even the leader sitting up there said in one meeting, “There’s a lot of pessimism about the UN’s ability to provide world peace.”

Who will continue to do this work? Who will keep up the pressure? Who will stand up and rebuke our leaders when their languages are so divisive and reinforces age-old stereotypes of Africans being one way and Americans being another way and Hispanic being another way.

Who will stand up to the status quo of winners take it all?

Who will stand up and reinforce unity and diversity to our young children and say to them,
“Regardless of the tone of your skin, your ethnic group, your social class, and your political and sexual identity, we need to co-exist for the good of our world.”

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, there’s an urgent need for individuals to rise up for the cause of peace and justice.

You may contend, “I live in Harrisonburg, my community is free of armed conflict and war.”

Well, I will contend with you, that as long as there are people sleeping on cardboard boxes in your streets, you need to rise up.

As long as there is a long line where you have people standing up and can’t find a meal a day in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, you need to rise up.

As long as the pay gap between men and women in different parts in different career areas, there is a huge gap and a huge difference, you need to rise up.

As long as a particular skin color cannot really say,”I am a part of this, you need to rise up.”

As long as we still have problems with people’s private lives and their sexual orientation, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you need to stand up.

As long as I come through Homeland Security and because I’m dressed like this and have a head wrap, I’m taken into a room for extra screening, you need to stand up.

As long as the way I pray and the way I look will make some people uncomfortable, you need to stand up.

As long as the reproductive rights of women is still being discussed by men in black suits in rooms, we need people to stand up.

The defendants of justice and peace that we urgently seek are individuals who understand that this is a 24/7 job. You don’t take vacations.

I get questions, “How you taking care of yourself? How are you resting?”

Can you rest when in some places you’re being asked, “Can you advise this leader on this thing?” and you take ten steps forward, and in two days, you listen to the news, and you have 20 steps backwards?

The defenders that we’re looking for are individuals who understand that peace and justice is borderless, so I can interfere in anything that impacts women in the U.S. just as I will interfere in things that impact women in Liberia. Because you know, there is a saying that injustice one place is injustice everywhere.

The defenders of peace and justice are individuals that will preach and walk their talk. Gone are days where you will go to the airports and protest a law that says we can’t allow Muslims, certain types of Muslim in our country when you live on campus and you’ve never spoken to one of those types of Muslims on your campus.

Well, I never really expected to get an applause because I never get applause for that.

The defenders of peace and justice that we’re seeking are individuals who will post their rants on Facebook and Twitter, but will accompany it by in-person protest and by meeting with their leaders to speak their minds.

But most importantly, the defenders of peace and justice are those who understand what it means to be a part of the collective humanity, that regardless of your skin color, the way you pray, we all breathe the same air. God made all of us, whoever you know him to be. And that collective humanity is the one that will insist that I respect someone regardless of their political-social view or their economic status.

The defenders of peace and justice that we seek are those who live out the South African versions of Ubuntu. Easily translated, “I am because of what we all are.”

Haile Selassie once said, “Through our history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered the most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”

In our world, as we look left, right, center and forward, and even not very far down the street, we see evil taking over our world. We see justice being denied to those who are urgently in need of justice. We still see spaces and places where women cannot be what they are supposed to be. Their god-given gifts cannot be used. When we look around we still see young men, because of the color of their skin, being arrested just because they are sitting and lounging in a restaurant too long.

We still look around and see people who really should come to SPI and come to programs that would benefit their communities, being denied visas on the basis of how they pray. There are so many things that we all need to rise up, stand up and do something for.

Dear graduates, it doesn’t take a huge grant from USAID to make a change. It doesn’t take a lot of money for you to step out there and provide hope for someone who has lost hope in the world.

It doesn’t take a lot to change the world.

When I started my work in social justice, I started with four young girls in my community, reinforcing to them the value of education, the value of bodily integrity. Several years later I was able to meet one, who looked me in the eye and said, “I’m finished with high school. I don’t have a baby, and I’m off to college,” from my neighborhood.

It was like I had just been told I won the Nobel Peace Prize again.

It doesn’t take a lot to walk up to someone and give them hope.

Last night as I sat with Jan Jenner and her husband, I remembered my time at EMU. I don’t know if anyone knows her, Mary Barb Holmes, she used to live at the VMRC.

One of the days that I was here – I’ve always referred there were students in CJP who were Fulbright, and there were some of us who were empty Brights, meaning we didn’t have any scholarships, so of course as one of the empty bright students, I had to fit all of my resources was gone. My friend … would usually share with me, but it was an embarrassing time to keep going back … and saying, “I need money.”

So this was one of the mornings where I couldn’t even find a sandwich for breakfast. I sat in my room and wrote all my papers and cried. But then I decided, let me just take a walk, so I walked up and sat in that building there in the sun.

I just sat there, and this old lady walked in.

“Hi. Are you an international student?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Do you need someone to help you edit your paper?” and I was like, “Lord Jesus. This is the last thing I need this morning.”

I said politely, “Yes.” Well, she was old, she seemed like she needed a friend.

“Well, I can help you.”

I said, “Well, but I don’t have my paper here. It’s back in my apartment.”

She sat next to me and said, “Young lady I don’t know what is going on with me, but pardon me. I was in my apartment, and the Lord told me to make a sandwich, and here.”

I’m sitting there and saying, “Do I pretend as if I’m not hungry, or just take it?” And I took the sandwich, and we had a conversation, but it began a friendship.

The reason why I’m telling this story is because that moment was one of those moments that taught me that there will always be people out there who will show concern when everyone else in the world is too busy to look down.

Distinguished graduates, you’re stepping into the world where the stats are discouraging, people’s actions are unpredictable, leaders’ decisions are nerve-wracking. Step out.

Whatever your calling may be, defend peace and justice with your actions, your interactions and your attitude.

Most especially, when issues are no longer trending, and the hashtags are no longer hashing, and the lights and cameras are off, defend peace, defend justice. You could never go wrong.

I thank you.

More Commencement coverage:

Christopher Clymer Kurtz provided transcription services.

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