Commencement Speaker Awarded Honorary Degree

Robert A. Seiple Received Degree Doctor Of Letters

Commencement speaker Robert A. Seiple was awarded an honorary degree at Walla Walla University’s June 16 commencement program for his commitment in advancing global religious freedom. Seiple was awarded the degree doctor of letters, honorus causa,

As the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Seiple was  charged with promoting religious freedom worldwide, promoting reconciliation in those areas where conflict had been implanted along religious lines. His work inspired him to found the Institute for Global Engagement, which promotes sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide through local partnerships.

Seiple challenged graduates to “show as much courage as you have heard about today,” in his address to the 323-member Class of 2013. Seiple shared two stories to illustrate his point.

Seiple spoke of four young missionaries, two male and two female, who went to Southeast Asia in the early 1970s. Though the people accepted them, they were living in a war zone. When a company of North Vietnamese regulars came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail towards the village where the missionaries lived, the young men were captured and marched to Hanoi, where they were placed in jail with the POWS. Deprived of sleep and food, the young men went through daily interrogations and solitary confinement.  In March of 1973, they returned to the United States with the POWS.  The young ladies weren’t so fortunate.  Captured after two days of hiding, they were burned alive.

When Seiple first heard the story, he couldn’t understand why the missionaries, young and na´ve, had gone to a war zone. He asked himself, “What is it about my faith that’s worth dying for?”

The second story was a personal experience. During his time at the State Department, Seiple traveled to the country of Laos, which had a poor religious freedom record. In one village, Christians were especially harassed. The Christian church building was taken from the Christians and turned into a school. Christianity was even outlawed. However,  a few faithful Christians continued to meet near the church. Upon meeting these people and seeing their mistreatment, Seiple demanded that the local government make changes, threatening that relationship between Laos and the U.S. would suffer. Seiple offered to raise money in the U.S. for a school, and the Laos officials agreed that when there was a new school, they would return the church to the Christians. One year later, Seiple returned to the village, with a check for the new school.  The church was returned to the Christians, freshly painted with a manicured lawn. 

As Seiple was leaving the village, he heard two Foreign Service officers speaking behind him.  “Next time that Seiple comes to the village, we should take them to the memorial for the two missionaries that were killed,” one said.  Seiple discovered that the young female missionaries he had heard about years ago had been stationed in Laos.  “I finally understood why the young, na´ve missionaries had gone so far from home to a war zone,” he said.

“They went 10,000 miles away because Jesus Christ had a call and a claim upon their lives,” said Seiple. “He wanted them. He called them. He asked them to do what he wanted them to do, and sometimes, out of the martyr’s blood, you do indeed get a church sown. And in Laos today, there is a church sown and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  

Seiple provided four conclusions from his stories.  First, some stories take a while to tell.  Second, some things are worth dying for, and “if we don’t know what’s worth dying for, we won’t know what’s worth living for.”  Third, stories are meant to be inclusive.  “They are supposed to bring us into community and to connect us with one another,” he said.  Finally, he concluded that courage needs to be modeled.  “Once modeled,” he said, “it stands on its own.  Once modeled, it’s irresistible.  Once modeled, it cannot be ignored.”

Beyond his work for the government and the institute he founded, Seiple spent 11 years as the president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization and served as the president of Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

Seiple is also a decorated veteran, serving as a caption in the U.S. Marine Corps, flying 300 combat missions during the Vietnam War.  He was awarded five Battle Stars, the Navy Commendation Award with Combat ‘V,’ 28 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.


Published July 8, 2013.

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