By Melissa Lauber
At American University in Washington, D.C. students are beginning “to tell a new story” about race and justice. Their witness, being lived out at Kay Spiritual Life Center on campus, took on an added poignance on Feb. 1, the day of the funeral of Tyre Nichols, who was killed by the Memphis police; the start of Black History Month; and a special service of Lament and Commitment to Justice, which featured the preaching of Bishop LaTrelle Easterling.
“With the recent public video release of the violence suffered by Tyre Nichols, I felt that there was a call to embrace the historic and biblical expression of lament as a part of our observances at AU,” said the Rev. Bryant Oskvig, the University Chaplain. “It was not enough to just name those who moved the struggle forward in the past; the community needed space to name the continued trauma and just how far we remain from addressing the white supremacy that defines society.
“AU students are looking for those places that can help them give language to the violence they continue to see in society. They struggle with the exhaustion of the constant expressions of the challenges of our society, and their deep conviction that it should not be this way,” Oskvig said. “A service of lament gives them a space and language to articulate out that experience, as well as giving them hope. They find a community in the expression of sorrow and encouragement for the continued work.”
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Conferences and a member of the American University Board of Trustees, spoke to the students about embarking on a journey of justice “literally through the blood of the slaughtered – through the blood of Tyre Nichols, a young man simply trying to get home.”
Speaking at American University, which was established by United Methodists to bring about a more just and peace-filled world, Easterling talked with the students about the America of today – “Where all men were created equal – yet all were not equal enough to be free,” she said. “Until America is truly America to all, she is America to none.”
She warned the students about sanitizing the message of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. so that it no longer disturbs people. “Just as we have done with Christ, we celebrate the man while ignoring the message,” she said. “We have domesticated him for our own purposes rather than be compelled by his conformist challenge.” We like the part about the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners walking down a heretofore untraversed path. But King also preached about economic, educational, voting, political, labor, land, and legal equality. “That is not the stuff of fairy tales. That is the stuff that eradicates evil.”
Citing Rabbi Daniel Harman, Easterling said that “the core feature of a moral life is to see. Choosing not to see is immoral.”
Oskvig agreed and applauded Easterling for her message and offering new ways of seeing.
“The spiritual message we need is the hope that light will overcome the darkness. With each Black History Month, it is my hope that our national story incorporates the fullness of the impact and contributions of persons of the global majority that we will see white perspectives decentered in the narrative of American history. I think that the spiritual message the students need to hear is that we can tell a new story. This new perspective gives us hope for tomorrow.”
In closing her sermon, the bishop asked: “Where is the hope for us today?”
The hope, she preached, is that “America is still becoming. America is still forming. America is still living into her ideals. We are still a very young nation, and the last chapter has not been written. We are the architects. We are the scribes. We are the justice seekers. We are the ones who can make her creeds and declarations and Amendments a reality. We are the ones who can ensure that the check no longer comes back marked insufficient funds. We are the ones who can loose the shackles and finally set all the captives free. We are the ones who can cease the hypocrisy of being a nation of immigrants now refusing to welcome the stranger. We are the ones who can not only enforce just laws, but also renew hearts and minds. As King aptly stated, ‘The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.’ We can be the nonconformists.”
The ongoing ministry at Kay Spiritual Life Center continues to be empowering “the AU community to be non-conformist in our society, to not be turned from a commitment to justice,” Oskvig said. “Bishop Easterling’s reminder to not let motivations be turned and values be eroded was significant to hear. Our graduates, faculty and staff can be distracted by the standards and motivations of our society and fail to live into the values they articulate.”