These Are Not Easy Times for Bridge-Builders: Berea College Baccalaureate Sermon

Before driving down here to Berea for the first time Friday night, I spent a few days at a church conference in Cincinnati. Our group paid a visit to the Freedom Center Museum, that remarkable tribute to the Underground Railroad. There’s a great view toward the south from the terrace of that building. To your left is the baseball stadium, and to your right there’s another one, just as big, and I’m told there’s a third one close by, so there’s no question, you’re in Cincinnati. But it was the view straight ahead that caught my eye, the view of Mr. Roebling’s grand suspension bridge, across the Ohio River, connecting Ohio to Kentucky. For a native New Yorker like me, it was a very confusing moment. I could have been in Brooklyn Heights, staring at the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge that was built 20 years later by Mr. Roebling’s son, a bridge featuring the same intricate network of cables suspended between a similar pair of neo-Gothic arches. But if I had been in Brooklyn, I would have seen the towers of lower Manhattan looming at me from the other side. What I glimpsed from the Ohio side of the bridge, of course, was not the proud but fragile towers of Manhattan but, to be polite, the more modest skyline of Covington, and the inviting start of the winding road south, the road my wife and I traveled Friday afternoon to arrive here at this amazing place, and to speak to this amazing class of 2014.

What a privilege to be with you all on this day so full of blessing and promise! What a privilege to stand here with the staff and faculty who have been so important in helping you shape your intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives. What a privilege to be here among your families and friends and supporters without whom you could never have done what you have done. I hope you will remember that. And what a privilege President Roelofs has extended to me to stand here in this pulpit—a stranger to this place—and to preach what your founder John Fee called the impartial Gospel of love, and to preach to people like you. You have experienced that impartial love first hand, since the day you first walked on this campus four or two or thirty or however many years ago.

Back in Cincinnati on Thursday, when I was standing on the terrace of the Freedom Museum, staring at that lovely bridge, our tour guide said something that has stayed with me. Gesturing toward Mr. Roebling’s graceful and solid achievement, she told us proudly: “No enslaved person ever crossed that bridge.” That would not have been the case if it had been opened just a few years earlier than it did, because the Roebling bridge didn’t open until 1867, by which time every person of African descent in Ohio or Kentucky was free to cross any bridge they wanted to— legally free anyway, and if only for a time. Formerly enslaved people and their descendants would have to endure 100 years of Jim Crow before the freedom to cross would really be the case. And that would only be the case thanks to the bravery and determination of those who marched for freedom across many another American bridge, including that bloody bridge in Selma.

“No enslaved person ever crossed this bridge.” I wonder what John Fee would have made of that statement. This is my first time in Berea, so I haven’t had the time or chance to research whether he had any comment to make in 1867 when that bridge opened between Cincinnati and Covington. It was about that same year that he and his colleagues returned to this place in the heart of the Appalachian hills, and courageously reopened this college. They were determined to relight the beacon of free inquiry in a nation torn asunder by violence and prejudice and oppression—God bless them for it. They put their lives and livelihoods on the line, fiercely determined that the blood shed in that great civil slaughter would not have been shed in vain.

Class of 2014, the beacon those founders lit is now yours to carry. You have been shaped by an institution whose founders made no peace with oppression, a place of light and learning where the building of bridges is not just a task for structural engineers like John Roebling, but the task of everyone in this room. Bridging the differences separating religion and race and economic class has been and continues to be this college’s sacred vocation. And a rare vocation it is, especially in these violent and polarized days. And now that vocation is yours.

You will not have it easy. These are not easy times for bridge-builders.

