Dean Richardson, thank you for the invitation to speak this morning. Every Sunday, I reflect on my gratitude for the Rankin Chapel and you. Even though we cannot meet on campus, your team still manages to uplift our community. You all have continued to provide an important service, full of inspiration and prophetic preaching as we move through these consequential times, full of peril as well as promise.
You have reminded us that God does not reside in only our hallowed spaces and magnificent places – He lives in each of us. The fourth chapter of the Book of John reminds us: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (4:12).
Within ourselves, there is a well with waters that are deep and dark and contain multitudes. God is not the only entity we carry within; He can sometimes be difficult to find or summon to the surface as He jostles for space amongst our own inner demons.
Sometimes we must relocate to a new environment to find the good we possess within our inner sanctums. The University has continued virtually for most of this year, yet the Howard flag continues to fly high even as most students, faculty and staff learn and work away from the physical hilltop. Howard is the people, and Howard is you.
A physical church is a device to reach within and find God’s dwelling place in our hearts. The splendor of a church like Rankin Chapel reminds us of our purpose in life. We are meant to see goodness and spread it. To see grace and replicate it. To see beauty and add to it. These external cues help us locate the inner strength we need to do the work we were destined for.
The church is you. In Second Corinthians, the Apostle Paul compares us to living letters that testify to the world. Second Corinthians, chapter three, verses two to three: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.”
The pandemic has deprived us of so many spaces but also given us many examples of the power we hold separate from physical structures or defined boundaries and forced us to tap into our resourcefulness. Now we must avail ourselves of alternate means of finding fellowship with each other and how we worship. Institutions like Rankin have helped us to do so, reminding us that we can still go to church even without a physical place to meet. We have found that a computer and an internet connection can also serve as a bucket that we can drop into our waters to detect God’s presence. My cell phone has been a spiritual device during these times, as a dear friend has continued to text me a passage of scripture every morning, and that’s my mentor Dr. Calender, who’s been doing this for the past 10-12 years, enabling me to begin my day with blessed words to illuminate my path.
We all carry something of the divine within us. But it is the raw materials of divinity, unformed and shapeless. It is not enough to know we have it; it is not enough to find it. Rather, it is our duty to activate it.
Our actions have an impact on that divine essence. They may cause it to rise, like yeast to dough. Or they may leave it unchanged, inert and dormant, patiently awaiting our spark of goodness. We must choose how to interact with the portion of Godliness that we were each allotted. If “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us,” as the scripture says, then it is our job to allow the divine seeds we carry to bear fruit. The question is: How do we do that?
The answer, of course, is love. Love for God and love for our neighbor is both the key ingredient and the final product. Love brings to life the part of God that has taken residence inside us so we can become softer, kinder, more responsive, more attentive, more patient human beings. We have to let love in so we can send love out.
Love is a choice. But it is not always an easy one for us to make. Yes, it is important to be true to ourselves, but it is vital that we strive to be true to the best versions of ourselves. We should do that which feels genuine, but we should not mistake what is easy for what feels natural. We have to recognize our limitations and rise above them.
Humanity is a neutral ingredient, capable of evoking sweetness and bitterness. We as individuals are complex and complicated and prone to contradiction. We decide our own destinies and occasionally can fall victim to the vicissitudes of our times. We are beings full of grace and beauty, forgiveness and selflessness; and at the same time, we are creatures driven by selfishness and base desires. None of us ever fall entirely on one end of the spectrum or the other; we always toggle back and forth.
Politics embodies our best and worst qualities. At its core, politics is governed by a set of ideals: To improve the quality of life for every individual. To cultivate a society in which any person can pursue any passion and fulfill any purpose that will nourish their souls and enhance our communities. But in practice, we find it difficult to disentangle the ideal ends from the necessary means. Our principles are beset by the realities of how to live by them in a world in which people disagree. We live by the ethos that, to do good, we have to stay relevant. And we have convinced ourselves that today’s personal compromises will pay communal dividends down the road.
