Below is the FULL TEXT VERSION of the Rev. Dr. Floyd H. Flake's Baccalaureate Address. CLICK HERE for other addresses.

Proving Your Greatness

And to the chaplain, it is good to be here, with Dr. Gibson and members of his staff as well as members of the faculty, the staff, the administration. I am overjoyed to be here with the parents because over the last two years I have graduated a daughter in each year which meant that I have given myself a raise over the last several years and so I know that you are joyful for this moment as your son or daughter leaves this institution. And of course I am grateful for the opportunity to greet the graduating class of they year 2001. I commend each and everyone of you.

Since this service has been determined to be a baccalaureate, let s see if we might be able to glean from a particular passage of scripture some understanding of what I think you will do as you go out into the world from this place with all of the greatness that is personified by it and the education you have attained. The credentialling that you carry by virtue of the fact that you have its label, you have its degree and you will go into a world now where change is constantly occurring.

I would like to speak from the topic proving your greatness and use for this from the 17th chapter of Joshua the 14th and 15th verses. In it there are people who stand before Joshua who have led his people into the promised land and as they stand before him, they come with a complaint. And they come before him with that complaint saying unto him why hath thou given me but one line or one portion of inheritance seeing that I am a great people, for as much as the lord has blessed me hither to. And Joshua answered them If thou be a great people then get thee up to wood country, cut down for thyself the land of the parasites and the giants if Mount Epham be too narrow for thee. In this text one of the things that we realize is that often times we make decisions about our lives. Those things that will guide us and direct us built upon perceptions and assumptions of a particular time frame.

Many of us who are standing here today can testify that what we thought when we entered into our college years was different at the time of our graduation. The way the world was in the time of our entry was different in the time that we came out. All of us have learned how to live with paradigm shifts and often times our inability to make the natural adjustments and change perceptions to deal with the reality of the world as it is, as opposed to the way it was causes us to lose a bit of our faith, a sense of direction and purpose we lose our focus we are challenged to such a degree that we dare to believe that perhaps these have been wasted years. That the time that we have come into this arena, things have happened so rapidly that we are not prepared to make the change. May I say to you today that change is a part of life and we make decisions about how we deal with those changes. We either deal with those changes in reactive ways or we deal with them by being proactive. We think about what we want to be, what we want to do. We think about greatness as merely having received the necessary tools, the equipment, the degree, that says we have received a body of knowledge and now have the capability to go to the world and to communicate it.

And yet in a changing world where the paradigm is shifted, to whom are we communicating? No longer are we able to go into the environments where we thought we'd be functioning. The professions that we thought showed so much promise for us, now we see that those professions have changed. We thought we'd be going to the internet e-commerce community only to see now that because of paradigm shifts that world is turned upside down.

The opportunities that were available four years ago are no longer available for us now. How do we handle it? Do we handle it by understanding by faith, we do have the capability to overcome because not only did we get a degree, that symbolizes mere knowledge in a particular field, it also symbolizes that we have a body of knowledge and a capability and skill for the necessary adjustments to be able to function in a world that is ever-changing. Let me suggest to you this is not the first adjustment that you will have to make. By the time you reach that place at the half century mark as I have done, you will discover that there are many changes you will have made. Even your parents whom you believe you need not hear from any longer with their advice, if you would but listen, they will but testify that they have had to make perceptual changes to deal with the reality of those paradigm shifts that have taken place in their life. They did not expect many of the changes that have occurred during your four years here and yet they knew that if they were to prove their greatness, change and adjustment to them is an ineffable requirement for all the rest.

Greatness then is not measured exclusively by he degree that you have, it is really a piece of paper, it does suggest that you have a body of knowledge to sell to the world, the one thing you must understand is that you cannot be so locked in the box that you cannot deal with the reality of change. And a part of that change means coming out, adjusting to a new world, a new world that according to the most recently released census data indicates to us that at last we will finally get behind us or at least hopefully so, this notion of race and class and distinctions of people because if the census data is correct and I dare to believe that it is, we will be living in a world where there is no pronounced majority. All of us will be the majority. There is no minority and I have never accepted that nomenclature in the first place. All of us will have to learn how to live with each other to determine ways by which we will express our unity to each other not based upon our differences but dealing with the reality that there is so much that we share in common.

No longer are we looking at each other merely from racialized terms but dealing with each other dealing from a reality that we are one, we are one America, we are one people, we are a people who have common pursuits common goals and common directions and as we move into this future the greatness, our greatness will ultimately be determined by willingness to learn how to live with each other, to respect each other in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, "to view each other from the content of our character". It is time for that change, it is time for us to stop exploiting freely abroad a democracy that oftentimes is viewed in hypocritical terms by those who are part of the very society that we declare is the greatest nation in the world. Not only by our verbal declarations but by that by which defines us as a great nation to which others look.

Our challenge becomes one of moving towards principle-centered paradigms, principal-centered paradigms that don't change because of conditions but understand that with principal-centered paradigms we stand on a ground of faith and although things around us shift we do not shift, we stand out because we have determined that we can be great. We can be greater than we are, we can be a greater people, we can be a greater nation. The day has come when we must cease from trying to place impediments in the face of those who tried to stand up in a world that is often times cruel to people because of the limitations of their background, the limitations of their environmental circumstances, the limitations of what we consider to be their genetics. Our reality must be one where we learn how to lift people up, regardless of the places where they are. As I listen to people discuss who can succeed in America and who ought to fail I'm often times amazed, I am amazed because I am the product of 5th and 6th grade educated parents, I am the product of parents who gave birth to 13 children, who slept in two bedrooms, in a two-bedroom house. Rolling roll away beds out into the living room and the kitchen. Every time I had an opportunity to stand as dean of the students or dean of the chapel at Boston University or to stand in the House of Congress, I asked myself the question, "What would I be if I had listened to what other people said I could not be, if I had accepted that as a notion of what my life would be about?"

