Photo by Frank Ward
“A Thing with Feathers”
2005 Baccalaureate Address
May 21, 2005
Rev. Earl Kooperkamp
Let me first extend my thanks to President Anthony Marx and Amherst College for the invitation to speak here this morning and my great thanks to Dr. Paul Sorrentino and his colleagues for their great hospitality. Also, thank you to Ali Hassan for that wonderful introduction, which destroyed whatever slight credibility I might have, and finally, thanks to all of you, the Class of 2005, for allowing me to be here with you this morning.
I first set foot on the Amherst campus 30 years ago this coming September, but it was not an experience that filled me with much hope. It was a warm September evening, and I’d taken the bus up from Kentucky, accompanying my girlfriend at the time, the woman who later became my wife. We didn’t know where to go, and we stopped a guy who was an upperclassman and asked for directions to Pratt Hall. He turned to me, pointed to a building and said, “You’ll be living right over there.” I explained that I wasn’t the incoming student, but that Elizabeth was the new student, now coming to Amherst since they were admitting women. He turned to her and said, “We don’t want you here.”
Please bow your heads and lift up your spirits in prayer with me: O God, we come before you today, gathered in hope and expectation, gathered with full and grateful hearts, and gathered asking for your peace in our midst. These things we ask in the name of the God of mercy and justice. Amen.
Things do change. I want to take a few minutes to talk about the relationship of hope and changes in our lives. Today, nearly 30 years after that first rude and inhospitable introduction to Amherst College, the student body of the college is now half women. And these women, leaders in this school, are fully accepted as members of this community. I know that women are warmly welcomed here at Amherst, because I saw it when we brought our daughter Sarah here four years ago as an entering student. I mention this little incident from 30 years ago and the contrast with conditions today simply to illustrate that, yes, things do change. Deep seated and long-standing prejudices can be dismantled. Because change is possible, because we can witness positive changes in our lives and in our world, there is a basis for hope.
Amherst Massachusetts’ most renowned resident, Miss Emily Dickinson, had a few things to say about hope, imagining it most poignantly as “the thing with feathers.” She wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little bird –
That kept so many warm –
Hope, as that thing with feathers, hope seems so fragile, so small, so insignificant as to be rendered meaningless in the wide world of unruly and destructive forces. Yet perched there in the soul, even as the storms rage, Dickinson says, Hope sings on, repeating the wordless melody in the midst of the fury.
Allow me to tell you another story: about the time the majority of the members of the Class of 2005 were safely ensconced in first grade, I was the pastor of a church in the South Bronx in New York City. It was at the height of the crack plague in New York, and throughout the smoldering remains of too many burned out neighborhoods in the South Bronx, the smoke of crack cocaine was now burning out too many human lives. Easter morning arrived, a glorious April morning, and I got to church early and found everything was prepared. I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I hoped that somehow, somehow beyond all odds, I hoped somehow beyond all hope, that Easter could make a difference in our community. As I walked I heard the cry, incessant around the neighborhood, “Tato, tato, tato….” This was the cry of the lookouts employed by the crack dealers, a form of Spanish shorthand for “Todo es claro,” “All’s clear.” (Now, on the rare occasions when a police patrol car was sighted in the neighborhood, the lookouts would change the call to, “Feo, feo,” a slang word for the cops, shorthand for “5-0,” after the popular police drama “Hawaii 5-0” on TV, but also it was a play on the Spanish word for “ugly”). At any rate, that Easter morning as I encountered the first lookout on my walk, I stopped and told him since this was Easter, when we rang the bell at the start of the service, I wanted him to stop yelling out “Tato” and instead call out “resucito” (“He is risen”). Well, he shook his head like I was crazy, but said “sure.” I did this with a couple of other lookouts I found, but then it was time to get back to church for the services. We had a great Easter day celebration, and the following day I headed out to take communion to some of our elderly and sick members who couldn’t make it to church. As I rounded a corner, I met one of the lookouts I’d seen the day before. He broke into a wide smile and called out, “Hey, Resucito, Padre, resucito!” Yes, small; yes, seemingly insignificant in the face of the disaster displayed daily in the South Bronx; but yes, a hope fulfilled, a hope heard in the midst of the storm.
This morning, we gather in the presence of the Creator, we gather to witness and give thanks for hope fulfilled. That hope fulfilled, of course, is the impending graduation of the Class of 2005. A hope fulfilled for your families, who love you, raised you, struggled with you and lived in anxious expectation of that day when you will walk across the platform with a diploma in your hand. And a hope fulfilled for yourselves, you, the Class of 2005. As delicate, as fragile as it might have been just four years ago, as you arrived on this campus you entered with the hope of this day in mind. The hard work you have done, the struggles you have undertaken, the late nights, perhaps the doubts and the tears, none of these could extinguish that thing with feathers, that which perches in your souls when you might never have been aware of it, that which kept singing the tune without words over the course of your sojourn here. For the hope fulfilled, we, you and I, can be truly and rightly thankful.
