Last night I walked into Brandeis' Bernstein-Marcus administration building, site of the current Ford Hall 2015 sit in. Students had been occupying the space since Friday. However, between a weekend confirmation retreat and Sunday church responsibilities, Monday was the first chance I had to connect with #ConcernedStudents2015.
Greeted by a liaison, I was told that the students were having an intense town hall meeting. This was not the best time to drop in. I was directed to another section of the building where undergraduate and graduate students not occupying the space were sharing why they had come to visit. Some spoke about the tokenism they felt when called out in classes to speak for all black people. Others spoke about the lack of diversity on campus in the Psychological Counseling Center staff.
Others spoke as allies. One student had been writing a paper in the library earlier in the day about South African apartheid. Continually hearing chants from protesters around campus, a growing feeling of unease led her to spend the rest of the afternoon researching how she could be an ally. Tonight, she had come to Bernstein-Marcus simply to listen and learn more. Many had come, as one student put it, to be a "sponge."
Another student in the circle cautioned us about use of the word "ally." People often claimed the word as a noun, when really it was best used as a verb. Perhaps a better term, she suggested, was an "accomplice."
After some time in conversation, I headed back to the liaison. She would check with those inside to see if now was an appropriate time for me to enter the space. As the liaison returned, another student came out from the enclave and recognized me as a chaplain. "I think they would appreciate you going in," she said. The liaison nodded to me, "I think that's your pass."
As I walked through the halls, I imagined what it must have been like for the African-American students to have occupied the campus in 1969, at that time demanding greater minority representation. After 11 days of the Ford Hall occupation, then President Morris Abram stated that every legitimate demand would be met in good faith. Out of this occupation calling for systemic institutional change, the Afro and African-American Studies Department was established. Today, though Ford Hall does not exist on Brandeis campus, inspired students have taken on its name.
Walking through the halls at Bernstein-Marcus, I saw both resolve and fatigue. Students had been occupying this space for over 3 days. Supportive students, staff, and others had been bringing in sleeping supplies and food.
One student, after hearing that I was the Brandeis Protestant Chaplain, called me aside to talk. He had gone to the campus center earlier that day, and saw white male adults removing protest signs that student protestors had put up. Shocked and dismayed, this young man called out and pleaded for these adults to listen. To his dismay, the student was ignored as the adults walked away.
As a person of privilege (a white, straight, Protestant male) these stories are always hard for me to hear. But I know that I must hear them. It is the narratives of injustice that will be the catalyst of change. As I left Bernstein-Marcus later that night, I recalled an anti-racism training that I had been a part of over a year before. I remembered the clear articulation of four areas of racism- Personal (values, beliefs, and attitudes); Interpersonal (actions, behaviors, and language); Institutional (rules, policies, procedures, and legislation); and Cultural (beauty, truth, and who determines what is right and normal). These students had stories of personal and interpersonal racism on the campus that they loved. As another staff pointed out to me the day before, the reason for the sit in was that these students DID love Brandeis. They appreciated what the University offered, and its unique identity founded in social justice. It was out of this love that students were challenging an imperfect institution, seeking to make it better, more diverse, more inclusive, and more in alignment with its identity rooted as a social justice school.
As I left that night, I reflected on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who had visited the Brandeis campus multiple times during his lifetime. In 1966, pastors and rabbis from the Boston area had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and felt compelled to put their faith into action in Boston, founding Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries (CMM, www.coopmet.org). Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King's inspired leadership of the civil rights movement did much to bring our country and its institutions to a different place with respect to race.
Still, 50 years later, Brandeis students are all too aware that Waltham, Massachusetts, and a liberal University like Brandeis aren't as perfect as we think we are. Racism exists here, at all levels. Students last night were fatigued, but resolved; exhausted, but still filled with passion.
One exhausted Christian student last night asked me for words of encouragement. I shared with him the story of Jesus in the temple. Seeing injustice, Jesus turned over the tables of the money-changers in Jerusalem, protesting that the house of God had become a house of money. Anger, I told this young man, is a sacred emotion. What's crucial is how we channel our anger. Jesus channeled anger by speaking the truth and acting from a place of nonviolent love. Jesus' teaching to turn the other cheek and walk the next mile, I shared with him, were not exhortations for being a doormat. Rather, these teachings were a form of nonviolent resistance to established power. Historic movements including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by the nonviolent example of Jesus. Jesus responded to hatred and fear with light and love, not vengeance. "Hate cannot drive out hate," said Martin Luther King Jr. "Only love can do that." Last night, I saw the power of that love in action.