Distinguished Alumnus offers reflections on "The Power of One"


At its annual alumni/ae luncheon on October 26, McCormick presented the Reverend Michael McConnell with the 2010 Distinguished Alumnus Award in recognition of his "creative witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ for all people through peacemaking efforts illustrating the human cost of war, advocacy for under-served urban communities, and campaigns to engage congregations in the plight of refugees." The following is the text from his acceptance speech before a gathering of faculty, staff, students and alumni/ae at Hyde Park Union Church on Chicago's South Side.

Because of my job, most days I wake up thinking how can we help people understand the meaning of spending a trillion dollars on war or $720 billion every year for the Defense budget? That’s $2 billion every day for the military. I can already see your eyes glazing over. You can imagine my interest when I heard of a new study that tried to find out what is the largest number that people can understand and act on. Any ideas? The number is one. Write a fundraising letter on the plight of two starving children and there is less generosity than if only one is mentioned.

Well, Saul Alinsky the great Chicago community organizer said: Push a negative hard enough and it becomes a positive. So here is my take on the positive power of ONE.

In my own life, ONE 4-page mimeographed fact sheet about the Vietnam War converted me from a flag-waving, naive American war supporter into a peace activist. ONE seminary, McCormick, with its rigorous biblical and theological coursework and its amazing opportunities to engage with the Chicago community at a street level, instilled in me a passion for organizing and the theological truth that our God of history is passionate about justice.

ONE church, Wellington Ave. community of faith and ONE pastor, Rev. David Chevrier bolstered my faith in the parish ministry – showing me that a small band of committed people could indeed risk and sacrifice and make a difference. They adopted me in 1971 and I still call it home.

ONE Guatemalan refugee, Maricela Garcia, taught me more viscerally about racism in America, what it means to live in exile, and how to do incisive political strategy and analysis. She remains my political magnetic north. We have been married now for almost 23 years.

My sense of generosity and forgiveness was forever changed by ONE Nicaraguan family who invited me into their home to stay in their son’s room – the same son who was killed a few weeks before by the Contras, funded by my own government.

I’m sure we can all name those individuals or moments or events that have changed our lives. We’ve all traveled the road to Damascus. But the power of ONE is not only about how it changes individuals, it’s about how it changes the world.

I have been blessed to be able to stand beside some of these ONEs who have changed the world.

ONE Guatemalan catechist, Felipe Excot, in 1984 risked capture in Guatemala and Mexico and deportation from the United States in order to enter public sanctuary and tell the story of how the Guatemalan military, with aid from the US, had killed 23 of his fellow catechists and massacred entire Mayan villages. He and other refugees like him spoke to thousands of people about the their reality and inspired hundreds of churches and synagogues to declare sanctuary, end the war and gain political asylum for many refugees.

I had the privilege of being present when Celeste Zappala spoke in Chicago’s federal Plaza. She told the story of her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, the 823rd US casualty of the Iraq War.

The parable of her sons death goes like this: a young man in the prime of life, wanting to serve his country, joins the National Guard to train and learn how to protect his community from flooding. Instead, he is sent to a far off country “to keep our nation safe.” He guards a team of people looking for weapons that were never there, in order to justify a war that never should have happened. Killed during that tragic assignment, he was unavailable to be in New Orleans after Katrina, where his country and the most vulnerable people needed him the most, where he really could have kept the nation safe.

I saw people stop in their tracks that day as Celeste spoke, delay wherever they were rushing off to, and listen.  I believe that the power of ONE mother like Celeste, willing to testify and relive their grief over and over again, has changed public opinion from being the majority for the Iraq War to now the majority against it.

In June 2006, I was in Columbus, Ohio, with Eyes Wide Open. The whole front of the state capital lawn is filled with over 2,000 empty boots tagged and hundreds of shoes representing Iraqi deaths. A father who had lost his son in Iraq exactly one year before and now had another son in harm’s way, came to see the boots bearing his son’s name. He said he was not political, didn’t know if the war was right or wrong – he just wasn’t going to get involved. While we were talking an Iraqi American came over and offered her condolences. She said that she had 40 extended family members in Baghdad. They chatted for a while and both wished each other that their family members would be safe. How many places in this nation can the father of a fallen Marine and Iraqi-American staunchly against the war have such a conversation? And then, as he left, this apolitical father who had lost one son and had another in harm’s way said to me: “The only thing I would change about this memorial is that you should add more shoes to represent the Iraqi losses.”

The power of ONE space, ONE handshake across nationalities, ONE encounter across realities half a world apart that can open the eyes of one grieving father to the losses of the Other.

A woman who was part of Women Strike for Peace, the anti-nuclear group from the early 60’s trying to stop nuclear proliferation tells this story. She describes how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain outside of the Kennedy White House carrying signs demanding a stop to above ground testing of nuclear bombs. It was a small strangling little group. Years later, she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock, who had become one of the most high profile activists on the issue, say that the turning point for him was when he saw a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting in front of the White House. If they were so passionately committed, then he should give the issue more consideration. And as we all know, there is no above ground testing of nuclear weapons.

We never know the full extent of what we say and what we do. If we are the pebble diving into the pond, we are too busy being in the water to notice the ripples. In math, any number multiplied by one simply equals itself. But in God’s moral calculus, one act, one life, one community of faith, one passion gets multiplies exponentially.

I often think that the task of being an advocate for peace comes down to two simple things: 1) making visible the hidden for so much of the human tragedy of war has been systematically kept from us and 2) offer people hope that what they do can make a difference.

But the power of one should come as no surprise to those of us who run to catch up with that one guy who touched lepers, cast out demons, healed the sick and welcomed into ONE fellowship around ONE table the lost, the last, the least, the held back and the pushed down. So instead of being depressed by the fact that highest number people can understand is one I take it as a challenge to see how can we be that ONE person or create that ONE community of faith or organize that ONE coalition or engage in that ONE campaign or inspire that ONE conversion that will lead to the change that we really can believe in.
Thank you McCormick for being ONE of those ONES.

Michael McConnell
October 26, 2010