The following sermon was given by Dr. Byron Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, September 1, 2019, on Opening Day.
At midnight on June 30 we stopped counting. For the past 365 days, from July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019, we had, as we do every year, counted the number of living alumni who had made a gift to the school’s Amici Fund. Alumni giving over a twelve month period is one important demonstration of love for and devotion to an alma mater, and I’m proud that this past year 65.5 percent, for a total of 3,597 alumni, made gifts to the school. The year before it had been at 65 percent, good enough for first in the nation for secondary schools. The extraordinary generosity of our alumni through the annual Amici Fund matters to Woodberry Forest, and yet it’s not by any means the only or even most important reflection of the alumni love for the Tiger Nation.
Earlier this summer, former senior master Bob Vasquez was in a serious automobile accident, and in that tragic accident, his beloved wife, Elinor, died. Five days later, almost sixty alumni, many of whom graduated in the 1950s and 1960s, traveled to Orange for her funeral so that they could support their former teacher, coach, and adviser, a man who served here for close to forty years and retired over twenty years ago.
Mr. Vasquez was my Spanish 2 teacher my new boy year at Woodberry, and my prevailing memories of that experience are that the course was rigorous and demanding and that I struggled to earn a decent grade that would have basically been gifted to me for merely showing up at my previous school. Beyond the steep learning curve and the sheer difficulty of the class, what I remember is that Mr. Vasquez, through his investment in each of his students, conveyed to me that I was known, challenged, and loved in a community that is far bigger than any of us will ever be. The alumni who showed up to take care of Mr. Vasquez came back because he had taken care of us when we were boys, and now we had the opportunity to make sure that the Woodberry family came through for him in his time of grief and sorrow.
I’m often overwhelmed at these outward demonstrations of love for our alma mater and personal support for the members of our community. I’m routinely left uncertain about what exactly explains this deep and unbroken emotional bond. It’s not common. In fact, it is unusual, and it verges on exceptional. What explains it? Some say it’s the sheer beauty of the campus or the brotherhood, the friendships that mark our time at Woodberry and generate memories that last a lifetime. Others might point to tradition, special events like the Bonfire, The Game, hunting on campus, fishing in the Rapidan, the candlelight service of lessons and carols at Christmas here in St. Andrew’s Chapel, or graduation in front of The Residence. Still others might believe it’s an unshaken belief in the all boys, all boarding education that animates our mission.
Surely all of these explanations play a part, yet I have become convinced that the single greatest force that drives alumni love for and devotion to Woodberry Forest is our collective belief that coming here is a hard thing worth doing, and doing the right way. Every alumnus knows that there are times of struggle and disappointment, moments of doubt, and perhaps even despair, periods that each of us wonders, “What am I doing and why am I here?” And yet, just at the start of another year in the life of the school, I’m reminded that when we slog through those moments of difficulty together, we grow into a fuller and more complete version of who we were meant to be.
A hard thing worth doing, the right way. It’s a message that comes through clearly in the lessons tonight from Hebrews and from Luke, and it flows forth through the Christian faith sealed into the founding of Woodberry Forest. In the message from Hebrews we’re called on to practice “mutual love” and urged to “show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” And in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus captures this same virtue of humble hospitality as he calls on his followers to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the banquets we host. In the days that follow each of us can lend a helping hand to a boy finding his way, just the way that someone before helped us out when we were new ourselves. These are the moments that the ligaments of brotherhood connect into a dynamic culture that energizes each of us to be better than we would have been on our own.
The Gospel according to Luke calls on us to embrace humility, no matter what our station or position: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Even more to the point, genuine hospitality requires heart-felt and authentic empathy, a deep understanding of each other and an enduring belief that in God’s eyes, each of us, whether a new boy, old boy, senior member of the faculty, or headmaster, is equal, no better or worse than anyone else. Furthermore, we might think of hospitality as a higher and more idealized form of what it means to take care of each other. Old boys know that each year we on the faculty renew our commitment that every single boy in our care will be known, challenged, and loved. In return, we ask that every boy opens himself up and out to the courageous vulnerability required to become known, challenged, and loved, and that you learn here what it means to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other.
My own vision of taking care of each other is a community in which we’re all inspired to reach higher than we would have ever reached on our own because of the goodness and decency of those around us. It means that we hold each other accountable for our commitment to character over pure achievement, for what the Boys’ Prayer calls our unswerving devotion to the hard right over the easy wrong. This vision is consistent with the kind of accountability to self and others that comes through in Toughness by Jay Bilas, who will visit Woodberry on September 11. It’s the cultural currency that we pay forward and receive back simultaneously, the kind of connectivity that binds us together in what Shakespeare in Henry V describes as “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” a vision of connectivity that reminds us that in the midst of a hard thing worth doing, each of us matters and we’re counted upon by others to do what needs to be done.
It means that through the twists and turns and the peaks and valleys of a long and rigorous school year and through every nook and cranny of the Woodberry journey, you will undoubtedly struggle. For some it will be homesickness or a freak injury in football you didn’t deserve. For others it will be frustration at Friday night study hall or Saturday classes or lights out when friends from home are living it up and taking the easy way out. Still others will struggle through challenges at home with parents who might be divorcing, grandparents passing away, loved ones becoming sick, or someone you love enduring a tragedy while you’re off at school. Through all of this you’re called on to stand shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow with each other as equals, rooted in the ideals and values that have stood the test of time here for over 130 years. And through that journey of peaks and valleys you’ll know why Amici means so much to the Woodberry brotherhood.
Two weeks ago I saw a clip of an interview that captured the essence of brotherly hospitality and the power of what it means to take care of each other. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was interviewing the comedian Stephen Colbert. Mr. Cooper’s mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, recently died, and he is still grieving. Choking back tears as he asked Mr. Colbert a question, Mr. Cooper stated that “You (once) told an interviewer that you have learned to — in your words — ‘love the thing that I wish had not happened.’ You went on to say, ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?”
I was familiar with Mr. Colbert as host of “The Late Show” and earlier as a wicked political satirist on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” I had no idea that when he was ten years old, his father and two older brothers died in a plane crash and that he, along with his mother and seven surviving siblings, have wrestled with this massive loss for most of their lives. But when Mr. Cooper asked this honest question about suffering and punishments from God being gifts, Mr. Colbert took care of his grieving friend in much the same way that Jesus took care of those who followed him and how we can care for each other here at Woodberry Forest.
Mr. Colbert noted that “It is a gift to exist, and with that existence comes suffering. If you are grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.” Most Americans are hard-wired to avoid suffering at almost any cost, and yet Mr. Colbert reminds us that to live into our fullest selves, we must lean into the struggle and even the suffering, and through that suffering, according to Mr. Colbert, “you get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to love more deeply and understand what it’s like to be a human being.”
The entirety of the Woodberry experience beckons each of you forth as we start a new year. And if you have the bravery and the courage to lift the veil, to live into the struggles without the many masks of the world beyond, you’ll become more fully yourselves here, you’ll learn to take care of each other in the highest-minded and most whole-hearted kind of way. And you’ll agree with the thousands of alumni who understand that Woodberry is a hard thing worth doing, the right way. Amen.