The Parable of BYU-Hawaii
Devotional or Speech given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii
December 17, 2011
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
It is a wonderful honor for Sister Holland and me to be with you today on such a tremendously happy occasion. This is a day of accomplishment and a day of celebration at the university. It is a true milestone in the lives of you graduates and your very, very proud parents and family members. It is a day of accomplishment for President Wheelwright and the faculty and staff and administration of the university.
I remember my own days conducting and presiding over commencement for a lot of years, and somehow those commencement events were the wonderfully sweet reward that often came after months of difficulty for the students. And that’s how it seems today. Thank you for making this one of these terrific celebratory moments in a university year. And, besides that, we left Utah in thirty-degree weather and snow. Let’s hear it for Laie!
We are very, very proud of all of you. We know that some of your families and friends have traveled long distances to be here, and we honor you. President Wheelwright, these graduates are going to be applauded all day long—they have been and they will be. If it’s not untoward, I would like to ask them to applaud you and the faculty and their families.
On the trip over I realized that I have been coming to this campus pretty regularly for over thirty-five years—first as a dean of Religious Education in doing some lateral work as a faculty member, then as Church commissioner of education, then as president of BYU in Provo, and now as a General Authority. Through nine of those years I was technically—and I stress the word technically—also the president of BYU–Hawaii, though I shared the title and gave all of the work to J. Elliott Cameron and Alton Wade. Those were the years when BYU–Hawaii was a Siamese sister institution with BYU in Provo and the administrations of the two schools came up to the board of trustees through a single line—and that happened to involve me. Thinking of such personal history has, in turn, reminded me of the school’s history and how very far we have come at this island institution.
We all know the stories of the Church buying the Laie plantation property nearly 150 years ago and the beginning of a little missionary school that followed. Later the temple came, and a little later than that, Elder David O. McKay had that famous flag raising in Laie when he envisioned a school that would be part of the Church’s spiritual and educational nucleus in the Pacific. Then, shortly after he became president of the Church, President McKay announced a college for this property. So, nearly a century after that initial purchase of the plantation and some fifty-six years before our celebration today, the two-year Church College of Hawaii began with all of 153 students and twenty faculty and staff meeting in a ramshackle collection of World War II surplus buildings. What a marvelous day has come from such humble beginnings! That history sets the stage for my brief message to you today.
My remarks are entitled “The Parable of BYU–Hawaii.” With an eye on the clock, I won’t tell you all of that parable, but the school’s rise to its present significance and consequence against a backdrop of struggle, poverty, and a lot of faith provides the two lessons I want the graduates—and any student at BYU–Hawaii—to remember.
First of all, it is incumbent upon us as students, as Latter-day Saints, and as children of God to see the divine potential in ourselves, to believe in ourselves, and to know that with God’s help there is quite literally nothing in righteousness that we cannot become. That is the parable of this school’s history, and it ought to be the parable of your history. Years ago, Norman Cousins, a wise man, wrote:
The human potential is the most magical but also most elusive fact of life. Men suffer less from hunger or dread than from living under their moral capacity. The atrophy of spirit that most men [and women] know and all men [and women] fear is tied not so much to deprivation or abuse as it is to their inability to make real the best that lies within them. Defeat begins more with a blur in the vision of what is humanly possible than with the appearance of ogres in the path or [danger] beyond the next turning. [“Winston Churchill and the Human Potential,” Saturday Review, 6 February 1965, 18]
For Latter-day Saints in general and BYU–Hawaii students in particular, there should be no blur in the vision of what is humanly possible. We of all people should not be guilty of living under our moral capacity, or, as Brigham Young regularly phrased it, “liv[ing] far beneath our privileges” (JD 12:104). I am saying, in short, that if you lack confidence or always sound apologetic or feel you have an inferiority complex, get over it. We all start humbly, we all start with feelings of inadequacy, we all think the fellow seated on our right and the woman seated on our left are more talented, are more gifted, had wealthier beginnings than we do, and are going to do better in life than we ever will. Well, they aren’t, and they don’t, and they won’t! They are just like you. We all have our fears and insecurities, and so do those people on your right and on your left. We all, as Mr. Cousins said, have at one time or another envisioned ogres in our path and dangers around the corner. But it would be fatal to stay in that swamp of insecurity, to mire down and stop, to fail to look up and fail to look ahead and fail to be believing.
It is a truism of scriptural history that every dispensation begins with a vision—the brother of Jared, Moses, Nephi, and Joseph Smith offer us their examples. Name an era, identify a prophet, and I will remind you of the vision. God always needs us to elevate our view. Jesus said to the Twelve just after they were newly called, “Lift up your eyes” (John 4:35). That is what He continues to say to us. I don’t know all of you individually, but I know you collectively, and I have lived the years you are now living. I know only too well how much you may feel that you have disadvantages, but I say shame on you if you do not see the wonderful blessings you have also had—including this educational experience at BYU–Hawaii—and the wonderful world of possibilities lying in front of you. And, I can add, shame on me as one of your leaders (along with your teachers and parents and anybody else) if we have not helped you to lift up your eyes—that is what leaders and teachers and parents are supposed to do. You may rightly apologize for not studying hard enough or for going to the beach too often—as we all have those things to apologize for—but no one should ever apologize for lack of opportunity, for lack of possibility, for lack of divine love to guide us, or for lack of dreams to make us better than we ever thought we could be, because all those gifts are ours for the taking if we want them. We must never subject ourselves to a blurred vision of our potential or accept the atrophy of spirit that says as an excuse, “But you don’t know what my problems are. You don’t know what limitations have been placed in my path.” You must never say that. The prophets have not said it, the Savior did not say it, this school did not say it, and you must not say it. Take your dreams, take your education, take the love of a whole Church full of people, and go make something of yourself. That is what this school has done, and it is lesson number one from the parable of BYU–Hawaii.
