“I realized my passion at First Missionary Baptist Church in Kinloch at five years old when I stepped in front of the choir for my first solo,” stage, film and television star Jenifer Lewis told all those in attendance during her speech for Webster University’s 96th Annual Commencement Ceremony.
She would proceed to take the audience from the Muny to church for a moment Saturday morning when she jumped into a spirit filled snipped of the song – the gospel standard “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
“Well, I wasn’t that good when I was five,” Lewis said. “But I thought I was when I saw the reaction of the congregation. People were yelling and shouting. I saw my mama cry for the first time. It was an amazing moment. I stood there with my eyes crossed thinking ‘wow.’”
Her ‘wow’ moment spurred Lewis into to the business of become a stage performer – which led her to study at Webster University’s famed Conservatory of Theatre.
A member of the class of 1979, Lewis stood before the current graduates as one of the school’s most famous alumni thanks to a career in New York and Broadway that began soon after she walked across the stage.
She demanded that each member of the current group of graduates find their own passion and chase it while imparting the lessons she had learned along the way for them to take into the next chapter of their lives through a series of promises.
“Finding your passion is a way of falling in love with yourself,” Lewis said. “But promise me and your families that you will take care of yourselves – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” Lewis said with her booming voice.
Part of that self-care should include finding a support system.
“Promise yourselves that when you need help that you will be brave enough to ask for it,” Lewis said. “There are 7.2. billion people on this planet – there will always be at least one to see you through.”
The clouds threatened to burst at any moment, but just as she has done over course of her career, she commanded the audience’s attention and made them forget about the constant threat of thunderstorms.
“The elevator to success is broken. You must take the stairs,” Lewis said. “Sometimes climbing the steps can be hard. Your knees hurt, your back hurts, and you’re out of breath. Sometimes you slip and fall. When these hits come, I want you to take the opportunity to gather wisdom before you take that next step.”
Her personal ‘hits’ were especially close to home.
“There were a couple of that stopped me dead in my tracks,” Lewis said. “Coming to terms with my mental illness, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina – and yes Ferguson. Those tanks were ten minutes from my mama’s house. My brothers and sisters could smell the tear gas from their homes. Sometimes life can hit you so hard you don’t know what to do.”
She offered the practical advice that she applied to her own life.
“Then you’ve got to grab hold to that railing, pull yourself up and keep it moving,” Lewis said. “Yes honey, I said that to myself many times in my life. ‘Jenny, you’ve got to just keep it moving.’ Take a deep breath and keep it moving.”
What seemed to matter most in Lewis message was her plea to reach back and pay it forward.
“Pace yourselves and please help others while you’re on your journey – even when you think can’t,” Lewis said. “And please help others when you get there. Because make no mistake, when it’s all said and done, it is your humanity that will matter above all things.
Your generation is so much better equipped. You have the technology to connect instantly. One tweet or one post can raise enough consciousness to light billions on the path to what is right and just.”
As she bid farewell, Lewis couldn’t resist a final taste of her tongue and cheek humor.
“I want you to leave here proud of your achievements,” Lewis said. “See the world, world and have great adventures. Have great sex…I mean success…wait I didn’t mean to say that. Have great success.
Thirty six years ago when I sat where you are, I never would have imagined being where I am – and standing in front of you. But like it says in “The Lion King” such is the circle of life.
God bless you – and go get ‘em tiger.”