The Kingdom of Heaven: Foolishness Perhaps, But So Worth It!

Graduation speeches are always difficult. Speakers come from outside the institution and often struggle to find meaningful things to communicate to the graduates in addition to the fact that they are the only ones that stand between the graduates and their diplomas!

This spring, Angela Bymaster, MD, a 2000 alumna of George Fox now serving as a doctor in a low-income neighborhood in San Jose, Calif., spoke to our undergraduates. I appreciated what she had to say and wanted to take the opportunity to share her address with you.

Robin and Ruth Baker with alumna Angela Bymaster prior to her commencement speech

The Kingdom of Heaven:  Foolishness Perhaps, But So Worth It!

President Baker, Trustees, professors, faculty, staff, family members, friends, and the 2012 graduates of George Fox University, I am honored to speak to you today.

I think of graduation as a conglomeration of a lot of emotions. There’s a lot of hope – looking forward to jobs, graduate school, marriage – but also fear – will I really get a job? Will I pay off my loans? There’s a sense of accomplishment – you have worked so hard on those papers and studied for ridiculously difficult tests (any P-chem survivors out there?) – but there can also be worry. “Will I work at Starbucks for the rest of my life? And even if I land a great job, what will my purpose be?” And here we are, in 2012, with an iffy economy and a lot of political turmoil. There may be a sense that your birthright has been stolen.

You can think of me as a visitor from the future. I was in your seat 12 years ago, graduating from George Fox University with my bachelor’s in chemistry and a minor in writing/literature. I want to invite you into my story and imagine your own path over the next 12 years. I have come to let you know … there is life after GFU!

I grew up in Roseburg, Oregon, came to George Fox in 1996, and graduated in 2000.  While I was here, my understanding of God grew – I found Him to be larger and more complex than I had originally thought and maybe I didn’t know everything about Him and maybe I was even wrong about some things … but you probably already knew that. I also became fascinated with the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven in the present tense, now.

During a serve trip, I had learned about a program called Mission Year, and at the beginning of the week, I thought, “Wow, these people are really insane,” but at the end of the week, I felt compelled to sign up. And thus began my adventure seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. I think of it as a place where you do a lot of terribly illogical things – but then everything ends up great in the end – but not according to your initial definition of “great.”  You’ll see what I mean …

I did Mission Year in inner-city West Oakland, Calif. We all took a vow of poverty for a year and learned about simplicity and social justice, while living on a really rough neighborhood. Our mandate was to figure out what God was already doing in the city and join in. Incidentally, I met my future husband that year. Turns out when you meet your husband doing something crazy like that, sometimes you get a crazy husband. But, as Billy Joel said, “It just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.”

We then moved out of the inner city into the farmland of Iowa, because I had been accepted into medical school at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. I was pleased to find out that George Fox had prepared me very well. I studied with friends from Ivy League schools, UCs, and well-known Midwestern powerhouses, and I was very competitive academically. My crazy husband was depressed about leaving inner-city Oakland, because he had envisioned himself doing inner-city ministry for the rest of his life, but God had it under control. The lack of affordable housing in Chicago had forced a lot of people into Iowa City, Iowa, around the same time that we were moving there.

At this point, I should tell you that my crazy husband is very white. He is tall and skinny with enormous glasses and he is an electrical engineer. Soon, he was filling up the church van with kids from inner-city Chicago and driving off to the pool or the farm or the park or the children’s museum. On one of those occasions, he heard some kids in the back seat ripping on white people, and he said, “Hey, guys, cut it out.”

“What?! You black!” They said.

“What are you talking about?” he said.  “I’m not black!”

“Yeah man, you black!”

He finally had to sit them down and tell them, “This is very important. I am white. You are black. Look at our skin colors.”

They were old enough to know, in the fifth grade, but we realized what was happening.  They thought he was black because they had grown up believing, for many good historical reasons, that they should not trust white people. And here was a man whom they knew well, who was friends with their mom, who loved them and always kept his promises to them. And there we were in the Kingdom of Heaven, and I met the God who made all kinds of people able to speak each others’ languages at Pentecost, who longs to heal racial wounds.

After medical school, I chose a residency in family medicine in San Jose, Calif. So we moved back to California, into a neighborhood which the nurses at my hospital would refer to as “dangerous”… but actually, it’s full of bougainvilleas and jasmine, and a lot of Mexican families who are hardworking party people. There are also a number of gang members who are also hardworking in their own way and are definitely party people. We’ve only been robbed by people we know, and only when they are hankering for drugs or they are angry at us. And here’s the thing: here we are in a world with abuse and neglect, with injustice and poverty, and most of the gang members I know aren’t standouts; some kids don’t see any other future for themselves, so there are gangs. One way I am able to engage with this reality is to live in this neighborhood.

Shortly thereafter, we foster/adopted three Sudanese teenagers. The two younger boys came with the kind of anger that develops from years living in a refugee camp. They brought into our house a little taste of the suffering of the South Sudanese people caused by an interminable civil war. At first, they were always fighting with everyone, and displaying an impressive command of profanity given their limited English proficiency. We were afraid about what was going to happen with them. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which starts small but grows into something big and lovely and useful. God worked many miracles in his life, and two years later, at his eighth-grade graduation, out of a class of more than 500, they gave out two awards. He received one of them – the “Turnaround” award. Now in high school, his teachers say he’s a helpful leader in the classroom. Now, he’s the guy breaking up the fights in the classroom and on the soccer field.

