Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Everydayness

Author: 
Emilie Townes

. . and so we begin
for some of us gathered here

this is a time that is familiar
yet even in the somewhat comfort of the known

there lurks the unknown
we can know certain things about this new academic year that is dawning

but we can never know what kind of class we will have because new configurations of students

reading
other source materials

keep even the known in the category of “adventure”

 _________________________________________________________________________________

this is a time i sometimes refer to as the “oh my god what have i done” time

we have launched ourselves into the unknown anticipation

trepidation
questioning
or some mixture of these emotions and more
i think, overwhelmed-but-trying-to-hang-in-there, may be a better description of what is going on in us

for others of us gathered here
this is a time of affirmation

we know this is where we should be and we are doing what we should be doing

yes, this may even be a call
for others, this is a time of seeking and questioning

we have a sense this may be the place—but perhaps not

and so we are digging in and listening intently and trying to feel deeply to see what the future brings for others, this is a time of feeling incredibly entitled or incredibly inadequate

both are human
both are natural
both need to be gotten over

quickly
for others, this is a time of resistance

we wish we were somewhere else doing something else
with someone else

but we often don’t know what that “else” is so here we sit

or when we do know what that “else” is
time, circumstance, and letters of appointment mean

here we sit
for others, we have the challenge of moving in and out of all these emotions and ways of being

sometimes at the same time often with lightning speed

and we are simply stunned and amazed

and often humbled there are other ways in which we sit here today

and i want to suggest that given the worlds we live in these days

however we are, as we sit here to begin this academic year it’s normal

the challenge, i think, for all of us is this: what will we proceed to do with the fullness and incompleteness of what we have brought to this time and place

as we remember that we are in a world that we have helped make

that needs a new, or perhaps ancient, vision molded by justice and peace

rather than winning and losing
so i want to talk with you this afternoon about a few of the things that are behind holding on to justice and peace in the midst of

myriad injustices and a world that is a spinning top of wars

and give you some sense of why i think that what we do in this academic life has a profound effect on the worlds we live in if we choose to make our work and our studies rigorous academically and relevant experientially it is for me to respond to the call by the black mystic and theologian Howard Thurman,

who joined others in encouraging us to blend head and heart 

one of my sources of sustenance for this challenge is found in the speeches of the late former congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan

Jordan was a woman of firsts:
1st black woman to serve as administrative assistant to the county judge of Harris County, Texas 1st black elected to the Texas state senate since 1883
1st black woman to deliver the keynote address at the democratic party convention in 1976
first black person to be buried in the State Cemetery in Austin, Texas, on january 20, 1996,

and those of us who remember or have heard the recording of the crisp bell tones of her perfect diction and impeccable cadence will never forget her testimony before the house judiciary committee during Watergate at 2am:

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the united States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. but when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. but through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemn- ness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

i am struck, by the profound trust she had in the notion “we the people”
Jordan was the daughter of a baptist preacher and a devout practicing baptist her whole life

one of the bedrock principles she lived her life by was that human equality under God is categorical, absolute, unconditional, and universally applicable

so when she said “we the people” she really did mean all of us
now because she was a public servant, she did not do much god-talk in her public addresses

but i think she can be a window into how we can think about how we understand one link between this divinity school on the hill and the rest of the world

and realize that what we do here is the real world to be sure, it’s only a small slice of it

but one of the temptations we must avoid
is believing that what we do here—with our well-placed and much-needed emphasis on academic and intellectual rigor means that we check our hearts at the door
for i learned well from the older black men and women who raised me in the church and outside of it

that intellect with no heart is about as useful as a heart with no intellect
and missing both sides of that equation means you probably don’t have much common sense to boot

in other words, you’re not very useful
so let me offer a counternarrative to the expansion of moral hubris that we are experiencing of late in many of our religious and

non-religious homes
that i think springs form the kind of faith that Jordan placed in what it means to take our citizenship seriously as people of faith

these lines are from the notebook kept by Marie-Sophie Laborieux
she is the protagonist in the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau novel Texaco

Chamoiseau’s novel chronicles the path to freedom of Martinique from colonial rule through the eyes of Marie-Sophie and her ancestors—slaves and former slaves

Marie-Sophie records the words of her father
In what I tell you, there’s the almost-true, the sometimes-true, and the half-true. That’s what telling a life is like, braiding—all of that like one plaits the white Indies currant to make a hut. And the true-true comes out of that braid.

Chamoiseau captures in novel form
the shorthand version of my reply to why i hold on to justice and peace as

Jordan

Jordan was a woman of firsts:
1st black woman to serve as administrative assistant to the county judge of Harris County, Texas 1st black elected to the Texas state senate since 1883
1st black woman to deliver the keynote address at the democratic party convention in 1976
first black person to be buried in the State Cemetery in Austin, Texas, on january 20, 1996,

and those of us who remember or have heard the recording of the crisp bell tones of her perfect diction and impeccable cadence will never forget her testimony before the house judiciary committee during Watergate at 2am:

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the united States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. but when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. but through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemn- ness that I feel right now. my faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

i am struck, by the profound trust she had in the notion “we the people”
Jordan was the daughter of a baptist preacher and a devout practicing baptist her whole life

one of the bedrock principles she lived her life by was that human equality under God is categorical, absolute, unconditional, and universally applicable

so when she said “we the people” she really did mean all of us
now because she was a public servant, she did not do much god-talk in her public addresses

but i think she can be a window into how we can think about how we understand one link between this divinity school on the hill and the rest of the world

and realize that what we do here is the real world to be sure, it’s only a small slice of it

but one of the temptations we must avoid
is believing that what we do here—with our well-placed and much-needed emphasis on academic and intellectual rigor means that we check our hearts at the door
for i learned well from the older black men and women who raised me in the church and outside of it

that intellect with no heart is about as useful as a heart with no intellect
and missing both sides of that equation means you probably don’t have much common sense to boot

in other words, you’re not very useful
so let me offer a counternarrative to the expansion of moral hubris that we are experiencing of late in many of our religious and

non-religious homes
that i think springs form the kind of faith that Jordan placed in what it means to take our citizenship seriously as people of faith

these lines are from the notebook kept by Marie-Sophie Laborieux
she is the protagonist in the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau novel Texaco

Chamoiseau’s novel chronicles the path to freedom of Martinique from colonial rule through the eyes of Marie-Sophie and her ancestors—slaves and former slaves

Marie-Sophie records the words of her father
In what I tell you, there’s the almost-true, the sometimes-true, and the half-true. That’s what telling a life is like, braiding—all of that like one plaits the white Indies currant to make a hut. And the true-true comes out of that braid.

Chamoiseau captures in novel form
the shorthand version of my reply to why i hold on to justice and peace as

relevant vital 

Issue Title: 
Seize the Day: Vocation, Calling, Work
Issue Year: 
2006