Here is the second lesson, and, for today, the last. This university is a special place. It is as lovely and rarefied as the sea breezes that blow in on this North Shore. But I warn you that you will not always live in nor work in nor raise your children in such an idealized, protected, and Zion-like environment as this. I say Zion-like because that is quite literally what Laie is or is at least trying to become. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of Zion, or the City of God on earth, always featured at its center a temple and a university—a temple being “the university of the Spirit” and a university being “a temple of learning.” You have had those two wonderful institutions at the center of your lives here, with PCC and a lot else thrown in for good measure. Furthermore, you have been blessed with some of the best and most loving teachers, neighbors, friends, faculty, and staff that you could ever have. But as graduates you will be pushed out of this nest—you are about to be so—ushered out of this little academic Garden of Eden, and you will be spending time—a lot of time—in the cold and dreary secular world. Don’t resent that. Don’t resist it. Don’t resist it any more than Adam and Eve did. It is part of the plan, and that world out there desperately needs you and, as Elder Johnson has testified, has been blessed by you and your predecessors already. So don’t see your work-a-day world as a loss or a limitation or something less wonderful than BYU–Hawaii. See your life away from here as the next step, as an opportunity, as a chance to have an impact, as part of your “mission” in life.
I mention a mission intentionally because this same issue is one we face with missionaries. (And if any of you graduates haven’t gone yet, I have papers here in my briefcase to fill out as you leave the building!) I have to give something of this same speech to the missionaries in the various Missionary Training Centers around the world, because they, too, are living in a rarefied, near-perfect, idealized environment surrounded by sweet, good, spiritual people who love them dearly and want them to succeed and want to take care of every human need. See, it sounds exactly like BYU–Hawaii! But those missionaries eventually have to leave the MTC—as you have to leave this school—and they have to go do the hard work they were called to do—and so do you. Those missionaries must be ready to face rejection. They must be prepared to have some uncomfortable confrontations. They must be prepared to deal with unkindness, unfortunately. In a case or two, and this is saddest of all, they have to contend even with some brutality. That is a sad fact, but it is a fact.
So, as new graduates we can’t buckle or give up when life is not as ideal or as fun or as wonderful as it was at BYU–Hawaii. The idealized life that you have had here is not to be permanent but is to fortify us for the world that we have been trained to enter and that needs our life, our learning, and our example.
Someone once wrote, “A ship is very safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are made for.” So, Seasiders that you are, set sail! Take the best you have been given, and go be strong. Go out into a world that for the most part does not yet have the gospel of Jesus Christ, does not yet know what you know, and certainly does not have the skills, insights, and moral values you have been given. The Lord said to the first generation of elders in this Church, “Ye are not sent forth to be taught, but to teach the children of men the things which I have put into your hands by the power of my Spirit” (D&C 43:15). That is what He is saying to you graduates again today. Don’t you dare just go blend into the amoral, telestial, hardscrabble world of today. Don’t go to your first job or your first neighborhood or your first staff meeting and just begin to act like everybody else. Be strong. Be true. Teach quietly, by example if by no other way—and that’s the best way—rather than being taught. You can’t control everyone else’s morals—you’re about to learn that—but you can control your own. You can’t control everyone’s language, but you can control your own. You can’t control everyone’s personal standards, but you can control yours. And thus the light of the gospel—the figurative lighthouse of Laie—can shine in all the world to which you go. Don’t give up and don’t give in. Be strong if you are the only Latter-day Saint for a hundred miles in any direction. Stand straight. Stand true and firm. In the parable of BYU–Hawaii, that is what this little school does in the world of higher education, and it is what we expect you to do.
As President McKay, the revered founder of this school, once quoted, “Be such a man [or woman], and live such a life, that if every man [or woman] were such as you, and every life a life like yours, this earth would be God’s Paradise” (Phillips Brooks, in Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being A Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern (Detroit, Michigan: F. B. Dickerson, 1908], 308). It’s easy to talk about paradise in Laie—we talk about it a lot on the BYU–Hawaii campus. The reality is that we can make paradise wherever we go.
I am very proud of you. Today I am representing the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and the board of trustees. I bring not only, then, my love but all of theirs as well. I testify that along with that earthly love, even more importantly, God loves you. The Church loves you. Members, children, nieces and nephews, little brothers and little sisters love you and admire you and honor you for this day. I know I can speak for the faculty, staff, and administration of this school and say that they love you too.
Remember the parable of BYU–Hawaii. Smile at your humble beginnings. Get over your insecurities. Be filled with faith in yourself and in your future. Take a stand. Have an influence. Keep your covenants. This is the true gospel of Jesus Christ that you represent. Be true to it always, and it will always be true to you today and tomorrow and forever. Congratulations. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.