His Almost Chosen People
Editor’s note: What follows is the speech Richard H. Hart, MD, DrPH, chancellor of Loma Linda University, gave during convocation chapel on Wednesday, October 18, 2006.
It was the second inauguration for a president who had not yet achieved greatness. He was bogged down in the midst of an unpopular war that had nearly destroyed his country. In his acceptance speech he pledged, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this his almost chosen people.”
Only a few months before he had stood in a bloody Pennsylvania field and intoned those more famous words, “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Looking back nearly 100 years, Lincoln alluded to the origins of this great country and sought to draw the nation back to what he believed were its holy roots, its divine commission.
Without appearing arrogant or overstating our case, permit me today to draw a loose parallel between the words of Lincoln, describing the destiny of the United States in 1865, with that of Loma Linda University. We also claim to have a divine origin, to have been selected by God 100 years ago to play a unique role on this earth. We talk freely of a new order, of core values centered in justice and freedom, in humility and purity, of embodying compassion, excellence and integrity. We are so bold as to talk of a global mission, to receive students from and send our faculty and alumni to every corner of this earth. We even look inward, seeking to bring wholeness of the spirit, to restore relationships, and to heal the broken-hearted.
But is it possible that we have also stalled, that we no longer qualify, that we are God’s almost chosen people? Have we misinterpreted our heavenly mandate, or grown beyond the simplicity of our commission? Have we lost our right to claim His ordination, to be the peculiar object of His love and affection? Or are our greatest moments yet ahead, a time when we truly fulfill our divine destiny?
Both our educational and health ministries arms of Loma Linda have worked hard for this day, poised on the edge of growth, innovation, and globalization. But while our programs and services expand, our meaning and commitment must deepen. While our research grows and broadens, our understanding of ourselves and the world must reach new levels. We must learn that occasional magnanimous responses to tsunami and hurricane victims can never replace a daily connection with human need—next door or in the next continent. In the words of Carl F. H. Henry, “we must have our hearts broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Our story cannot be a new Centennial Complex or Children’s Hospital, but must be a growth in our values and understandings.
Several weeks ago, while standing in line at the airport in Lilongwe, Malawi, I was lost in my own thoughts and concerns. Looking up, I saw a long line of mothers and children enter, uncertain in their newly donated clothes and awed by everything around them. When I had a chance, I asked the young lady with them, Who are they and where are they going? Refugees, she replied, from Congo and Burundi primarily, heading out to new homes in Norway and Sweden. My mind went back some 15 years earlier, when I had seen other refugees in Malawi, this time from the civil war in Mozambique. The statistics keep shouting at every one of us who cares; we have more refugees today, people forced from their homes and without adequate food and shelter, than ever before in this earth’s history. We have one-sixth of the world’s population, more than 1 billion people, in extreme poverty. They live in a world where one misstep, one break in the thin thread of subsistence, can mean death. I watched that small group of pilgrims, at once both scared and hopeful, all their belongings held tightly, with their UN identification cards hanging around their necks, ready to leave the old for a chance at the new.
It is this exposure and connecting that can continually bring us back to the realities of our world. This is why we go north to Norton and south to Nicaragua, west to Los Angeles and east to Lilongwe. It forces us to step outside our comfort zones, to experience the pain and growth that comes from confronting another’s reality and needs. And somehow, being there, wherever there is, makes it a bit easier to drop our guard and wonder, ask, and begin to understand.
But we must also recognize that being here, in our own classes, cars, and clothes, also offers opportunities for understanding and self-reflection. For the strange world within each of us is also fertile ground for both pain and growth, where each of us can assist another to move from the old to the new. I am particularly concerned about how easy it is for us as humans to see everybody else’s behavior through our own prism, interpreting their actions by our lexicon, judging their motives by our own. Within Loma Linda’s own family of faculty, staff, and students we jostle and compete, gossip and exchange, but how well do we truly understand and comfort?
We have taken on the noble aim of moving from a teaching to a learning environment at this University. We have concentrated on that goal by speaking of mission-focused learning, our decided objective of the next few years. But the strategies for accomplishing this remain uncharted. How do we learn compassion or humility? How do we match the idealism and energy of our students with the values we have espoused? Can we intentionally create teachable moments that provide eureka pauses in each of our learning experiences?
Loma Linda University has also positioned itself, both through destiny and deliberation, at a very unique crossroads of modern society, that of science and faith. We fully espouse both, believing in an almost solitary fashion that in their purest form, they are indeed fully compatible. This makes us singularly unusual in the roster of academic health science centers in this country. It also gives us an unprecedented opportunity to work at an interface that is both challenging and exciting. The western world primarily follows after the god of science, or perhaps more correctly, scientism. Along with this belief in the primacy of the scientific method, many have made a fundamental mistake in believing that the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence. It is our challenge to participate in pushing the boundaries of science while also recognizing its limits. For we have another set of realities that equally define and guide us.
This faith of ours is fundamental to understanding the modern world and providing us a road map through its quagmire of issues. It defines who we are, gives focus to our wanderings, and can capture our commitment at the deepest level. We are capable of heroism and great endurance when we believe we are part of something greater than ourselves. And the most compelling partner for life’s journey is God Himself, defined through a relationship guided by careful thought and reflection. His presence can focus all aspects of life and decision making.
It was the great Indian liberator, Gandhi, who said that people who think that politics has nothing to do with religion understand neither politics nor religion. At our crossroad of faith and science we can and should comfortably participate in all discussions and decisions about the world’s future. We must not be hesitant or afraid to put forward our unique understanding and position. Guided by our values of integrity, justice, and humility, we can speak with boldness to the world’s issues and needs. Our blend of faith and science can reach across many boundaries that have become impenetrable barriers to others in our world today. Our own campus laboratory of cultures and diversity can well prepare us for confronting the issues around this globe.
As this new year begins, may it be a year of growth and understanding, of reflection and expansion. May we seize each moment, wonder at each difference, and capture each opportunity to share and comfort. May we be protected from our biases and sheltered from our perceived limitations of time and space. May each of us contribute and grow in this magnificent learning environment we call Loma Linda. And then, His Almost Chosen People can march with confidence into the future.