Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Diversity Work on Campus, the Sanctuary Movement, and Other Good Gifts of this Tuesday

Today at Hillel, the professional organization of religious workers on campus (the aptly named University Religious Workers) enjoyed at our monthly gathering a rich conversation with Thomas Browne. Tom is Senior Assistant Dean for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) as well as the Minority/Disadvantaged student coordinator for CALS. 

Tom shared candidly, clearly, and generously about the on-campus realities that result in some students leaving their UW experience as "Badgers for life" while others leave beaten down, noting that students and faculty of color are disproportionately likely to find themselves in the latter camp. Though hopefully not news to the gathering in the "new" sense (because it's not), Tom illuminated the conversation with historical references, a clear summary of current university structures and initiatives, and areas for growth - including ways communities of faith on campus can support and share in this work.

Tom highlighted the support of Chancellor Becky Blank with respect to the work of diversity and opening the resources of the UW to all people. In particular, he drew attention to the following statement for which the hope is "that it becomes a part of the fabric of the UW."

The statement's language about excellence and its pursuit, and their relationship to diversity, called to mind the following quote of St. Francis de Sales that has been rattling around in my heart for the last come of weeks:
the Church is a garden patterned with countless flowers, so there must be a variety of sizes, colors, scents — ​of perfections, after all. Each has its value, its charm, its joy; while the whole vast cluster of these variations makes for beauty in its most graceful form.
There is both the variety of perfections and that perfection that requires our God-given variety.

Later on in the day, some interfaith and ecumenical colleagues and I met at Pres House with Rabbi Bonnie Margulis to talk about the Sanctuary movement in Madison, in which St. Francis House played an important historical role. Again, as with the university's desire to weave the commitment to diversity into the life of the university, we found ourselves imagining what it would look like for especially communities of faith on campus to make visible the communication of safe spaces, not just or even primarily in a residential sense, but spaces that visibly communicate a space made safe for conversation. Early in the day, Tom Browne had characterized such spaces my mutual trust and genuine respect: i.e., "I respect your background, and you respect I don't get it, but I'm here."

In the conversation with Rabbi Bonnie, we observed that the commitment to be people and places of sanctuary is very often in place, that is, is oftentimes already embedded within the faith traditions to which we adhere. What is needed then, says my friend and director of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry Ulrich Rosenhagen, is intentional connection to the peculiar aspects of our traditions that bring us into these conversations. These aspects for solidarity are, of course, diverse. So, for example, Episcopalians might point to the baptismal promise that Christ is there, in each one, to be sought and served. But how is it that people of faith who possess such foundations find it difficult to give them voice? Is there, somehow, a beautiful opportunity in the invitation to solidarity and partnered diversity exactly the possibility of reconnecting with each tradition's peculiar variety of perfection? In other words, what if Christian identity is not preserved in isolation, but rather quite the opposite?

In his marvelous little book, Being Christian, Rowan Williams writes that
...baptism means being with Jesus 'in the depths': the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need - but also in the depths of God's love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be
If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else. To be able to say, 'I'm baptized' is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected - you might even say contaminated - by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied. And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world. To put it another way, you don't go down in to the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!
When we are brought to be where Jesus is in baptism we let our defences down so as to be where he is, in the depths of human chaos. And that means letting our defences down before God. Openness to the Spirit comes as we go with Jesus to take this risk of love and solidarity..." 
None of this can be taken for granted or taken as obvious, least of all for Christians. In her thought-provoking book Disunity in Christ Christena Cleveland cites research that suggests that Christians can be more favorably inclined toward Christians who are different from themselves, by focusing on primary identities, like baptism. Alarmingly, being so inclined often results in harsher treatment toward non-Christians. This reality is so true as to likely be the Christian's basic experience and also the non-Christian's experience of Christians. In other words, the act of being present and connected to the unique perfections is necessary both because it will ground us and because the world is not accustomed to articulations like these in the name of Christ.

Lord, open our Lips. And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.

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