Commencement 2010 Speaker: John Nunes

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Find your ‘thing' and do it, Lutheran World Relief executive challenges graduates

John Nunes, Commencement SpeakerJohn Nunes was the keynoter at commencement Exercises May 21 at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

"Here's my thing. What's your thing?" the Rev. John Arthur Nunes said in challenging graduating seminarians during May 21 commencement exercises at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).

Nunes, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran World Relief, headquartered in Baltimore, began by saying he imagined those in his commencement audience were there "because the fire of the prophets and the apostles burns in your very being." He referenced the thoughts of the PropheLutheran World Reliest Isaiah about living in a time "where justice is turned back, righteousness stands at a distance and truth stumbles in the public square."

Nunes richly wove into the tapestry of his remarks poignant personal experiences and related them to the troubling challenges of pervasive worldwide poverty. He mentioned that "80 percent" of his five children were female.

"Did you know that around the world four out of five farmers are women?" he asked. "The majority of them live in extreme poverty --  1.5 billion farmers earn less than $1 a day. Only 2 percent of all farms are owned by women. One such farm owner was my Jamaican grandmother who suffered much and died around the age of 90 with nothing except the dignity that God gave to her. She was a woman of the spirit." He said a goal of his is to make a difference in more than 30 countries around the world involving Lutheran ministry and where he sees in impoverished farming women "the face of my grandmother and more importantly the face of Christ." In particular in his lifetime he hopes to see farm ownership by women quintuple to 10 percent.

"With the help of people of the spirit we can create conditions involving agricultural cooperatives and self-help groups that show concretely God's way of working in the world," Nunes said. "It is a Lutheran thing. (German Theologian)Dietrich Bonhoeffer said we must confess Christ concretely, tangibly. That's my thing. What is your thing? To what difference-making thing is God calling you? To what sort of poverty condition are you being called to make use of your gifts?"

Nunes spoke of America's "dizzying religious adulation of things." He noted that America is "awash in an explosion of choices that has outstripped our ability to choose wisely." He mentioned the huge number of book and DVD titles to consider and an ice cream company "with a library of more than 1,000 flavors." In such a climate "to what thing is God calling you?"

While an LTSP student 24 years ago, Nunes said his first daughter, Mary, was born at Chestnut Hill Hospital "1.7 miles from here." And Nunes said he knew indescribable joy then. This past February his daughter experienced "critical prenatal stress" when she was eight months pregnant, and he witnessed on his daughter's face "a grimace of pure, undiluted disappointment as her hopes crumbled like dust in her hands" at the death within moments of his grandchild, Malia Elise Burrell. "We laid to rest a life worthy of life as we lowered her tiny, pink coffin into the ground in snowy, cold Chicago where  Malia awaited her resurrection glory." Nunes said the sure knowledge that even in death "God is for us" means that believers even in such dark times can hold onto hope.

The personal story led to Nunes's description of a second cause consuming him. "Every day 27,000 mothers around the world are losing babies to beatable, treatable causes. It has happened 300 times since I started speaking to you. They die because of not enough food or water or because of diseases of poverty that hardly exist in a developed country like America." He said LWR is part of a key international initiative to end Malaria around the world by 2015. "This is an achievable goal," Nunes said. "That's my way, my thing. What is your thing?"

He said theology makes use of many words about God, "but if we just possess words and we are not of the spirit in the world, then as the Apostle Paul says, we are just noisy gongs and clanging symbols. Mahatma Ghandi was right. To some, God cannot appear except in the form of a piece of bread." He noted that Jesus Christ, during his time on earth, was the enemy of injustice, disease, prejudice, discrimination and exploitation, and Jesus challenged followers to be imitators of himself. Nunes called upon his listeners to thereby use the gifts of creation entrusted to them with reverence.

"God is calling us to something new today," he said. He described a recent New York Times poetic piece authored by comedian Rick Moranis. Called "Something Else," Nunes quoted it in part, "If you see something, say something. If you say something, mean something. If you mean something you may have to prove something. If you drink something, don't drive something. If you drive something, don't text something..."

Putting Moranis's thoughts into words God might use, Nunes ventured, "If you start something, finish something (and you have)," he said. "If you think you are really something, you may need to repent something. If you are blessed something you may have to give something. If you believe something, then do something. If you stand for something you likely will suffer something.

"God works in all things," he said. "My things and your things." Citing scripture from the Book of Acts, Nunes said, "God works for the good in all things according to those called for God's purpose." He said he believes that a new generation of leaders is being called to service in the world, and they are drinking something fresh in a new way in the process.

"God is up to something really, really big," he concluded. "And that something involves you."

Nunes has held his LWR post since 2007. Before that, he was an Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University in River Forest, IL and pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Chicago. He has also worked as a management consultant, a youth director and parish musician. He was introduced by LTSP Professor Jon Pahl, who teaches the History of Religion in North America


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