Despair ruins more lives and organizations than obstacles do. Obstacles, however difficult, can be overcome as has been shown by many heroes over time. Despair cannot be overcome as it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. [more]
We graduated 10 people from our new ministry center's first class the other night. It's a certification program we conduct in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood of Cleveland.
It takes 12 weeks, four hours a day of unpaid time to learn a trade that we can only hope gains them employment in the janitorial field.
For several, this was the first graduation of any kind in their lives.
And I've never felt so much love in one room.
Every one of them was dressed to the nines and could hardly stop smiling all night.
Obviously all of them were unemployed, some recently by this deep recession we are in - others more chronically.
Three are challenged for employment by the felony convictions on their records.
Milling around before the ceremony, I ran into a nicely dressed man in the audience and asked him if he was a family member of a graduate. He said, no, he was going to be in our next class, which starts this week.
"Oh, cool," I said, "where do you live?"
He put his head down and answered, "at the City Mission for now".
(Right, that's one of our city's homeless shelters.)
Here was the irony to me.
Our director had chosen me as the commencement speaker.
Me, who'd had every advantage anyone could ever have - highly educated parents, a safe home with nine loving (ok, most of the time) brothers and sisters and a launching pad for my own education.
I never was forced to look despair in the eye quite as closely as these folks have.
So, I was humbled.
Sure some of their wounds are self inflicted. But would I have wounded myself more deeply if I'd have been beaten or abandoned, there'd been drugs in my house and on my street, guns seen on my way to school?
When I visited the class earlier last month, I'd heard many of their stories and realized that each of them has intelligence and work ethic and ambitions and emotions quite similar to mine.
And so as I rose to speak, I decided they were not in fact any different than me. They'd just been born in a different place and travelled a different road to where we were that night.
And that enabled me to speak the truth. I told them:
"I admire each of you because you are showing me, and more importantly yourself, that you won't give up.
My life is just like your life and everyone else's in this room and on this planet because it is filled with challenges and pain.
And what you've taught me, which is why I admire you, is that I must remember that my enemy is not city hall..my enemy is not the court system..my enemy is not my spouse or family, my customers or whoever is 'getting in my way' that day or that moment.
My enemy is despair.
Despair, that I might give up hope in life....and in myself.
Because all I've got is me.
Since all of us are human, we make mistakes - lots of them. But the greatest mistake we can make is to think that one is final.
They never are.
So thanks for the inspiration and I'll leave you with one more thought.
The speaker at my graduation 34 years ago said that the word 'commencement' actually means 'beginning'. And while you've 'ended' a tough curriculum, you are just beginning the harder part - finding work that will take care of your family and fulfill you.
Your teachers and our ministry center cannot provide a job. We can't fix any problems you have, any more than you can fix mine.
But every one of us here tonight can and will offer you one thing.
That is, no matter how things turn out, now that you've begun, we will walk with you on your journey.