Historically Black Colleges and Universities Recognition

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta
September 12, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

What joy is here this morning!  Joy like we’ve just experienced in song and praise is a mark of being fully alive.  The presence of joy is a sign of abundant life. 

We’re here to celebrate education as a vitally important resource for abundant life – not only for students, but for the world around us.  The Episcopal Church has been involved in education, health care, and food ministries for a very long time, because we take our example from what Jesus did.  He fed, healed, and taught people wherever he went, and when he did, he told them, ‘here’s the presence of God, the kingdom of God.  You’re experiencing abundant life, right here and right now.’ 

We understand that Jesus shows us what God is like in human flesh.  We also insist that we can see God in our neighbors, if we look.  And we think that the immense variety of human beings shows us more clearly what God is like.  That great diversity of human voices, experiences, cultures, languages, and social locations reveal more of God’s truth.  We value diversity.  From the beginning we’ve insisted that worship should celebrate our love of God in ways that make sense to a local culture, and we use the gifts of music, language, dance, and art that are unique to that culture – and we also do it in a framework, a broad tradition, that is shared across cultures.  We hold unity and diversity in tension, believing that the tension is ultimately creative.

All of that has a great deal to do with why Episcopalians have been active in educational institutions and particularly in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Voorhees and St. Augustine’s and other schools and educational endeavors were founded to help African-American students develop their capacity for leadership in their communities and everywhere – so that more of the world might enjoy abundant life.  The schools represented here today have shaped many, many leaders in the context of a community of support, challenge, and encouragement.  We expect that you students will take your place among other strong leaders who have walked the halls of St. Aug and Voorhees and other HBCUs – as scientists and journalists, academics and politicians, musicians and artists, bishops and judges, athletes, actors, teachers, and parents.  That diversity of leaders is needed because we’re still looking for abundant life everywhere.      

The world isn’t yet the way we would want it to be.  Everyone does not live in joy and peace.  Justice does not reign everywhere.  The world needs transformation and change, and you can be that change.  A leader is an agent of change, someone who gathers and encourages others to transform a system, community, or even an individual.  There are leaders in all walks of life – teachers, community organizers, legislators and mayors, priests and pastors, healers of all sorts, mentors and friends.  Voorhees and St. Aug exist to help students like you change the world into something that looks more like abundant life for everyone.  You can call it unleashing joy, or setting people free to use their native gifts in ways that bless and heal the world around them.

These schools exist to help set people free, starting with each one of you, and then spreading abroad into the world we share.  Learning is an invitation to explore, to think new thoughts and make new connections, to use your heart in new ways, to discover and experiment, venture into new intellectual realms and dream dreams of moral greatness – like brother Martin Luther King and sister Harriet Tubman.  To heal nations and lead them into more abundant life for all their citizens, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Barack Obama. 

Leaders are needed in families, grade schools, in block clubs and in work places – wherever people yearn for greater freedom and deeper joy.  Leaders are needed in Congress, which seems to have forgotten how to listen to diverse opinions. 

Yet joy always has a cost.  You have to go through the blues to find it – you can’t go around those blues or forget them.  No joy without the kind of hard work, endurance, and even suffering that we call passion.   You can hear that passion in midst of the blues, not yet resolved.  Joy eventually does come, in the morning light of resolved and resurrected blues.  Leaders go through that blue night, expecting the morning.

There’s a profound opportunity for leadership right now in an issue that affects many of you.  We know that a college education is a significant element in determining how families succeed economically.  Yet poverty continues to increase in this nation, and the economic divide is getting wider and wider.[1]  The wealth disparity in this country is compounded by the debt load of many college students.  The US Department of Education recently changed the qualification criteria for student loans in ways that have made it harder for many of you and your parents to qualify.  This is especially significant for first-generation college students.[2]  We need federal policy that will provide greater educational opportunity for low and moderate income families.  How might we organize a campaign among the HBCUs and other educational institutions to work with the Department of Education for a different outcome?  It would need leadership from administrators and students and the collaboration of other allies.  This is deeply important – and urgent.

One of the particular assets of schools like Voorhees and St. Aug is the community of support and encouragement they provide.  Students are befriended and accompanied by faculty and staff who know something about being the first person in a family to go to college, who are willing and able to help find resources for childcare and employment, who can build bridges to resources that students haven’t yet discovered.  A community like that is building an environment of abundant life – making joy and possibility real in the face of what can seem like intractable problems.  That may include helping students learn to drive and how to give a speech, how to encourage fellow students and your own children, how to design a computer program and how to organize a response to a community issue.  The ability to turn problems into possibilities is called leadership. 

We’ve seen a deeply serious example of that kind of leadership in the world in recent days.  For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing that Syria needed to be punished for using chemical weapons.  We’ve been horrified by the vast numbers of people killed by both sides in that conflict.  Most people assumed that our government was going to use violence against Syria, knowing that it likely would not stop the violence there.  And suddenly in the last couple of days there has been some movement, some greater possibility of a different response.  We don’t have the perspective yet to analyze all parts of this situation, but leadership has clearly been exerted in the willingness to wait, the expansion of possibilities, and the greater openness to dialogue.  There is learning going on in the system, and it is producing hope.

I’m here to encourage you to keep believing that hope and joy are possible.  That is an intrinsic gift of leadership, and it’s developed through the experience of risking something new.  That takes courage, especially the first time.  You’re doing that every day you learn something new.  I want to encourage you to believe in yourself, in the beautiful, beloved person God has created, and in the powerful leader that you can be when you know that deep in your heart. 

You’ve probably heard about the teenaged Pakistani girl who has been advocating for girls’ education in the last couple of years.  The Taliban shot her in the head because her leadership was so effective, but that violence hasn’t stopped her.  She has recovered, and her courage and her voice have grown stronger.  Two months ago she spoke to the United Nations, thanking the world for its care and prayer during her recovery, and for everyone who speaks up for human rights.  Malala notes that the most important of those rights are peace, education, and equality.  It’s a powerful speech, and I commend it to you. [3]

Education sets us free, and education can change the world, one person at a time.  It begins with the student, the learner, and it continues to expand and spread and transform others.  Education literally means drawing out of us what is already planted within, so that it can continue to grow and interact with others.  It’s like the growth that takes off as a seed emerges from the soil into the light.  Education is about discovering who you really are, and the gifted and beautiful and capable person you were created to be.  Education is also about discovering the same thing about others, and that together we can partner to create an open future that we never could have been imagined alone.  The ability to see the image of God in all our brothers and sisters, and to see the intrinsic value of every human being, comes through a particular kind of spiritual education.  Without it, we will not find peace or justice.  Your ability to discover that and put it to work really can change the world.

I hope and pray that you will keep learning – as college students and for the rest of your lives.  I think it was S.I. Hayakawa who said, “the day we stop learning is the day we begin to die.”  Leaders are those who are always willing to go looking for new possibilities, because they live in hope for a future characterized by joy.  May you all be leaders, wherever you are and however you feel called to spend your lives.  May you help to transform the world into one of peace and justice for all people and all creation.  May you walk through and sing through the blues and help create joy – together.