Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Year-end Review

At the end of the semester, I often put together a newsletter for my students and “Friends of Absalom” to remind and share with people the events of the semester. Here are a few highlights and reflections on the semester:

The Minute-to-Win-It Ramadan Party

This year marked the second annual Ramadan If-tar for the Center, and this time “play” was the theme. Sprung from the belief that Interfaith dialogue is most effective when people are allowed first to laugh with and at each other, the Atlanta University Center Muslim Student Association teamed up with AJEC for a night of food and fun. After hours of laughter, play, and some very important theological conversations (such conversations seem to naturally emerge at the Center), it was clear that new friendships had begun and trust was being established.

Absalom Jones Students “Come Out” for Pride

HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have many great attributes, but they have often struggled with creating a safe space for their LGBTQ students. A quick google search of “Morehouse College” and “gay” will reveal a small piece of Morehouse’s difficult journey towards caring for out gay men on their campus.

Over a decade ago, when Morehouse College would not allow a gay/straight alliance (GSA) student organization to meet inside of it’s gates, the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center welcomed the young men into our space and the chaplain assisted them with the process of becoming a recognized student organization on Morehouse’s campus.

While we no longer host GSA meetings at the Center, we continue to offer support for Morehouse College’s queer community by registering and marching in Atlanta’s Pride Parade. This year, 17 young black men representing Morehouse College and AJEC, came out to the Pride Festival and marched in the parade.

The Troy Davis Solidarity March and Vigil

I wish that I could write about my involvement in the struggle to halt the execution of Troy Davis... I wish that I could better articulate my gladness for the countless students from all of the AUC who rallied on his behalf... But the reality is that my grief and disappointment have rendered me speechless. So, perhaps this clip will tell enough of the story of the hope and the strength of my students.

This prayer circle, led by students from the AUC, was held outside of the prison in Jackson, GA on the next that Troy Davis was executed.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Campus might be the quietest place in the city this week. After all, it’s reading week. You know, that week when all the students get to read, catch up, cram, prepare, memorize, repeat, all for their final papers, tests, presentations or projects. I love this quiet. It’s solemn and serene and it’s a great way to wait, anticipate, and prepare in the spirit of Advent.

Reading week happens twice a year, but in the fall the quiet of reading week is particularly noticeable. Maybe it’s the cold weather that gives the students permission to bury themselves inside. In the spring, it’s hard to say no to a beautiful sunny day.

While I enjoy this quiet, I am quickly reminded that the pressures to succeed academically are so intense that students aren’t at all experiencing the quiet. In fact, it’s the busiest time of the year for them, and it’s loud and nervous and pregnant with anxiety.

I saw a video that reminded me of how insane this time of year can be. A large herd of students are gathered together processing into a building like a Black Friday crowd entering a shopping center. But on closer inspection it becomes clear that it’s not a Wal-Mart opening on the biggest sale day of the year, rather it’s the opening of the library at College of William and Mary.

Yes, hundreds of students heading to lay claim on some library property. Maybe they seek their favorite spot, a needed book, or a comfy chair and a room with a view.

The library occupation is like a semi-annual feast of knowledge. Jam in as much as possible and hope for the best. There is an attitude that is shared by many: Do whatever it takes to succeed. For some, the pressure is so much that they feel the need to use Adderall or other “neuroenhancing” drugs. This The New Yorker article describes this phenomenon well. The bottom line is that it’s intense and many are stressed.

It’s not hard to see that in this reading-week/finals craziness coupled with the outside world (off campus) going nuts from the month-long secular Christmas party, that Advent gets violently muted. There is simply no room for this season of waiting, anticipating, and preparing for Emmanuel.

There have been major attempts to direct attention to this beloved season, like the Advent Conspiracy, which was started by a few pastors in 2006 to bring attention to the season, but even the Advent conspirators are more focused on Christmas rather than focusing on the season of Advent.

So how do we wait, anticipate, and prepare in Advent when Bing Crosby is in our head and we have a “Gen Chem” final on Friday?

