Rev. Tracy Howe Wispelwey was published in the Presbyterian Outlook, contributing a feature article in the annual college ministry issue. Her article featured several students. The Outlook is sending a few extra copies for anyone who wants to grab one. They’ll be in the Gathering Space next week!
Black Lives Matter and College Ministry, by Rev. Tracy Howe Wispelwey
In 2012 I took a pilgrimage to Ferguson, MO in the wake of protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown. I went with fellow faith leaders and activists to listen and learn the context of what was unfolding. These protests were not going away. In fact, by the time I arrived in early December, four months after it all began, it had become the longest sustained protest in U.S. history. These young people were starting a movement.
At the time, our media was only offering caricatures of events and people…black people burning things and looting, white people justifiably scared. Indignant police. Chaos and reaction. Since then, however, the movement has galvanized in many different forms and just last month the collective Movement for Black Lives released a comprehensive platform composed by a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country.
|“Black humanity and dignity requires black political will and power. In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.” -Platform of the Movement For Black Lives|
The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has endorsed the platform in its entirety. The PC(USA) has been working to address and dismantle racism for decades and at this year’s general assembly, voted to revise the denomination’s anti-racism policy naming for the first time “white supremacy” as the system keeping racism intact despite emancipation and despite desegregation and the policy gains achieved by the Civil Rights Movement.
As a campus minister serving the University of Virginia, I have also been deeply engaged in the conversations around race. U.Va. has a troubled history and legacy including slavery, memorializing confederate soldiers, actively fighting integration in the 1950s, and the enrollment of women in the 1960s. Like many universities in this country, continuing bias and racism is reflected in the lack of faculty members of color, declining Black student enrollment, racist epithets and rhetoric wielded by students, and a lack of support for multicultural academic programs and departments. In 2003, a student council president candidate was attacked, her assailant slamming her head into a car while telling her, “no one wants a nigger to be president.” In 2014, “UVA Hates Blacks” appeared on a university sign and during the 2015 spring semester, honor society member Martese Johnson was violently arrested without cause.
|“When Martese Johnson was arrested I was completely horrified and unnerved, but what I found to be even more unnerving were some of the responses from my peers, that Martese was ‘making it about race.’ Not only was it such a violent local reminder of a national crisis, but a reminder of how often racial violence in this country is made invisible or invalidated.”
-Hope Atkins, U.Va. Class of 2018, Poetry & Psychology
The University is addressing these things through institutional efforts to repair the biased historical record and memorialize enslaved persons as well as address the lack of multicultural programing and faculty. The students of color at U.Va. as well as white student activists are organized and articulate. The Black Student Alliance released a comprehensive document, “Towards a Better University,” detailing abuses and continuing racism as well as constructive mandates a year before protests broke out on university campuses across the country, from Mizzou to Yale to Princeton, elevating a similar dialogue nationally.
|“We must hold each other and ourselves accountable for the current state of affairs. Building a sustainable culture of truth demands that we grapple with our complex racial history.” -U.Va. Black Student Alliance, Towards a Better University|
Our Ukirk, Presbyterian Student Fellowship ministry here at U.Va., is small and mostly white. However, we, along with some of the other small protestant campus ministries, started conversations with our students about the Movement For Black Lives and what we might do at U.Va. in solidarity with students of color. Our student’s responses were so encouraging and hopeful. They wanted to talk about these things but didn’t necessarily know how to start. Contextualizing the work of dismantling racism inside of our Christian faith and the call of the Gospels was energizing and empowering. Dealing with contemporary, explicit racism is one thing, but reaching deep inside to address subconscious bias, or reaching far back in history to address the roots of injustice is hard deep work. However, our faith equips us to do just that! The depths which we are willing to bring before God are the depths of redemption possible in Christ. Practicing this with my students is not only necessary in our present day, but I believe it will equip them to live faith filled lives well beyond college.
|“Talking about Black Lives Matter on Tuesday nights at Ukirk has helped me step out of my ordinary routine and comfort zone; if members of my community are suffering, then I shouldn’t remain complacent in my ignorance and idly sit by. I want to remain informed so that I can help spread the awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout our college campus, and do my part to fight systemic inequality.”
