The Heartbeat of Union: Who’s Here?

“Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize that teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives”

Ella’s Song, Sweet Honey in the Rock

I have a terrible “poker face”. If I’m excited or displeased, you’ll know before I open my mouth. I’m still working on that. When I first heard of the “Keeping Ferguson Alive” discussion, my face immediately told my story. I was doubtful. Apprehensive, even. Usually when well-meaning people with degrees and relative privilege have discussions about where we go from here, we miss the fact that the people who should actually be speaking aren’t even invited to the table. We should always be curious.

But then I saw the list of panel participants, and I felt much better. The panel consisted of four Union students, Khadijah Abdul-Mateen, Aimme Rogers, Kendrick Kemp, and Foster J. Pinkney, professor of philosophy Dr. Cornel West, and Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. These are six incredible leaders of their own merit. The four students are incredibly active and engaged on campus and in their community. It absolutely makes sense that these students were sent to Ferguson this summer on behalf of Union Theological Seminary. Dr. West, framed the conversation as an extension of the “militarization of our schools”, alluding to the practices of security scanning in public high schools. Rev. Sekou provided heartfelt reflections on what it means to be a preacher in the midst of societal turmoil. For me, it made sense that these six brothers and sisters could offer harmonious reflection together. And it meant something special to me to see this conversation happen with people I trusted leading the discussion.

Still, it isn’t just about who’s on the stage. It’s about who’s there to listen.

As a teacher, I know that coordinating any kind of off-campus visit is a headache in itself. But when full time teacher and Union student Grace O’Keefe invited seven of her students to join her in this discussion, I saw love.

I happened to sit right in front of Grace and her students while I was live-tweeting the event. These students weren’t paraded around like cutesy mascots. These students were meaningfully engaged in the conversation with a beloved teacher. I listened to them snap at high points of energy, gasp at provoking statements, and ask questions like “are we getting scanning too? Don’t they see how that won’t work?” In fact, the first two questions from the audience were questions that Ms. O’Keefe’s class had written on index cards. At one point, Foster Pinkney spoke to the reality of stifling pedagogy as an obstacle to true liberation, and quickly a student from Ms. O’Keefe’s class said “well, that’s why I’m glad we have our Senior Seminar with Ms. O”.

More than once Wednesday night, panelists spoke to the courageous leadership of young people. I could easily write about what amazing things Dr. West said, but you’d expect that. I could easily talk about Rev. Sekou’s charisma or Aimme Roger’s insightful food justice question. But that’s expected, and you can still check out the video link here. I think the panelists would rather that I use this opportunity to share that students in this city, and others, are absolutely ready to participate in a revolution. I trust that all of the members of that panel would want me to take this time to remind us to listen to the children. Are we ready to take them seriously?

The thing about town hall community discussions is that it’s hard to call people to action without employing the top-down model. I was initially skeptical because I’ve seen charismatic leaders throw slogans rather than solutions. But if anything was learned from this experience, it is that teachers like Ms. O’Keefe and students like hers are seeking a community of encouragement and recognition. Do we hear them when they speak out against school closings or unfair enrollment practices? I stayed after the panel and watched Ms. O’Keefe introduce her students to the panelists. Full of energy and excitement, one thing became clear– when children move to the beat of their own drum (or Beats Headphones), the revolution begins.

I got two sermons that Wednesday night. One from the comments of dynamic panelists, and another from the reciprocated love between Ms. O’Keefe and her students. I am still processing how beautiful it was to see a teacher and her students in the loving fellowship of civic engagement. If we think this movement is happening without young people, we are seriously mistaken. And as it proved clear that night, young people all over this country are using their own language to make sense of Michael Brown’s death. It is time to listen to the youngest among us.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.

 

The Heartbeat of Union: An Introduction

I had a personal pre-orientation initiation into Union. On Saturday August 23rd, I went to a protest in support of Eric Garner and his family. Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island after being apprehended by an officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The officer used an illegal chokehold move that killed Eric Garner, and the death was ruled a homicide. His death was a reminder that extrajudicial killings are still happening in this country.

In this spirit, thousands gathered on Staten Island on this particular Saturday to show support for Eric Garner and to resound a chorus of voices against the incredibly bloody summer. Garner’s story was just one drop of water in a bucket of chilling ice water over the heads of Black people. I was drowning.

Michael Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Aiyana Jones. Rekia Boyd. Renisha McBride. The list unfortunately goes on. James Baldwin reminds us that to be “Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And this summer seemed like a continuous flow of reminders that I was not worth defending as a Black American, as a woman, as a person. I was angry. And unapologetically so.

When I remember that people are continually abused by a system that pretends to protect, I am enraged. I find this rage liberating and compelling to action. But I also acknowledge that it can be paralyzing. What moves me to action is the community of friends that promise to hold me accountable to a larger goal– making sure this never happens again. While I really wanted to curl into a ball and never leave my bed, I felt a tug to be near other people who were also hurting. I needed a community.

I think of formal protest activities as analogous to church membership. Sitting in church does not make me a Christian, and going to a rally does not make me an activist. But tethering in these communities connects me to people who are like-minded. When done right, participation in these communities keeps me accountable to my values. I am among people who are on the same journey. I can do the work because I have people who hold my hand.

So on this particular Saturday, I was with a beloved community of friends from my home church. By some divine order, our group ran into another group of activists and faith leaders. I saw a woman with a “#myUnion” orientation t-shirt. Part of me had not yet transitioned into my new identity as a Union student. My pastor nudged me, “Go talk to her! This is a classmate of yours!”

Shy and nervous, I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Candace. You go to Union? Me too, this is my first year!”

“I’m Rebecca, I’m a first year, too!”

I don’t remember anything after that conversation. I was so struck by the “coincidence” that everything after our initial greeting dissipated into the deep recesses of my mind. Of all the people I could have met that day, I ran into a soon-to-be-classmate. What was the Universe trying to teach me in that moment?

Most times, when I imagine God’s voice, I imagine Morgan Freeman from Bruce Almighty. I’m still reminding myself that God speaks through coincidences. What if running into this eventual classmate was a reminder that my faith was indeed an integral part of my identity as an activist? What if this encounter was a message that I was not alone? What if this experience was a nudging from the Heavens to stay true to my politics, my faith, my identity as I embark on this new journey? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m growing in wrestling with them. That’s what seminary is for, right?

That’s why we’re starting a blog called “The Heartbeat” here at Union. In our bodies, the heart’s beating is nothing short of magic and miracle. The heartbeat is a sign of life, originating in our chests and pumping blood throughout a complicated system. But the heartbeat isn’t isolated. We get a sense of the heart’s beating from the pulse in the wrist and neck. As our heart beats to reminds us that we live, social justice is the reminder why we live. It is our charge and our responsibility. It is the “rent we pay” for living on this Earth, as Shirley Chisholm challenges us.

The Heartbeat will cover stories of social justice beyond the walls of 3041 Broadway. Each of us has taken a special journey to this place, and we honor this journey by proving the work we do at Union is meaningful. We can use theology to speak to people, rather than speaking beyond them. The Heartbeat of our institution is social justice. Let’s check our vitals.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.