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Fall Convocation Address at Candler School of Theology at Emory University

11:00 AM on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011

Good morning.

I will tell you all when I got out of the car, it just felt terrific. There is something about walking on a university campus that just lifts you up. And as someone who runs the city every day, it’s just so nice to be lifted up. So I want to thank Emory for giving me this respite, and that’s exactly what it feels like. You know, the dean brought up a memory that I had tried to put away, but I think that today is an appropriate place to remind God how thankful I am to Him.

When I was running for Mayor about the only thing that I had time do would be to jog occasionally. You know you are basically being treated like a farm animal of some kind when you are running for mayor because they have a schedule that runs about 15 hours a day, and you can’t really break that schedule at all because you are working so hard for every single vote and it was very clear that I needed it.

So I won by 714 votes and I used to pray to God. I would pray to God. Certainly when I ran, I would meditate on God. And I would say, God, if I am worthy please allow me to win this office. Please allow me. God, I don’t mind if it is just by one vote.

So while I was in my hotel room… and I will tell you after you spent ... well, you all are spending years of your life working on theology and becoming distinguished theologians. But when you are up in the hotel waiting for the election results to come in and you have spent several million dollars, and you’ve sat in rooms for hours at a time calling strangers and just asking them for money, I will tell you when you are in a vote that is changing up and down, it can do something to your insides.

And so finally while I was sitting in my hotel room, a dear friend of mine walked in and whispered in my ear that you’ve won. You’re the new mayor of Atlanta and I remember looking up to God and I said, “God, I didn’t mind if I won by one vote, I didn’t mean for you to take me literally.”
So that was really my first moment.

It is such a pleasure to be with the students, faculty and staff of the Candler School of Theology as you begin another semester here. I hope that you feel renewed as you start. I really wouldn’t be anywhere else this morning.

I want you to know how excited I was when I got the invitation because as I said as a politician when you are running for office ... and you will experience it when you have churches… you know, elected officials come to your churches and I know you get tired of us. But we come to your church, we’ve never been there before and then we come in and we give you a sheet of paper and we ask you to recognize us and allow us to stand.

But when I got the invitation to come to Emory today, it said please come and speak 10 to 12 minutes. And I felt like I have a moment to get revenge for all of the elected officials who have never been able to tell a pastor to speak for 10 or 12 minutes. Yes! I’m speaking for 40 minutes. Yes! I was up late writing, putting it all in!

Thank you, Dean Love, for asking me to be here to speak, and it is great to see you again. We actually first met at the North Georgia Methodist Conference. So I am gratified that we get to continue the conversation that we started there.

I would also like to acknowledge Provost Lewis, Dean Peterson and Vice President Newton. Emory University stands as one of the gems of higher education, research and technology not only for Atlanta but for our country and the world. In my judgment, it is a national treasure and I believe that because of the work you are doing here, soon it will be an international treasure.

So thank you for having me.


Soon after I received Dean Love’s invitation to speak to you as a part of your fall convocation, I saw that during my research and reading … and I came across the motto of the Candler School of Theology. It said: “Preparing real people to make a real difference in the real world.”
That struck a chord in my heart.

I paused after I first read it. I could not help but think about Jesus as he selected the men who would become the Twelve Apostles. Jesus, in his search for disciples, could have easily picked from among the most respected in Israel, the most respected in the land. He could have easily made the easy decision and picked folks that others knew. He could have selected members of the clergy, of course those already considered to be closest to God. Those already focused on God.

He passed on all of them.

Instead, he chose several fishermen, a political activist, a tax collector. Some were rich, some were poor. Some were common, but most were uncommon.

Jesus took this motley group of disciples and together, they spread the Word of God across Israel, of course and throughout the world, and as you know he changed the course of human history.

All of you within the Candler community recognize Jesus’ grand purpose of gathering his first followers from across the spectrum of class and social standing. You recognize, of course, as he did, that we are not all of the same stripes. We come from a wide range of ethnic origins, national backgrounds, sexual orientations and even theological perspectives.

Right here at Candler, it is my understanding that the students here represent nearly 45 different denominations and at least 18 countries from around the world. You all have a breadth of interests that include business, law and public health as well as theology. Some of you are interested in the Methodist tradition; others focus on the Baptist tradition or Anglican studies.

And yet, each and every one of you are here because you understand the core of Christian holiness, as explained by John Wesley: To love God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

In founding the Methodist Church, Wesley stressed the importance of experience in religion along with moral responsibility.

You know, too often today we engage, I believe, in our spiritual quest, you know we spend a little too much time on just the words.