-Renée Ritchie, U.Va. Class of 2017, School of Architecture
In the wake of the arrest of Martese Johnson and UVA’s students of color telling story after story of their painful experiences in our community because of racism and implicit bias, some of us started imagining how we might facilitate this sort of deep reflection and lament here and point towards our connections to one another. It led to a diverse gathering of clergy, faith leaders and students, hosted at our campus ministry house, Common Grounds. We designed a public campaign of laments aimed towards acknowledging the historical and present racism in our community and affirming the experiences of our students of color. We organized everything under the banner #PassionWeekUVA. We realized the campaign through social media as well as postering the university grounds each night and eventually painting the beta bridge, a public university landmark.
Some of the posters read like this:
–I lament that despite application rates remaining constant, African American enrollment has declined over the last decade and now sits at only 6% and that U.Va. has been ineffective at retaining black faculty. #LamentRacialDisparity #PassionWeekUVA
–I lament that acting honorably does not include economic justice and paying workers of the university a living wage, #LamentHypocrisy, Passion Week UVA
– I lament the legacy of White supremacy that remains in many fraternities and goes unchallenged and unrecognized. #LamentInstitutionalizedRacism #PassionWeekUVA
Then, on Easter Sunday, the posters and social media changed and read, “#Commit to Truth.”
–I commit to advocating for people of color and proclaiming truth about racism within my community. #CommitToTruth #PassionWeekUVA
There were 14 of us in the original meeting. By the end of the week the web page we had established, explaining what we were doing and its relation to Holy Week had over 10,000 views. Thousands more had encountered the campaign through social media and the posters on grounds.
Though this did not the end of racism at U.Va., it demonstrated deep community reflection and that many are deeply engaged and that we are ready and mobilized and working for transformation.
|“We created Passion Week UVA during an especially tense time at the University of Virginia. Long existing undercurrents of racism, homophobia, misogyny, rape culture, and white privilege were being dredged to the surface, attracting national media attention. Day after day I would edge by television reporters on my way to class. I felt helpless talking to friends who seemed to be more concerned with the image of the University than human dignity. I was frustrated at student leaders, in the complex system of student self governance, for ending rallies about systematic oppression with the Good Ole Song, UVA’s fight song, in a time when the institution of UVA in no way “cheered my heart” and was definitely not a “bright and gay” place.
“As a small eccumenical group, we developed a list of lamentations about our University and community, and shared these lamentations as posters taped up around university grounds during passion week. There was an anonymity about putting up posters, exclaiming in bold letters things like “I lament the culture of privilege and white silence at UVA” that I found especially empowering. It wasn’t about permission or getting credit, but about finding the Third Way to work against unjust systems.
“My hope for Passion Week UVA was that who ever needed to see the posters would see them, whether that be a faculty member oblivious to our concerns or a student feeling alone in their convictions. At a time when the loudest voices were protecting institutions and tradition over justice and truth, Passion Week UVA gave me a way to feel empowered answer God’s call, to fight against systems of oppression, and to seek justice without pride or fear.”
-Maggie Rogers, U.Va. Class of 2016, Architecture
We are three years into a movement led by young people of color in this country. It is a movement to end violence and state sanctioned racism. It is a movement for black lives but working to liberate us all, black, white, undocumented, lgbtq…all of us. Our Christian faith uniquely equips us for the deep reflection, courage and perseverance to transform society and culture, to dismantle racism and build the beloved community. Engaging this movement and issues of race is critical for campus ministry groups and also presents a unique opportunity for deep Christian discipleship and community building.
|“My hope for the U.Va. community is that all students feel welcome, valued, and safe. I believe talking about race and the Black Lives Matter movement at Ukirk is important because we need to be engaged in combating messages of hate at our university and the maltreatment black Uva students face.”
-Martha Fulp-Eickstaedt, U.Va. Class of 2017, Creative Writing & Sociology
I do not know exactly what resurrection in the aftermath of slavery and racism will look like. I know that its confluence with violence and guns in our world will continue to be devastating and fatal. I think we have a long way to go to heal from it all. But the possibility of life is in all things through Christ Jesus and we testify to it when we also, freed in life, enter into the wounds of the world with that same life and possibility.