2019 Convocation Address

Convocation 2019
Caption: Convocation 2019

The message below was delivered by dean emilie m. townes at the 2019 Convocation held at Vanderbilt Divinity School on August 23.

we gathered in this space that was conceived by students, faculty, staff, alums, and the board of visitors when we started this journey in the fall of 2013

as we talked to all these groups and more, the common themes of community,    justice, worship, light, welcome, accessibility, better classrooms  a front entrance (which meant, of course, we had to decide where the front entrance was)—a place of seeking the sacred in community where faith is lived and practiced and not an esoteric sound bite hosanna

then came the conversations…and more conversations…and finally finding the right architectural firm in gilbert|mclaughlin|casella and the general contractor orion and the rest of the design team

and in June 2017, construction began in earnest

it was a journey with the support of then chancellor zeppos, provost wente, the board of trust, the carpenter foundation, and many folks in this space

as kitty norton worked hard to find funding, the building expansion committee worked hard with the campus planning team in those early months

and we would not be here without professor jimmy byrd who served as point person and most especially heather lee as on-site project liaison, and bob winters as project supervisor and josh gill as the project manager

the list is long of who helped us reach this moment that we must now carry forward, so please forgive me if I have not called your name

the last few days have also been filled with conversations and struggle

many of us gathered here know that there was a serious contract dispute between two of the subcontractors

with the advocacy of workers’ dignity (and our students and alums affiliated with it) who created an effective petition and were prepared to protest this opening if need be

and the commitment of the university to its bottom line insistence that those who do business with and on behalf of the university must conduct themselves professionally and treat business associates and employees fairly

the university ultimately stepped in to bring all companies to the table to bring about a just resolution between them; the dispute between the two subcontractors has been resolved and payment has been made

now that we are all back from summer break, the VDS faculty is now thinking through, talking through, writing through and teaching through how we respond as educators and committed folk to our religious values

we have been here before:

in the late 1920’s and early 30’s it was alva taylor and williard uphaus encouraging their young white male students to oppose segregation in the south—something not particularly welcomed by either the divinity or university administrations of that time

the 1978 davis cup protests against Vanderbilt hosting the South African team because of the apartheid regime it represented and the divinity school’s active witness during this time and then-dean sally mcfague being photographed checking on protestors during their picketing

the photograph went out on the national wire services and her support for the protestors was interpreted as a challenge to the university administration

mcfague resigned as dean to protect the school—and faculty and students again had to reckon with what it means to do the right thing

the 1960 lawson affair when james lawson was unfairly expelled for masterminding the student sit-in movements in Nashville that caused much soul searching by the faculty and student body and eventually birthed our statement of commitments in the early 1970s

and because we have been here before, we will embrace our legacy of coming together to do the right thing

but in the midst of all that has happened in these last several days, i have been especially moved by the bravery and orneriness (and coming from a womanist, to say someone is being ornery is a complement) of Armando Arazate, the owner of the small minority-owned business who kept fighting for his rights and for his workers—ICE be damned

so, i am very pleased to be able to welcome you to this space, the space where our commitment as a divinity school to do the right thing stands firm and the words you see in the floor as you came in mean something more than an aesthetic word walkway

we will continue to do the work of theological education with the swag, sway, and slay of justice here

be theologically fabulous

and simply do the work our souls must have

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