Now it is one thing to read and study the Bible. That’s vital. It’s important.

But I believe what is required of us today is to do more and back up the words with action. Every quote that means something to our heart, we need to find a way to bring it to life.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 3:20, he writes: “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”

That really is all of our responsibility.

To do that … to allow God to pump through our veins and muscles and tendons and help us put his Good Words to work … requires sweat, tears and sometimes it even requires a drop of blood or two. At the very least, it requires getting your hands a bit dirty.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about today.

After all, when God took clay and made Adam… he, of course, got his hands dirty.

And when Jesus walked among the “great unwashed” and, of course, being a carpenter… he got his hands a little dirty.

When John Wesley in the 1730s visited Georgia and its infamous red clay and secured the vision of what would become the Methodist movement…he got his hands dirty.

The point I am making is that it was hard.
And while all of these individuals were certainly gifted in intellect, in mind, body and spirit, we have to do the other part, which is get our hands dirty and actually bring real change to people’s lives.

You already know that because of your training here in theology here at Candler. Your training requires you to go into the world and see and hear and touch all of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be a Christian in relationship to the world around you today. It requires you to read God’s Word, understand God’s Word and then put it in motion.

But, Candler, it is time for you to put your lessons more into action. And I am here to ask for you to do more.

It is vital that thoughtful, serious people, even Presidential Award winners, continue to work harder because I believe that our country, frankly, is in a very tough perilous place that needs people of faith more than ever.

All too often when I turn on the television or listen to the radio or pick up the newspaper or sit in meetings, I do not believe that people of faith are being heard enough. I do not see or read about what I know about God or Jesus or about being a Christian from the perspective that I understand that God comes from. I hear a lot of noise – loud noise, shrill noise – and more often than not it conveys only one short-sighted notion of God. The noise drowns out those who recognize a bigger and more inclusive version of God.

I think this is an appropriate place to have a conversation about that because as someone who is in the elected space I know that you all are needed. And I want to be clear, I am not asking for you to get involved in the thrust and throw of politics. But what I am asking you is for you to be a referee. Because you all have spent more time than anyone else studying and being focused on God and on Christ and on Christian works and principles.

So as you watch the big debates that are going to be going on in the City of Atlanta or the big debates that are going to be occurring at the national level, I want you to get your hands dirty, and I want you to get in it.

I’m not asking for you to agree with me or to take my side. But what I am asking is, in addition to the responsibilities that you have for saving souls for being a caretaker of the spirits of men and women, that you raise your hand when people like me and others start conveying a message about what and who God is and what Jesus would do regardless of party.

And even if you have a conservative view of the political spectrum, have a voice that is thoughtful, polite, sincere and sensitive. Even if it agrees with me completely, it is what is needed right now.

You know, I say this because I think that it is vital. We are in a place right now that all of us are going to be needed to power our way out of. Now this is what I believe. And I said it maybe a year ago when I was speaking on Martin Luther King Day. I believe that right now Christianity happens to be cool and happens to be the path that powers us out of the extraordinarily difficult times that we are in right now.

Now is a moment for shared responsibility no matter who you are. And if you look at the problems that are facing the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia or the United States of America, we’re most successful when we work together.

Now I have received a lot of credit and I can tell you from being on WALK the other day, a lot of criticism, for working with the Republican governor of the state of Georgia.

But what I have said is, I work with people on the other side of the aisle on the big issues that face us because you would be a fool not to.

So when I am trying to figure out how to get people out of traffic so they can be home with their families and share a meal, which builds a sense of community which gives you more time in your home… I should not work with Nathan Deal because he’s a Republican.

When I fly to Savannah Georgia and they wonder what in the world am I doing in Savannah and why is somebody named Kapheem from Atlanta down in Savannah talking about the port.

Yeah, they call me Kapheem.

Because if you really believe in the notion of tearing down the wall between Atlanta and the rest of the state. If you really believe in your heart that two Georgias overall is bad for everybody. Having Atlanta over here and having Savannah and everybody else over here, you really have to do what I’ve been talking about, which is put your actions where your words is… which is why I have been working so hard to help the Savannah port get funded.

Because that helps people in that community have jobs so that they can help their families and as a byproduct all of the commerce that will come through the port of Savannah and move through the city of Atlanta after the deepening of the Panama Canal in 2014 benefits us all.

Now it might not sound like I’m not talking about God and Christ but I happen to believe that I am. You see, I happen to believe that when you focus on making sure that whatever happens on the political debate in Washington D.C. that you do invest more in children so that they can have dental care and eye care and really a fair start in life, that’s a conversation about Christ.

