Monday, December 19, 2011

Eugene Chamberlain

Tuesdays in the Chapel
December 13, 2011

First Reading

“The 120 miles of I-44 that I needed to travel, before the freeway peters out south of Lawton, are not very interesting, though I was cheered by the sight of the bumpy Wichita Mountains as I came into Lawton, an army town mostly noted for having been the last home of two nineteenth-century Native American leaders, Geronimo and Quanah Parker. Both were remarkable men, but Quanah managed more remarkable transition. He was, in his youth, a formidable war chief, leading many raids; he was almost killed at the second battle of Adobe Walls—yet he survived, surrendered, and led his people, the Comanches, into a fairly stable relationship with the White government and the twentieth century.

Geronimo, by the time he was housed at Fort Sill, really had very few people—many of the eighteen warriors who had surrendered with him in 1886 had died in captivity. Geronimo survived twenty-three years as a prisoner, nineteen of them at Fort Sill. Though he longed for his native desert and petitioned every white leader he could find to send him back, he was never allowed to return to Arizona. Finally one day he got very drunk, spent a cold night outside, and died of pneumonia. In his last years he and Quanah had formed a friendship—two men who had seen their time, and their people’s time, end.”
Roads Larry McMurtry, p. 46.

The readings for the day are eclectic. I wanted on the one hand to speak about what we do not know about historical figures as a way of illustrating what we also do not know about one another. On the other hand I wanted to speak to the difficulties that are connected to knowing God. In the season of Advent and Christmas we approach Bethlehem with both uncertainty and hope.

In real time we also grieve. My friend Eugene Chamberlain died last Thursday. I was scheduled to visit with him on Friday. He had lived 91 mostly good years; I cannot speak to the recent days. His wife of nearly 60 years had gone before him. He once told me that when he got his new contract from MIT each year he would put the unopened envelop on her pillow so she could open it to see how they would do in the year ahead. The gesture was a window into his way of being. He was a gentle and good man.

When I came to MIT he was nearing the end of a long and storied career and was serving as the Director of the Foreign Student Office. He had previously worked in Admissions. Shortly before he retired, in 1985, he was given the Billard Award for service to the Institute. The exact words are: The annual honor is bestowed on an individual working inside or outside MIT who has performed “special service of outstanding merit” for the Institute.

In about 1982 I woke up one morning to discover I was an Associate Dean of Student Life charged with overseeing the organizing of the Counseling Office. And by the way, they said, the International Student Office will report to you. I was stunned, a relative new comer, I was now in charge of Gene’s world.

He was gracious about it all even as I felt like I was drowning. He did not lend himself easily to supervision. He did things as he had done them for over 30 years. He did not type, was not computer literate, who was?, but he did not think he needed to learn. He communicated in the language of care for students, particularly international students and all over the world there were graduates of MIT who loved him for his kindness.

Love is not too big a word in this case. He had guided and cared for them in a time when MIT felt it was enough to have them here. Letting them come was the norm; care was exceptional and Gene cared. It was not enough to Gene to give them a place at the table, often his table, he thought we ought help them be successful and he did all he could to make that happen.

As my new responsibilities evolved I came to understand who Gene was in his world beyond MIT. In the growing world of international offices at American colleges and universities, Gene was larger than life. He had helped bring into being the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) and served as its president. Gene was iconic and deservedly so. He did not wear his role on his sleeve, but when International Student Advisors came to MIT for their regular meetings or chance visits, they gave him homage.

If I had one thing to change about the MIT I know today, it would be for us to understand better that everyone of us has a life beyond these walls where we also have standing. And sometimes like Eugene Chamberlain we are outstanding. I was embarrassed to have him report to me; I had too much to learn, but it was his grace and patience that taught me and gave me the opportunity to learn from him.

I wish we had been able to talk on Friday. I would have told him what I had learned from him namely that work done well lives forever when done in the service of others. It is something worth remembering in this season and in all seasons.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Second Reading

A Grace

God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence:
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.

By Donald Hall

Thursday, December 8, 2011

If I ...

