As often happens on a campus with strong religious ties, the commencement speaker began with a personal story about life and faith -- with a hint of the miraculous.
The speaker flashed back to a specific date -- March 27, 1975 -- when he had flunked out of college and was poised to enlist in the U.S. Army. Then, during a visit to his mother's beauty parlor, a woman he didn't know gazed into his eyes and demanded that someone bring her a pen.
"I have a prophecy," she said, writing out key details. She told him: "Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people."
That's the kind of thing Pentecostal Christians say to future preachers all the time. But in this case she was talking to Denzel Washington, a future Hollywood superstar. The key, he recently told 218 graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans, is that her words rang true.
"I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that's not the most important thing," said the 60-year-old Washington, who received an honorary doctorate in the ceremony. "What she told me that day has stayed with me ever since.
"I've been protected. I've been directed. I've been corrected. I've kept God in my life and He's kept me humble. I didn't always stick with him, but he's always stuck with me. … If you think you want to do what you think I've done, then do what I've done. Stick with God."
Then, in a short speech that sounded more like a sermon, Washington pounded home his main point -- speaking slowly to stress each word.
"Put. God. First," he said, in a video that went viral online. "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 son of a Pentecostal pastor, Washington has become more open about his faith as an adult, especially since the 1996 movie "The Preacher's Wife," in which he played an angel -- Cary Grant's role in the 1947 classic "The Bishop's Wife -- sent to save a workaholic minister's marriage. Today, Washington and his wife Pauletta attend the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles.
Meeting with journalists in 2010, he described how he seeks moral and biblical themes in his movies to link his work and his faith. After his first reading of "Training Day" -- the film for which he won the best actor Oscar, playing the corrupt detective Alonzo Harris -- Washington wrote, "the wages of sin is death" on the title page.
Whatever they pursue in life, the actor encouraged the Dillard graduates to "fail big" and be willing to "take chances -- professionally" while pursuing goals they are passionate about. However, he warned that in this "text, tweet, twerk world that you've grown up in" it's easy to confuse mere activity with the discipline and consistency required to reach goals.
Also, success will never be enough in life, he warned, because "you will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. I don't care how much money you make, you can't take it with you. The Egyptians tried it. They got robbed. … It's not how much you have, it's what you do with what you have."
True joy and ultimate success, he stressed, is found in helping others. Thus, he included this simple, but symbolic piece of advice.
"I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed tonight, so that when you wake up in the morning you have to get on your knees to reach them," he said. "While you're down there, say 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. …
"Say thank you in advance for what's already yours. That's how I try to live my life," he added. When success comes, it's important to "reach back, pull someone else up. … Don't just aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference."