For the Love of Imperfect Institutions

Jessica R. Church

When I learned that this academic year commemorates the 50th anniversary of women at Yale College and the 150th anniversary of female students at Yale University, I paused. I wanted to cheer, but something held me back. Was it strictly white women? I wondered. We can’t celebrate that. 

As a bit of research revealed, black women were in fact part of Yale College’s first co-ed entering class in 1969. And actually Yale Divinity School admitted women a bit earlier, with the first trailblazers arriving in 1932, and the first black woman graduating in 1945. Even so, I am compelled to ask, what kind of celebration is warranted when the institution in question, Yale itself, was rather late to the game? How do we celebrate something that is, on one hand, good and, on another, worthy of critique? 

This anniversary prompts reflection on how we relate to institutions that disappoint and frustrate us, yet draw us in again and again because the world would likely be a worse place without them. 

Those who know me know I have a track record of devoted relationships with imperfect institutions. My alma mater, the University of Virginia, was originally built by slaves. The Democratic Party, to which I’ve given a handful of professional years and anticipate giving more, does not always live up to its ideals of equity and justice. And my church, the Episcopal Church, though inclusive in important ways, remains about 90 percent white. 

I count YDS in this group. I have come to love YDS deeply in the short year I’ve been here. The professors stretch the bounds of my intellect. The students call me deeper into community. And worship at Marquand Chapel has reignited my faith, making me laugh and cry, sing and shout. 

But this community also falls short sometimes. When my peers tell me they do not feel heard or respected, I wince and remember that I walk these halls with more privilege than most. 

Thinking about imperfect institutions reminds me of Albert O. Hirschman’s landmark text, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Harvard, 1970). In it, he presents two main ways of responding when a business, political party, church, or other institution fails to meet your standards. You can leave the system entirely, hoping your exit, along with that of others, goads the organization to change. Or you can stay and use your voice to shape the thing you hold dear. Agitate from the inside and advocate for higher standards or better policies. As a member of that institution, you have a mildly better chance that those in power will listen. 

Though I acknowledge the reasons people give for leaving institutions sometimes, I usually choose to stay and use my voice. I do this because I think it is more effective – and also because, as a Christian, I have a holy and powerful model for loving things that are imperfect. 

Seeing that the world was broken, God did not give up or opt out. Instead, God performed the most radical act of love by entering creation in human form, not as a powerful king or wealthy landowner, but as the son of a poor unwed mother in a scandalous birth. Raised by Mary to love God and the world, Jesus grew up to be a healer whose interactions with sinners defied social norms and challenged conventions. 

The act of loving something imperfect is not cause for complacency. Rather, it thrusts us into deeper engagement. This love is not sentimental or nostalgic. No. It is righteous. It labors, serves, and embodies a hallowed hope for change. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but all can be redeemed (Rom 3:23). 

Believing this, I am prompted to participate, speak up, and do what I can to remake and redeem the imperfect institutions that I love. And I must be prepared to be remade and redeemed in the process. When we love, we change and are changed by it. I am a witness to this transformation, having already been remade and redeemed by the students, faculty, and staff at YDS. I am not the same person I was when I arrived, nor do I expect to graduate from this place the same person I am today. And as I change, I hope this institution does too. 

There will be times in our lives when exit is the right choice. When we’ve been too hurt to persist, when our sanity is at stake, or when we’ve used our voice and nobody has listened, it may be time to leave. But here and now, I am heeding God’s call to love and engage at YDS because of, not despite, its imperfections. And in the end, I hope we’ll both be better for it. 

Jessica Church ’21 M.Div. is student body president of Yale Divinity School. She has a background in progressive politics and plans to return to this work after graduation.