Sen. Joseph Lieberman stressed the importance of reaching out to people of different cultural backgrounds at an interfaith Baccalaureate service Friday afternoon at Western Presbyterian Church.
The service traditionally marks the beginning of graduation weekend and has been sparsely attended in recent years. But about 500 graduates, family members and friends packed the Virginia Avenue church on Friday.
Lieberman, a three-term senator from Connecticut and the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, encouraged graduates to “build bridges where others would build barriers and to place and build trust where others would place and build hatred.”
“You are graduating at a time of immense challenge and opportunity,” Lieberman said.
Referring to recent terrorist acts perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists, he said, “People claim that their faith drives them to murder … so we naturally ask ourselves how can we reconcile our own understanding of faith.”
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who referred to Lieberman as an “old friend,” told the audience that the senator was the most appropriate choice for a Baccalaureate speaker because “he combines the virtues of education and spirituality.”
Lieberman, a devout Jew, observes many Orthodox practices and did not make public appearances on Friday evenings and Saturdays during the 2000 presidential election in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
Trachtenberg and Lieberman became acquainted during Trachtenberg’s 11-year tenure as president of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where he said their “paths crossed in many ways.”
The baccalaureate service was “the best-attended we’ve seen in some time,” said University Marshal Jill Kasle, who oversees Commencement preparations.
All 500 tickets had been reserved since last Sunday, Kasle said, adding that speakers such as Lieberman create “more of a draw.” Only 100 people attended last year’s ceremony.
“The president really believes that we should begin Commencement weekend by asking God’s blessing,” Kasle said. “It is important to remind students there is something larger than themselves.”
Lieberman told graduates and guests about the power of religion and its role in shaping the country.
“Religion is indispensable,” Lieberman said. “It has been a strong source of values in our country.”
The senator also stressed the importance of faith as a motivational force. He cited abolition, the civil rights movement and the environmental movement as “clearly motivated” by faith.
“All of these great works of progress were driven by and done in the name of God,” Lieberman said.
Robin Millner, a mother of a graduating senior, described the service as “wonderful,” saying that “she enjoyed Senator Lieberman’s reference to the history of our country being built by people of faith.”
Lieberman ended his 15-minute-long speech by encouraging graduates to “reach out to people around the world, particularly people who are different from you.”
Several other people spoke at the service, including six graduating seniors of different faiths who briefly reflected on their experiences at GW.
One student speaker, Whitney Taxman, said the service was “all-encompassing.” Religious figures from the Catholic, Protestant, Hindu-Buddhist, Episcopal and Jewish faiths led the audience in prayer during the service.
“It was very broad,” Taxman said. “It made everyone feel very comfortable.”