The bottom line is that it’s really hard to wait. It’s got to be one of the hardest things to do in life. Have you been to the DMV? Uncomfortable, annoying, and beneath us all to wait that long! Even with an iPhone loaded with Angry Birds, standing in line can be the worst! And anticipating is difficult because it’s about looking forward, and when we’re busy looking forward we miss today. And when you start preparing it doesn’t take long to realize that preparation seems more like a metaphor than a literal act, even though there are little things that can be done as we journey toward the light.

So maybe Advent is about tension, and maybe it’s our call to live in the midst that tension. It’s in this tension between darkness and light, quiet and loud, the already and not yet, and the unborn and the born that we find ourselves. And it’s when we find the solemn beauty of living in the quiet chaos when we are truly living out our Advent call.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pepper Spray, Protests, Police, and Finals

People all over the world have seen video footage from November 18th, when a group of protesters here at UC Davis were sprayed in the face with pepper spray.  Justified outrage flowed from all corners of the globe and multiple investigations are now underway.  How could this happen?  Why did it happen and who allowed it?  These are questions that the investigations will hopefully help to answer.  Since then, the drumbeat for Chancellor Katehi to resign intensified and now seems to have subsided a little - pending the investigation.  Tents have taken up residence on the quad, as have port-a-potties, heat lamps, and electrical cords.  In many ways, things are suddenly quite different in the UCD campus' world.

I wasn't here when the pepper spraying occurred.  I was in New York City at church headquarters, and saw the headlines when my plane touched down in Sacramento late that night.  I have students who were on the quad that afternoon and witnessed the incident.  Several expressed great fear and alarm at what they saw.  One has some EMT training and was furious to learn that the paramedics on the scene only had enough saline for four patients - not nearly enough to treat the number of students in need.  She felt very helpless in the midst of much pain.  While many students are united in the belief that the amount of force used was disproportinate to the level of treat posed to the police, I do have some students who feel the protestors had been warned repeatedly to move out of the way, and because they chose not to, they knew what the consequence would be.  These differences of opinion are also reflected in the larger community.

At the big rally on the quad the following Monday, which was attended by thousands of students, faculty, staff, and throngs of media, students shared their experience of being pepper sprayed, and they repeatedly called upon Chancellor Katehi to resign.  She took the stage and apologized for what happened.  After she spoke the crowd visibly began to decrease.  There was a shift in the mood on campus.  While those deeply connected with the Occupy movement remain focused and resolute, it seems the the majority of students have adopted a different stance.  Students in my ministry have stated that while they disagree with the pepper spraying, they no longer think the Chancellor should resign.  Likewise, many of them deeply disagree with the protestors' call to get rid of the police force on campus.  Students want to feel safe, and having a police presence helps provide that.

So what is the role of a Christian ministry in all of this?  First and foremost, I have been incredibly impressed by the students' committment to protesting non-violently.  I mean, part of what makes the video so disturbing is that the protestors are simply sitting on the ground with no way to defend themselves or to return the aggression.  Likewise, Jesus chose the path of non-violence.  He abhorred violence and as Christians we should too.  He also made it a point to consistently challenge the status quo: to expose injustice and the oppressive social systems the benefited only those in power.  This is part of why they killed him.  So all of those aspects are good and right and praiseworthy.  However, we also have an important role to play in fostering dialogue and opening avenues for those who disagree to try to come together.  My colleague Kristin Stoneking has written powerfully on her decision to agree to help mediate between protestors and the administration.  While her sympathies were certainly with the students, she modeled a way to 'respect the dignity of every human being' (as our baptismal covenant states), and in doing so to open a pathway for dialogue to happen.

But most of all, what our faith tradition has to offer in times like these is the ability to proceed without fear.  For a tense few days, everyone was afraid: students were afraid, the police were afraid, the administration was afraid.  And when people operate from a place of fear, oftentimes negative results follow.  But if we can stand in our truth - in the reality that we are all children of God and that in the midst of terrible wrongs there is a path to repentance and forgiveness, then we can help to dial down those fears, and move toward reconciliation and justice.  That is our ministry in this moment on this campus.

I've been asked repeatedly what's going on right now on campus.  Most students are wrapping up their finals.  Some are still in the tents, or sitting in Dutton Hall, but by and large, most are ready to go home for break.  I don't know what next quarter holds, but I'm thankful that we can be here during this important time on campus.