Bridgewater College

Speaking at Bridgewater College’s baccalaureate service on Friday, May 3, the Rev. Wil Nolen urged graduating seniors to seek connections through empathy and acts of kindness in his address, “Washing Feet: A Symbol,” which referenced Jesus’s act of washing feet as a symbol of such acts of kindness.

Feet washing is a practice still observed in the Church of the Brethren as a part of their communion services, known as Love Feasts. Inspired by an ad that ran during February’s Super Bowl, Nolen said he was struck by the ad’s depiction of feet washing in pairs who appeared to differ from each other in race, ethnic origin, language, religion, occupation, class and much more. He said, “The symbols of religious rituals like washing feet convey that we share a worldwide neighborhood.”

Nolen came to Bridgewater College in 1959 from Bassett, Va., a small town known primarily for furniture-making and textiles. In addition to his studies, Nolen worked numerous jobs on campus throughout college, was part of the Church of the Brethren youth leadership, played the piano and organ, sang in choral ensembles, and ran track and cross country. He graduated from Bridgewater in 1963 with a B.A. in music.

Nolen said he takes seriously the call to service, along with valuing and respecting everyone, no matter their background or differences. “We are all part of the great brotherhood/sisterhood of the world,” he said. “Our differences should not keep us from seeing the unity in our common humanity.”

In his address, Nolen also encouraged members of the class of 2024 to consider their social and ethical criteria for the next steps in their educational development and career. He spoke of examples of “here I stand” moments, in which the writers, commentators, politicians and local BC alumni he referenced have expressed their commitment to their values regardless of the cost.

He commended senior Katelin Carter for holding her recent Banned Books Fair on campus, noting that she “expressed her support for exposure to resources by which we learn and grow and against those that control what we learn.”

Nolen concluded his address by referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, noting that when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story that involved someone from an often-despised ethnic group being the neighbor, the one who showed mercy. Returning to the Super Bowl ad, he quoted from its conclusion, “Jesus didn’t teach hate. He washed feet.” Nolen then challenged the audience, “Can we?” Nolen has served on the College’s Board of Trustees since 1993, and he and his wife Joyce have also named The Rev. Wilfred E. and Dr. Joyce A. Nolen School of Business and Professional Studies at the College.

– Olivia Shifflett

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