Marilynne Robinson, one of the best novelists writing in American today, shares my admiration for Berea College, and for other colleges like it that were founded on evangelical and abolitionist principles—Oberlin, Knox, Grinnell, Carleton. Robinson just published a book of essays with a lovely, poignant title. It’s called When I Was A Child I Read Books. There are too many children in this country about whom that cannot be said. Her book includes a shrewd essay on the founders of Oberlin College, who had not a little to do with the founding of this institution. Learning communities like Oberlin and Berea she would call works of generous imagination, and, as she writes, “the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.” (p. 29) I think that is a good description of how this community came to be, as John Fee and his colleagues in the 1850s imagined a country free of slavery, open to all talents, a community both healthy and humane.

But looking around in the 2010s, Robinson sees a country where such generous imagination has begun to shrivel. Here is what she writes:

Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in a spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.” This tedious pattern, [she writes], has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is…the end of community and the beginning of tribalism. (p.30)

It is with this passage in mind that I chose the text for this baccalaureate sermon, taken from Paul’s second letter to his congregation in Corinth, a community whose generous imagination had also begun to shrivel. Paul knew that the church in Corinth, the church that he had founded, had begun to draw up sharp lines of separation. For them the lines were not so much racial as religious—the dividing line between “us” who are spiritual and “them” who are not. But Paul has no patience with such invidious divisions. “If anyone is in Christ,” he declares, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!”

I look out from this pulpit at all of you, and newness is what I see. In your youth, in your freshness, in your eagerness, in your pride, I see a new creation, a generation with a renewed sense of hope. I rejoice in your newness. But your youth, your freshness, your eagerness for new horizons and new possibilities, your sense of possibilities that lie before you—all these good things will amount to very little if you succumb to what Marilyn Robinson describes as the all-to-human temptation to puff yourselves up, to see yourselves as better than others because of your education, or your skin color, or your social class or the job you land or your station in life, if you embrace the tribalism of “us” versus “them.” Especially on glorious days like this, when we march around the aisles and wear fancy clothes, when our achievements are held up for everyone to behold and to cheer, it is imperative that we remember with Paul that everything we are, everything with have, every achievement that is ours, all this is from God:

Who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

I want to tell you a story, a kind of parable of reconciliation. It is not an entirely happy story, and in fact begins in an act of racial violence. But as the abolitionist founders of this college knew, the kind of reconciliation Paul talks about is never easy. The grace of radical forgiveness never comes cheap.

Twenty years ago, a young woman named Amy Biehl was a brilliant 26 year old graduate of Stanford, fired with a passion for social justice. She won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, at a time when government oppression of the anti-apartheid movement was at its most violent. Amy’s project was to set up reading and tutoring programs for children in Gugulethu, one of the townships located in the salt flats outside the city, where thousands and thousands of black South Africans were forced to live in squalor by the white apartheid regime. It was a time of tremendous political unrest and violent government suppression, violence centered in the townships. It was dangerous for a white person to travel there. Just days before she was to leave for the States, Amy was driving a black friend home to Gugulethu when a mob of local black youth stormed the car. They pulled Amy from the driver’s seat, and stoned and stabbed and beat her to death on the side of the road, despite the pleas of her black companions to spare her as someone who was on their side, someone who regarded blacks and whites as equals, as colleagues in the struggle.

Four young men were convicted of killing her, and sent to prison.

Just two years later, the apartheid regime collapsed. In 1994, my own teacher and mentor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chaired the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered amnesty to anyone, white or black, who committed politically motivated crimes during the apartheid struggle, but only if they publically admitted their wrongdoings, and did so in the presence of the victims or those representing them. The victims of violence would then be asked if they would offer their forgiveness to their aggressors. There are many people in South Africa and elsewhere who took issue with the Commission and the amnesties it granted. I for one remain convinced that the process, however flawed, helped the country avoid a bloodbath of retribution, and created vital space for a new multi-racial South Africa to emerge under President Mandela’s leadership. In the words of Bishop Tutu, “Without forgiveness there can be no future.”

