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The Purpose of Today

In just a few short hours, Baylor and Waco will welcome numerous dignitaries, including President Barack Obama, to campus for the memorial services in the Ferrell Center. Those services are intended to honor the first responders to the explosion in West, Texas last week that has now claimed the lives of at least 15 people.


A week ago last night, our entire country sat transfixed before our televisions, twitter, and the internet as news rolled in about two ongoing, developing stories: the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing that would soon take a very different turn entirely, and an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the tiny, highway-adjacent town of West, Texas. We already knew the probable death toll of the former and had witnessed tremendous acts of heroism from those intending to limit the damage as much as possible. We'd yet to learn the same about the former, though images and descriptions of the resulting devastation and loss of life were not far away. The proximity of West to Waco made the latter a particularly jarring story for most of the people that read this blog.

This afternoon, Thursday, April 25, 2013, a memorial for the first responders to the tragedy in West will take place on Baylor's campus, mostly because our basketball arena, the Ferrell Center, is the largest facility within 50 miles of West in any direction. Baylor should be, and likely is, extremely honored to give this ceremony a home. If there was nothing more to the story than this solemn time of remembrance, I would hope Baylor's students, faculty, and staff would fill that ceremony to show respect for the lives both lost and likely saved. The fact that several people of extreme importance, including President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, will attend that ceremony means there is far more to the story.

I know it's not my place to lecture anyone, nor is it my right to tell others what they should do. The people I'm mostly talking to are either young adults or adults, depending on your definition, fully capable of making rational, reasonable decisions for themselves. Besides, the vast, vast majority will show the respect and class indicative of Texans, in general, and Baylor, specifically. But I also know Baylor and its community as well as just about anyone, I suppose, from my years there. This is an overwhelmingly conservative (read: Republican) campus that in another context would not welcome the President with the most open of arms. Giving our students the benefit of the doubt, the reasons for that are mostly political. Today, they are also totally irrelevant.

Six sitting Presidents have visited Baylor University before for various reasons, all of them invited by the University to speak and be given an honorary degree, or, in the case of George W. Bush, to conduct an economic forum with our campus as a backdrop. All previous presidential visits have been positive occasions where politics had a place. Today, when President Obama becomes the seventh, is completely different. President Obama is not coming to Baylor to visit our campus or be given a piece of paper adorned with fancy seals, he's coming to honor those who lost their lives so that others might live. With him will be thousands of firefighters and emergency responders from across the country mourning their comrades, citizens of West and the surrounding area mourning their friends and loved ones, and countless others standing in solidarity. The Ferrell Center will likely be packed. And there will be no room for politics anywhere.

Today, you have an opportunity to make a statement by not making a statement. Today, you represent us all. It is not enough that the vast majority act as they should; everyone must. The entire country will watch you, Baylor's students, to see how you handle yourselves. Can you rise above petty politics, recognizing there is a time and place and this is not it, or are the ideals we strive for of honor and respect merely words? I know the answer. They don't. So you have to show them.

Today, our campus is being used for something not actually about Baylor at all. It's about West. We (you) have no role in this except to be gracious hosts, sensitive to the moment and respectful of all, no matter how little you might want to. Disagree about relatively minor things like politics tomorrow. Today, we honor heroes.