But guess what? In my mind, because of the success of the United States as I said before because of the success of the United States it has been OK for affluent people – and notice that I didn’t say black people or white people – I said affluent people to allow a large cadre of individuals in rural areas and in urban areas and in Latino areas and in Asian areas and in all of the rest to really go underserved and untrained for large swathes of time. And to be keenly aware of about 45 million individuals who are part of our population who we don’t even talk about anymore.

Both Democrats, independents and Republicans have washed away the conversation about poor people. We don’t even put it in our talking points. But guess what? Now the overall success of the United States of America is being damaged by the fact that we have jobs that we don’t have people who are talented enough to take.

And if you look at the unemployment rate right now in the United States of America at 9.2 percent. If you actually had people trained for the jobs that are open that we don’t have enough people to fill because of their skill sets, the unemployment rate would be somewhere between 6 percent and 7 percent.

We have large swaths of job openings where we don’t have the skill sets, and we won’t adjust our immigration policies to allow people from other parts of the world to move in and take those highly skilled jobs.

It might sound like a political conversation, but I believe Christ is in it.

Because what Christ would have wanted us to do all along is to make sure that every human has an equal opportunity for the best life that they can possibly have with the best training and the best health care and all of the rest, just so they can have an equal opportunity NOT a guarantee of an equal outcome.

Now I happen to believe the United States of America would be the beneficiary of that because the resources that we are spending on retraining individuals who are not prepared when they show up to Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, the jobs that we have are affecting the business model that is the United States of America.

And your voice needs to be in it. Not to say that Mayor Reed is right. Not to say that this elected official is wrong.

But I do believe that the clergy has a right to say, you will have a discussion in an orderly fashion that will not rip this community apart.

And the other point that I will ask that you incorporate into everything that you do, both at Candler and when you leave if you have a church or if you go into academia. Really is to keep children and young people at the center of whatever you do. Because I stand here as the 59th Mayor of the City of Atlanta because my grandfather Esau Anderson, who was a Methodist minister who also worked at a dry cleaners so that he could preach the circuit in Calpens, SC. Who had his daughter, Sylvia Reed, who is my mother singing in his choir whether she wanted to or not which allowed her to get a scholarship to Claflin College, a vocal scholarship, where she met my father. Which allowed me to come to the City of Atlanta as a baby and live the life that I have dreamed about.

My grandmother, Smiley Anderson, was a domestic in Spartanburg, SC, and in the summers my family used to send me to Spartanburg and Calpens and because I was from Atlanta, we just thought we were hot to trot.

When the little Reed boys showed up, the people from Spartanburg, we just thought we were it.

But I used to watch my grandmother get up and walk a good distance. I don’t want to make up the miles but it was far enough to see her walk off into the early morning and disappear. And then she went into Spartanburg and cleaned folk’s houses.

And in those summers, when we used to be ready for bed she made everybody go to bed at 9 o’clock whether you were ready to or not. She would pray. And she would get all of my brothers and cousins around her bed and she would pray and she would make us hold hands.

Now back then, I’m telling you floors were made from a different kind of wood.

And me and my brother Tracy who was about four years older than me and didn’t like me until I was like 20 used to hold hands and my grandmother would pray … for everybody. She would pray for her sisters and her brothers and her mother and her father, who had passed. And she would pray for all of the cousins and name them by name.

And we would be holding hands and your knees would just be torn apart and when she would say, “Amen.” Everybody went: “AMEN… AMEN.”

But I would share with you the first time I ever spoke in public was at a church in Calpens. The second time I ever spoke in public was because Cornelius Linton Henderson, a former Bishop in the United Methodist Church, who baptized me, put me in a pulpit at seven years old and had me do the children’s sermon and something clicked in me.

The point that I am making is this: Always remember that our children and young people are a message to the future for a time that we may never see and for places that we may never go.

And we need you, who really do represent, I believe, the best of our core, to make sure that children are at the center of the conversation because I stand here today knowing… KNOWING… that when I got sworn in as the 59th Mayor of the City of Atlanta, the grandson of a domestic, a mom just one generation out of pretty tough circumstances, I know that my grandmother’s prayers from that floor were prayers for that day.

They were generational prayers which go into the future to change the outcome.

So sometimes you have moments in life that you need just as much as the folks who are talking to hear from you. This was a moment for me. Because as mayor of the city, we do so many things that are hard. So many things that are tough. That we need to be inspired.

And I am thankful for Candler because this great school of theology prepares you for that very role. And I challenge each and every one of you to take your studies and Good Works to another level. To be engaged and by all means to get your hands dirty.


Last updated: 3/28/2012 8:59:43 AM