2015, Good News
“Put. God. First,” Denzel Washington said with punctuated emphasis. “Put God first in everything you do. Everything that you think you see in me, everything that I’ve accomplished, everything you think that I have – and I have a few things – everything that I have is by the grace of God. Understand that. It’s a gift.”
The Academy award winning actor’s May 9 commencement address was greeted with applause and amens at Dillard University, the historically black university in New Orleans. Washington’s advice to the young people dealt with passion, humility, materialism, and gratitude.
Washington reminded the graduates that their personal accomplishment was a collaborative effort with supportive friends and family. As his acting career began to flourish, Washington’s mother reminded him, “If you only knew how many people have been praying for you.” In order to combat a potential over-inflated ego, his mother recalled “how many prayer groups she put together, and how many prayer cloths she gave me, how many times she splashed me with holy water to save my sorry behind.”
Washington admitted to the graduates that 40 years ago he was flunking out of college with a 1.7 GPA (“I hope that none of you can relate”). “I remember sitting in my mother’s beauty parlor [in New York] and I’m looking in the mirror and I see this woman behind me under the dryer. Every time I looked up, she was looking at me right in the eyes,” recalled Washington who was a 20-year-old student at Fordam University at the time.
“Somebody give me a pen!,” said the woman. “I’m having a prophecy!” It was March 27, 1975. “Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people,” the woman prophesied over Washington.
“Now mind you,” recalls Washington, “I’m flunking out of college and thinking about joining the Army. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“Well, I have travelled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that is not the most important thing – the success that I’ve had. The most important thing is that what she told me that day has stayed with me since,” Washington testified. “I’ve been protected. I’ve been directed. I’ve been corrected. I’ve kept God in my life and it has kept me humble. I didn’t always stick with Him, but He stuck with me. So stick with Him.”
The graduates were encouraged to pursue their passions in life. “Do what you feel passionately about. Take chances – professionally,” Washington said. “Don’t be afraid to go outside the box. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to fail big, to dream big, but remember, dreams without goals, are just dreams. … I try to give myself a goal every day, sometimes it’s just not to curse somebody out. Simple goals…. To achieve these goals you must apply discipline and consistency.”
Washington told the graduates and their family members that joy and success in life was found in helping others. “You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse,” he told them. “I don’t care how much money you make, you can’t take it with you. … It’s not how much you have, it’s what you do with what you have. The Egyptians tried it. They got robbed. That’s where the joy is, in helping others. That’s where the success is.”
Gratitude was the final virtue that Washington drove home with the graduates. “While you’re [on your knees], say thank you. Thank you for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents, thank you for love, thank you for kindness, thank you for humility, thank you for peace, thank you for prosperity. … True desire in the heart for anything good is God’s proof to you sent beforehand to indicate that it’s yours already. … When you get it, reach back, pull someone else up.
“Don’t aspire to make a living,” he concluded. “Aspire to make a difference.”
Washington was raised in church. His father was a preacher who simultaneously worked for the water company during the day and as a security guard at night. The woman in the beauty parlor was Ruth Green, one of the elders in the church with the gift of prophecy.
As a young man, Washington found himself exploring Eastern philosophies and reading the Qur’an in his search for personal meaning and inner peace. In 1979, director Robert Townsend took Washington to West Angeles Church of God in Christ — a Pentecostal megachurch in South Central Los Angeles. He has been a faithful member ever since that Sunday.
Like many other artists with a spiritual yearning, Washington was tempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a minister. He even asked his pastor, Bishop Charles Blake, if he should become a preacher. Blake and Washington agreed that he was right where God wanted him. “So my work is my ministry,” he said. “I’ve always understood why I’ve been blessed to be put in this situation. And I’m more than happy to take advantage of it and to preach, if you will, about what God has done in my life.”
Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck. This appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Good News.