A few weeks ago Mercy Housing’s CEO Sister Lillian Murphy, RSM was honored at the graduation ceremony for Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois. At the ceremony, she was asked to give the baccalaureate address. Here is the full speech that she shared with the graduating seniors.
Cardinal George, Sisters of Mercy, President Wiseman, faculty and staff, families and friends and most of all Graduates!
I thank you for the honor you have bestowed on me today and I thank the many people who have formed me and supported me in my life choice and in my professional careers, both in health care and now in housing, my family, my friends, my community and my professional colleagues.
These individuals are incredibly talented, committed and generous and it has been a privilege to serve with them. While I acknowledge and appreciate that each of us makes a unique contribution to efforts we are involved in, I truly believe it is the sum of everyone’s contributions to an effort that makes for success in life, in community and in organizations.
When I started to think about what I wanted to say to you today I asked a friend for advice and since she is very practical she said “have a strong opening and a terrific ending and keep the two as close together as possible” So I will try to follow that advice!
So Graduates, This is your day, Congratulations on achieving your degrees! I am sure there were times when you wondered if you would ever get to this day and I’m sure your families had some anxious hours along the way as well. But you’ve made it and you are rightly proud of your accomplishments. Congratulations parents I am sure you are very proud and relieved as you watch your child accept the degree and dream and pray about what the future may hold for them. Congratulations faculty and staff, I am sure you are proud that this day has come! There is no greater satisfaction for a teacher than to see their students succeed.
St. Xavier University has a long tradition of excellence in education and service that has been built over the years and you, Graduates, have a responsibility to carry on that tradition of service. The world that you will be immersed in is desperately in need of leaders who think critically: who believe in respectful dialogue: who search for truth and justice. Leaders who communicate effectively your belief in the inherent dignity of every person and your willingness to acknowledge and work for the common good.
Leaders who believe that every person is entitled to a quality education, basic health care, affordable housing, meaningful work and adequate compensation for their labor.
It is not news to all of you that we live in a very fractured world. In the US today over 46 million people (including 16 mil children) live in poverty; 49 mil Americans (including 16.5 mill children) struggle to put food on the table; the gap between wages and the cost of living has been widening for years; the supply of affordable housing for low income people is totally inadequate to meet the ever rising need; the cost of food, health care, transportation, education continues to grow while wages are stagnant or worse, declining. In 2010 alone, the percentage change in average income among the 24 million poorest families in the US was minus 10%. And, over the last 10 years government resources for programs that assist these families have been drastically cut.
In the face of the very real challenges we grapple with today, we cannot become discouraged. On the contrary, I think we need to be bold! We cannot let the voices of greed, fear and hate dominate local, state and national discussions when so much is at stake for so many people who need our help now! Most people don’t choose to be poor. Millions of people struggle each and every day to make ends meet in today’s economy, in spite of working very hard. I believe the major economic issue of today that needs to be addressed is the widening income disparity in this country. We need to create an urgency and the social and political will to address the short and long term implications of policies that continue to widen this divide between the rich and the poor. We need to continue to be strong advocates with, and for, those seeking social and economic justice. For as long as there is one among us who is deprived of the basic necessities of life we are all diminished.
For the past 27 years I have had the privilege of being the CEO of Mercy Housing, a national not for profit community development organization dedicated to serving those in need of quality, affordable homes. Mercy Housing was founded in 1981 in Omaha Nebraska. A Sister, who was a legal aid attorney, working with people who were being evicted from their sub standard apartment homes was the spark. After walking through a couple of the buildings she said to herself, “We can do better than this! and she asked the Mercy Community to establish a new organization to tackle this problem. The Community agreed and allocated $500,000 to launch Mercy Housing.
From the beginning the Sisters took the long view; they wanted a concrete, organized response to their concerns for housing justice for persons who are economically poor and they were willing to put their financial resources behind it. In the 30+ years that Mercy Housing has been in existence we have been a part of creating almost 46,000 homes in 43 states and 203 cities. We currently own and manage over 17,500 apartment homes serving over 31,000 individuals, families, seniors, veterans and people with special needs. This successful growth is a tribute to the 1300 competent, committed and compassionate staff working across the country to create a more humane world where poverty is alleviated, communities are healthy and all people have the opportunity to develop their potential. And all of this has been possible because one person said “We can do better than this!”
So, Graduates, do not underestimate your power as an individual to influence critical societal concerns. Someone sent me a quote that said “If you think you are too small to make a difference you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito!” I encourage you to be the spark; be bold and say “We can do better than this!”
I’d like to say something about the role that Women’s religious communities have played in the development of major social institutions in this country and the questions they are asking themselves about the legacy they hope to leave.
In the past, Women’s religious communities, like the Sisters of Mercy, founded major health care, educational and social service institutions because they believe that institutions can be a powerful force for good in the struggle for social and economic justice. St. Xavier and Mercy Housing are both examples of such institutions.
Today the Sisters are facing a new reality. We are fewer in number but more vibrant than ever before// in large part because of the amazing people who have joined us in ministry, people like yourselves who believe in the Mission and Core Values of St. Xavier University and Mercy Housing. People who demonstrate, day in and day out, that competent people can also be compassionate. You give your best every day because you know you are doing important work that enriches others’ lives.
Today, the Sisters have fewer financial resources than we did in the past. We are looking at our institutional ministries and thinking about the legacy we want to leave. How do we pass on the spirit that believes anything is possible if we are doing God’s work. How do we continue to operate in a corporate world that, in large part, does not follow the principles outlined in “Economic Justice for All”, the Pastoral Letter issued by the US Conference of Bishops in November 1968? In that publication we are reminded that “the pursuit of economic justice is not an option or add-on for Catholics; it is part of who we are and what we believe.” And “the call to economic justice is not a political preference or ideological choice, but a response to the scriptures and a requirement of Catholic social teaching.” Many of you sitting here today have picked up the torch that the Sisters of Mercy lit in 1864 when they founded St. Xavier University and in 1981 when they founded Mercy Housing. You are the future of our ministries and I believe the founding spirit is alive and well in each of you. This is a sacred call and an awesome entrustment, cherish it and tend it well.
It has been an incredible privilege it is to be a member of a community of women religious who commit their lives and resources to serving those living on the economic margins of our society. To be in the company of these women who have dedicated their lives to God and the service of the people of God is truly an honor. To live among them is to experience the depth and intensity of their passion for service and their creativity and skill in finding multiple ways to overcome obstacles to that service.
So graduates, you have a lot to think about. Those of us who are coming to the end of our careers are counting on you to continue the work started by the Sisters and I have great confidence that you are up to the task. Just keep thinking about that mosquito! No matter what profession you have chosen I urge you to participate in the faith, social and political life of your communities. Stay curious, ask questions, challenge assumptions, be part of the solutions, work for the common good.
I would like to end my remarks with a blessing for all of you gathered here today to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduates. I discovered this blessing years ago and use it often because I believe it calls us to be our best selves in the service of our brothers and sisters in need. So my blessing for you is:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deep in your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so you will reach out your hand to comfort them and change their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so you will do the things which others say cannot be done.