My other son is the one who tells other middle schoolers to watch their language and he stands up to the bullies. Now, both boys have good grades, healthy friendships, and are maturing into kind and gentle young men. It’s so beautiful watching them play with their little white baby brother. And it’s funny, one of my worst fears used to be having a violent, emotionally disturbed child. But here I was, in a world with human trafficking and refugee camps and genocide and child soldiers. One of the miracles in this case was the conversion of my fear into love. And if you have ever a young soul progress toward the light, you know – no amount of safety can equal that joy. If anyone is interested in learning more about Sudanese refugees, my daughter Martha just published a book about her experiences called It Feels Like the Burning Hut.

It’s not like this anymore, but during one of the bad times, early on, my son was full of self-hate and despair and began leaving the home regularly without telling us where he was going. He became interested in joining a gang and buying a weapon. We were really afraid and were unsure of what to do. I’ll tell you what, nothing improves your prayer life like a situation like this. He soon started talking about his new friend, Daniel. We were wondering what this “Daniel” character was going to be like. Soon Daniel started coming over. We also went over to Daniel’s house and met his parents using our “cave man” Spanish and tried to get a sense of this place where our son had started spending so much time. Daniel was a talker, with a somewhat poor grasp of truth, but full of stories and thoughts and questions. He became fascinated with us, ridiculously tall white people in a Mexican neighborhood with ridiculously tall African kids. Soon he was coming over to talk about what to do about his fat lazy brother and how his girlfriend was using him and his relationship with his father and his fear of STDs and his desire for acceptance and his experimentation with drugs and his thoughts about God. Over time, as God led our son back into the family, Daniel got closer to us too, and soon wanted to come to church with us. And there we were in the Kingdom of Heaven and God had redeemed this bad situation, with two for the price of one.

After residency, I got a half-time job with the county of Santa Clara in the homeless program. I really enjoy my job; normal doctors get to perfect their patients’ blood pressures, but I have patients who haven’t seen a doctor for 25 years, who just got out of prison, who refuse to take any medicine because they don’t want the FBI to hear their thoughts, who climb up the side of the soda machine in the lobby like Spiderman, who beg me to give them medicine to free them from the clutches of heroin, who refuse to go to the hospital even though they have end-stage AIDS because their trusty 9-year-old dog is alone at the encampment by the creek. I have the privilege of slowly developing trust with people who have lost all faith in humankind, then the additional joy of helping them to improve their health.

Now, I get to see the alternative life that I could have had when I go to staff meetings. Some of my colleagues (who are lovely, hardworking, caring doctors) feel inclined to buy nice houses in safe neighborhoods with highly performing schools. They talk about violin lessons and wine a lot. They complain to high heaven that we don’t get paid as much as the Kaiser docs do. But I go home from those staff meetings and talk to my neighbor, who wakes up at 5 a.m. to run a jackhammer and carry concrete slabs for eight hours a day and makes about one-eighth of my hourly wage, and he is trying to decide if he should make a car payment or pay for necessary dental work for his daughter. Through my neighbors, God is teaching me about contentment and the great economic disparity in our country. That’s the funny thing about the Kingdom of Heaven – you get all of these amazing teachers and lessons all over the place.

One of my favorite teachers is this kid named Edgar. He is the funniest, kindest, most hardworking, sweetest, smartest kid you’ll ever meet. We have known him for six years, since he was 8; now he is 14. He is also a master of Spanglish. He shows us his report cards which always have all A’s, and he is the kid who walked in one day, saw a stack of UNO cards, and said, “I’ve never played ONE before, how do you play it?” He is truly remarkable, but he is also undocumented. As an illegal alien in our community, he can’t fill out a FAFSA and does not qualify for student loans. In our neighborhood, his future employment options include construction worker, migrant laborer, or landscaper, but I’m not OK with that. My husband and I have committed to helping him (and his sister) to pay for college. In the world’s eyes, this is crazy because it might be futile – even with a good education it can be hard to get a job without a social security number. But we are taking this risk; indeed, we are betting thousands of dollars on this, with the faith that God will do a miracle again. Because that’s what happens in the Kingdom of Heaven.

That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is – it’s not a political movement, it’s not doing good for the sake of doing good. It’s about getting tangled up in your neighbors’ suffering and seeing God do miracles of healing and beauty.

But enough about me. Graduates of 2012, this is your world: It is a place with spiritual apathy, increasing disparity between the rich and poor, unsustainable government debt, wars and rumors of nuclear capabilities. How will you engage with this mess?

And that is the thing I love about getting to talk to you guys … you are graduates of George Fox University! The rest of the world will be listening to “I’m Sexy and I Know It” and raising awareness about important issues, but you will be tackling those issues! You are going to get as dirty as a Bruin Jr. brawl.

There will be other graduations this spring, where people will receive a diploma and an education. But you will receive a diploma, an education, and a legacy. Quaker or not, we all carry with us their legacy, which includes the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, the humane treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill, and the promotion of peace.

I am excited to see how you will engage and what great things God will do with all of you.

Congratulations, class of 2012!

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