In thinking about you, the Class of 2005, I cannot help but reflect, however, that perhaps the first time many of you gathered here in Johnson Chapel was on September 11, 2001. That terrible tragedy took place, of course, only a few short days after you entered Amherst College. I know students, faculty, staff gathered here, as they gathered in college chapels all across the nation and as houses of worship flung open the doors for people to assemble for solace, for support and for prayer in face of the sheer terror we witnessed. That terrible day changed our world, our lives forever. As I said, things do change. Perhaps the most significant change in our world is the fear spawned on September 11, a fear that has driven this country to war; a fear that has taken its toll on our immigrant communities, a fear that threatens the very liberties at the foundation of our society and a fear that this nation has become an unrepentant empire.
Yes, that fear is pervasive, seemingly all pervasive, and yes, that fear too is real. As a pastor of a congregation in West Harlem in New York City, I seek to understand fear that my congregation and I may struggle against it and be free of its clutches. I take heart in the knowledge that in my tradition, the most frequent commandment in the bible, found all the way from Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures to Revelation in the Christian writings, is the simple, little commandment, “Fear not.” Although I am not a scholar of world religions, it is safe to say that all our faith traditions provide a sharp contrast to fear, especially the fear we have known as a nation since September 11. Often, we think that the opposite of fear is bravery. But this is misleading, for bravery is nothing more than shouldering onward despite the fear. Following Miss Dickinson’s lead, though, I cannot help noting, as others have as well, that hope is truly the opposite of fear. Fear cuts itself off from the future, dying within, disappearing in the fury of the storm and the terror and death inevitably tailing in its wake. Fear breeds fear, it infects with its contagion. Fear grows, looming larger ever and ever on the horizon until it blots out all light and vision, slamming shut its cold iron bars in our minds and over our hearts. Hope, on the other hand, continues, perched there in the soul, so small and fragile as not to be noticed, but still singing on in that wordless tune, in tune and in touch with another vision, in tune with another reality.
But that thing with feathers can be oh so fragile, as fragile as life itself. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann relates a story of his life in this regard. At the age of 17 he was drafted into an anti-aircraft troop during World War II and surrendered to the first British soldier he could find. He was a prisoner of war for three years, and in the camp he observed how some of his fellow prisoners “collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, sickening for the lack of it, some of them dying.” Moltmann felt he would suffer the same fate, but through the ministrations of a chaplain, he found instead a religious faith that rebuilt within him a sense of hope. That experience, coupled with his view of the human situation in this modern world, prompted him to write one of the great post-War theological works, significantly entitled Theology of Hope. Our hopes, those dreams we hold so dear, these hopes are born of our vision for the future. This is a vision looking out, freed from the dominating power of fear and its death-dealing accomplices. This is a vision implanted by God, embedded in the human heart though God’s love and tender mercies. This thing with feathers, it sings perched within our souls the divine song of the living and loving God.
But hope fulfilled is not the end of the story, either. This is an endless song, which, as Emily Dickinson says, “And never stops – at all.” The hope fulfilled at graduation tomorrow, those hopes of yours and those hopes of your families, they are only a beginning, a prelude. We call the graduation exercises “a Commencement,” acknowledging that what has come to an end, what has been fulfilled, is actually a new point of departure. In this departure, you as the Class of 2005 go with the mandate of Amherst College, “Terras Irradient,” “Let them give light to the world.” A fair question, of course, is with what will you illuminate the earth? And my response, as you might easily guess by now, is “Terras irradiant cum spe,” “Let them give light to the world with hope.” Just as the chaplain did in the prison camp for young Moltmann, bring hope to the hopeless. Keep close watch on that thing with feathers perched in your soul that you might nurture it for another. Listen for the singing of the tune without words, the divine melody, that you might share it with another. Even in the in midst of the fury and terror of the storm, be aware of its warmth against the cold iron death grip of fear and help another to feel that warmth.
Emily Dickinson gives us a most striking image of hope perched within our souls and a strong sense of what hope does in its endless melody. But, as Moltmann found out, hope is more than simply a feeling: Hope’s power in our lives lies as an action. Hope in its strongest aspect is as a pattern of life, indeed, hope as a habit in our lives. We use the word “Hope” most often as a verb, and this, my friends, I suggest is closest to the truth of hope: Hope in its most profound sense is a way of life: and in its openness to the future, openness to the vision of the loving God, author of that divine song sung by hope, hope opens us up to the other, to the world around us. Truly one of the most profound actions any of us can undertake is bringing hope to the hopeless: for this means nothing less than engaging the others around us and entering into the wide world round about us. The hope that we have is given by God in that endless song, and it sings most true to its divine origins when we engage others with the tune; The hope we have is shared with us by God and when it is shared with others it becomes stronger; yes, that thing with feathers, seemingly so fragile, becomes so much stronger in seeking a just world, in building a peaceful planet, in affirming the full humanity, dignity and possibility of each person. So, Class of 2005, I bid you go out in hope; hope for yourself; hope with others and hope for others; hope for justice and peace amongst peoples and nations; hope for the world.
As the Belle of Amherst has been my muse throughout this address, I close with Emily Dickinson’s words:
Hope is a strange invention –
A Patent of the Heart –
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out –
Of this electric Adjunct
Not anything is known
But its own unique momentum
Embellish all we own -
Thanks be to the God of Hope. Amen.