Amy Biehl’s parents agreed. In 1994 they made the long, sad journey from California to appear before the Commission and to confront the perpetrators. To the shock of most people present, the Biehls argued for amnesty for their daughter’s murderers. They later visited the homes of their families, embraced their mothers, and took these penitent young men under their wing. For the Biehls, justice was a matter of restoration, not retribution. As Mr. Biehl bravely stated:

The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue…we are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms.

The Biehls created a foundation in Cape Town in their daughter’s memory, dedicated to furthering the work among impoverished children and young people that their daughter had begun. They even hired one or two of the young men who had been granted amnesty to be trained as part of the staff.

My story does not end there. About five years ago, my own daughter and I visited the Biehl Foundation in Cape Town. Liz was then in her late 20s, an Oberlin graduate, a poet and school chaplain. She was in South Africa on a study grant, interviewing chaplains in Christian schools around the country to see how they were handling racial and religious difference in the new, multi-racial South Africa. I was also in South Africa then, teaching at an Anglican seminary, and took time off to act as Liz’s driver and traveling companion.

At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, who had been a student at Stanford a few years after Amy Biehl had graduated, Liz and I stopped at the foundation offices. The foundation people had arranged for us to be driven into Gugulethu, to visit the various schools and day care centers that the Foundation supported, places of deep poverty and tremendous hope. Our driver was a young black man about Liz’s age, well-spoken and thoughtful, and clearly a familiar and welcome figure in all the places we visited. I suspected that he had grown up in the neighborhood. After we visited the last of several tutoring centers scattered through the township, and were getting ready to get back in the car for the return trip to Cape Town, I asked him about his history, how he got into this kind of work, and with so many opportunities opening up for people like him in the new South Africa, what made him stay with it. There was a long pause. “I am glad to be doing this, grateful to be doing this,” he said, “because, you see, I was one of the persons responsible for her death.”

He then drove us into the township to show us where she had been killed, at the side of the road near a filling station, just a few hundred yards from where his grandmother lived in a corrugated tin shack, from where he had grown up. He told us everything about that day, about how it had happened, and what had happened to him afterwards. Liz and I sat in the back seat, taking it all in, looking at each other in silence, feeling how sobering and unsettling it was to be with him, but realizing too how moved we were by his quiet eloquence and his quiet sorrow.

When we pulled into the street where we were staying in Cape Town, and he prepared to drop us off, on an impulse I asked him if he would join us for a moment on the sidewalk, so I could perhaps take a photograph of him standing next to Liz, with the beautiful Table Mountain of Cape Town in the background. It is a haunting photograph. Liz was then the same age as Amy Biehl was when she died. And there she stood on a Cape Town street, next to one of Amy Biehl’s murderers, a young man who through a grace-filled act of forgiveness had been restored to a productive life, carrying on the mission of reconciliation that Amy Biehl had exemplified both in her life and in her death.

All this is from God, Paul writes, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Beloved class of 2014, on this beautiful and significant day in your lives, you and I are a long way from South Africa. But the path of justice and restoration, the radical message of reconciliation and forgiveness, is a message nonetheless that you are all equipped to tell. Think back to that bridge across that all-too narrow, all-too-shallow Ohio River, linking Cincinnati with Covington, linking Ohio with Kentucky, linking free state with former slave state, our violent past to our promising future. Think of that bridge as I think of my photograph. Think of it as an icon of reconciliation, a permanent reminder of the continuing need of reconciliation between “us” and “them”. Reimagine that bridge as Paul might have reimagined it. Reimagine it as a path to liberation, a path uniting and reconciling black and white, male and female, Jew and Greek, native and immigrant, Christian and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and atheist. Reimagine it as a bridge leading toward a reconciliation that rejects separation not by enforcing uniformity but by embracing the common good. Such a spirit of reconciliation is deeply embedded in the DNA of this great institution. That spiritual DNA has now been grafted into yours.

Go from this place as builders of bridges, as ambassadors of reconciliation. God has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth. In your work, in your play, in your joys and in your achievements, show that to be true.

God bless you, and Godspeed.

About the author: Jaime