Tuesday Talk at the Chapel
November 29, 2011

If I could change one thing about …

the way we determine who has something to offer, who is worthy of being visible to us in our lives, I would sprinkle some enlightenment throughout the universe that would move us toward rethinking the checklist or the metrics that shape our view of who is important to know, who is worthy of our graciousness and kindness, who we can learn from, who is deserving of opportunity, who is smart, and who has potential.

How limiting it is for me to value you on the basis of what you wear, or your academic pedigree, or the neighborhood you are from or in, the country of your birth or ancestry, the language you speak or the accent of your words, the job your parents have or the job you have… how limiting it is to deem you worthy of my attention because of the color of your skin or your eyes or your hair, because of your religious affiliation, because of whom you love.

If I choose not to see you because of what I cannot see, what opportunities might I miss? If I dismiss you as irrelevant, or at least non-essential, since you and my checklist appear incongruous, might there be some insight, some enriching experience, some priceless encounter just beyond my grasp?

Now, I am not suggesting that it’s wrong to have standards. My standards help me makes sense of how I am doing in my world; they are related to my values. Sometimes, though, standards can get in the way of forward movement; they can get in the way of openness to exploration and discovery; they can get in the way of just being in the moment. Measuring others, their value or whether they have something to offer, by the standard I’ve invented for myself may just block my blessings.

Judging another by my standards can undermine rather than support the other’s productivity. It then becomes about my agenda, my biases, and does not necessarily reflect the capacity of the other; it does, however, emphasize my limitations.

What might happen if instead of the negative judgment, I could be more open to the perspective, the style, the way of being of the other person? If I really listened to a fresh voice? Perhaps, I would learn something new, or make space for possibilities- even miracles; perhaps, I would provide an opportunity for a mutually beneficial or life enhancing interaction; perhaps with respect instead of judgment, I open the door for the other person to make a contribution or realize that which is great within herself/himself.
If I measure your worth by my checklist, I may miss your beauty, your unique gifts, your gentle spirit, the benefit of knowing the person you will become; I may miss a world of possibilities. I may miss a pivotal moment…the chance to transform or be transformed.

What might happen if I set aside the barriers, the disparities that I have either invented or bought into that distract me from or inhibit my interaction with you? What might I gain? What might you?

What are the possibilities for enrichment, creativity, development, if we shatter the walls we erect to protect ourselves and replace them with more common spaces for uncommon interactions with people who experience life differently, who think differently, or if we substitute the narrow lens through which we may have learned to view fellow humans with a multi- dimensional lens that captures the depth and breadth and complexities of our lives?

A few Sundays ago, I was watching Sunday Morning on CBS, and a young man whose job is that of a server/waiter in a restaurant was talking abut how he feels he and his work are viewed by many who depend on his service. He mentioned the demeaning way customers sometimes treat him, the comment ”why don’t you get a real job” to which he has been subjected, and the disrespect and disregard he has experienced or witnessed in his work. I thought of the many waiters/servers I’ve met, not all wonderful certainly, but most have been extraordinarily kind and caring. They have taken great pride in the quality of service and they have wanted me to have a good experience. From some, I have learned about wines, the art of cake decorating, places I have never been; I have learned about resiliency and determination; and I have walked into a restaurant and been greeted by a waiter with a huge smile and a hug just when I needed one most.
Recently, I met a former marine, a new hire in a local restaurant who had returned not long ago from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was so engaging, and I was fascinated by the stories of his life journey, and he is only 22. He said a few things that led me to think that I reminded him of his mom. Long story short…he brought over a napkin on which he had written a list of things to experience…He handed it to me, and told me it was my bucket list…new experiences he thought I would love and would enrich my life. He included things to do with my best friends, because he had listened carefully when I mentioned how important they are in my life.

Oh the possibilities that emerge when we let go of our preconceived notions about who we can learn from, who has something of value to offer.

I must say that I am profoundly grateful for a lesson from my father, who himself was a waiter as a young Black man trying to make his place in a world where, in the 1940’s, he was often invisible or looked upon with disdain. He would say that we should always leave a good tip and not make assumptions about who a person is because of the work he does. Treat a waiter with as much respect as we treat the folks in church, he’d say.

If I could change one thing, I would invite you to bring your checklist by which you judge the value, potential, contributions of others to a very special ceremony where together we light a fire and offer our checklists in exchange for admission into the realm of possibility.

Blanche Staton