Our challenge becomes to prove our greatness. Proving our greatness means facing the challenges. Understanding that they are there. No one has made the road easy for you, but the challenges are there to help to build a kind of character that allows you to build for a future that is greater than your past. To build upon the legacy that you have received from those who have gone before you and a great institution like the University of Pennsylvania so imbedded in the principles of freedom and independence that is so much a part of the culture of this society. My prayer is that you have learned enough to be able to go out into the world and make the necessary adjustments.

A group of people stood before Joshua, said unto Joshua we have a serious problem. We can't understand why you would give us less than you have given other people. One of the great challenges that I have faced as pastor of Allen Church is I have looked at the community of which I am a part, a middle class community that in the early 1980s were in decline. In decline because people did not see the opportunities available to them. They saw the greatness of a community that did exist before they moved there immediately following white flight. They made a determination that their best hope was to leave that community and go to the suburbs. My challenge to them is not to move to the suburbs but let's make the suburbs a part of the community where you live. Let's make it an environment where people are comfortable not only in living, but also if they have already left coming to back to. That challenge brought us to the place where we understood the necessity of building homes, the necessity of buying up boarded-up properties, the necessity of building our own school. The necessity of redefining for people their sense of self. Giving them the understanding that if you have knowledge, if you have faith, if you have a focus, it is possible for you to turn your situation around. It is not necessary to run from it, but rather to run to it with an optimistic view that somehow within you there is the power to bring about change rather than waiting for the government to do it. My challenge was lets do it ourselves. The people have responded. And they now believe that they live in the promised land. And they believe so much so that they continue to make necessary investments in it. So these people stood before Joshua and said to him, "you don't know who we are we are a great people. We are the sons and daughters of Joseph; our ancestors include Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If you understood who we were you would have given us more than you gave the others. Their square footage is more than ours, the ample land that you have given to them offers greater opportunities than ours. They need but go and break up the barren land they need but plant in the fallow places and they will be able to produce crops. But the land that you gave to us is a woody place, it is a mountainous region and we don't understand how we will be able to do anything with that. You could of at least given us a land similar to everybody else's. You could have given us a place that was not already inherited by the giants." Oftentimes in life we are faced with the challenges to having to work our way through the woods. To climb the high mountains, to come to the place where we face the giants. The question becomes how do we manage it. Do we manage it by merely reacting or do we find ourselves looking for ways to make opportunities where no opportunities seem to exist. The great challenge that you will face as young people is that there will be many mountains, there will be many wooded regions, there will be many places where you will wonder if you have the power to overcome the giant. But your degree signifies the level of greatness. Your challenge now is to go out and to prove it. So Joshua said to them, "You said you were great. If you are really great, your responsibility is to take those woods and make something of them. It is to take those woods and by my interpretation it means take those trees, use them use that lumber build yourselves some homes, build yourself a strong community and with what is left, take it and go and look at your land. Your land has in it three rivers and in those rivers you will be able to export the remainder of your products so that you will be able to sustain yourself. Go back and hue those mountains, bring them down and if you're scriptural and believe in the dynamics of faith, move those mountains. And as those mountains move, you will find that you have the strength to be able to overcome whatever impediments there are in the land that you occupy. Your land may not look as great as someone else's but your land can be a great place. It can be the home of your people, it can be the legacy for your future and so you as members of the Class of 2001 get ready for the great challenge that is yours. The paradigm has shifted and it is shifting everyday. Between now and the time you take your first job it can shift even more. But the question becomes for you, are you ready for this great challenge.

This great challenge will not be met by merely racializing, politicizing, and personalizing every issue. It's time to rise beyond the level of those things that separate us and come to an understanding of what brings us together. And coming together means that we must become more accountable, we must move beyond our discouragments, our disappointments. We must stop merely complaining about what we don't have and begin to look at the opportunities that are available to us. Look at ourselves in relationship to those who do not have and then challenge ourselves to be more responsive to their needs. When we do that, we will have the kind of nation, we will have the kind of people, who will be able to stand on their ground of faith not merely declaring it another Martin Luther King celebration 'We Shall Overcome' not merely having a few brotherhood Sundays where we come together across racial lines. Not merely talking about opportunities that aren't being made available to women and allowing the gender gap to continue to exist. Not merely talking about the necessity of trying to break a glass ceiling, but rather we will join hands together and we will join not based upon who is beside us but understanding that whoever is beside us is our brother and whoever is beside us is our sister and no longer will the refrain be "we shall overcome" but it will be that we have overcome. We will indeed demonstrate tot the rest of the world that we are a great people. So to the Class of 2001 go out to the barren places, go the mountainous regions, go to the places where the giants already inhabit and conquer and when you have conquered stand up on the strength of a faith that says that my faith, my focus, is so in order I am so in tune with the reality of who I am and who I intend to be, that there is no force in the world that can keep me from becoming greater. If the barriers are there I can overcome them, I can go around them, I can go through them, I can go under them, but by God, I am determined to prove my greatness. God bless you and may the Lord be with you.



Proving Your Greatness by Rev. Dr. Floyd H. Flake

Building a Better World by Dr. Judith Rodin


Confronting Challenges by Sen. John McCain

Pursuing Interesting Ideas by Dr. David B. Hackney


All photos by Stuart Watson

All photos by Stuart Watson

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 35, May 29, 2001