This November, we have all likely fixated a bit too much on politics. I know I have. Even as I encourage my family and friends to turn off cable news, I have struggled to pull away from it myself. Politics-watching might not be the healthiest of recreational activities. But it caters to our tribalism and need for simplicity in a complex world. So, it can be difficult to resist.
But now, the election is over. A new dawn has indeed broken in America with the historic election of alumna Kamala Harris as the first woman vice president, the first woman of color to be elected to the second highest office in the land. Whatever our politics, or whatever we think of hers, I hope we can all recognize her qualifications and appreciate her service to our country.
With a new administration comes an opportunity for a new beginning. We have a choice about what tomorrow will look like. Will we be a country defined by division or strengthened by unity?
It can be difficult to turn our lives away from politics because politics has permeated every aspect of our lives. In this environment, it can be difficult for love to find purchase.
Love is chased away by passion and also by politeness. Without love, passion transforms into self-righteousness and anger and intolerance. We may let others speak, even if they disagree with us, so long as we can speak louder than they can and only if we don’t have to hear what they have to say.
Without love, politeness becomes avoidance rather than patience. We allow our own silence to rationalize the silencing of others. We make our circles smaller and smaller to inoculate ourselves from others’ ideas and prevent the discomfort of ideological friction.
While I certainly believe in voting and civic engagement, whenever we frame politics in terms of us against them and winners and losers, I grow very concerned. I am anxious that the winners will not be humble in their victory and that the losers will not be gracious in the face of defeat. For society to work for everyone, we need to work together, not in opposition, but in collaboration and partnership. To change the world, it is not enough to win – we have to win over minds.
Stasis persists when half the country pulls in one direction and half pulls in the other, too entrenched to find common ground. We have to find some way to intermingle. We need to talk to each other. We need some means of allowing dialogue to take place so progress can take shape. We need to see the potential goodness in every person no matter how strongly we disagree with their political positions.
We have to start taking a different approach when we encounter another person. We cannot and should not begin with politics. We cannot and should not start with our own passions. We cannot and should not commence with our own ambitions. We cannot enter with our past frustrations.
Once again, we have to lead with love. Again and again, from one situation to the next, from one person to the next, from one interaction to the next, we must lead with love.
To see each other, to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to be heard by each other, we first have to love each other. That must be the basis for all our personal and societal engagements.
Love is the ingredient that brings forth the best of our human qualities and counteracts the worst of our human impulses. It allows us to talk with someone rather than talk at them. It allows us to truly listen rather than just hearing. Love doesn’t just help us be better people – it is a requirement, an essential component of reaching our full potential as our best selves. It is the only way that we can truly see the person we’re talking to rather than just look at the body on our television screen or the one we’re looking at right in front of us.
It allows us to search for commonalities rather than fixate on our differences. And love allows us to find what binds us together rather than what pulls us apart.
I know that loving sounds easy in theory – sometimes even simplistic – but it is difficult in practice. In a country that was founded on the institution of slavery and continues to operate on a system of racism, “How can love always be the right answer?” you may ask. How can we love someone who doesn’t believe in our equality or our human rights? How can we love someone who does not love us?
Loving without cause can feel like misplaced trust. “Shouldn’t love have to be earned?” we may ask ourselves.
The Black community is justifiably apprehensive of many societal institutions and the individuals who represent them. When the medical establishment has a long history of mistreating and underserving Black patients, when law enforcement has a long history of police brutality against Black men and women, wariness is understandable when encountering individuals from these establishments.
I am not asking us to assume that every individual has the best intentions for us. But I am calling on us to at least pause and consider what their best intentions might be. We will never see the goodness in each person unless we take the time to look for it.
As polarized and divided as our country is right now, love can feel like an impossible option. But I would remind you of one of our country’s greatest romances: that of America and Howard University.
Howard was founded in 1867, only two short years after the Civil War. Those who established Howard had first-hand experience with the horrors of slavery and the terrors of the Black experience in America. And yet, they did not use their new-found freedom to flee to someplace else. They wielded their freedom to cultivate a new vision for America, one that was not predicated on the dominance of one race over another but was founded on the ideals that we could all peaceably live side by side. Howard’s founders and framers experienced slavery and the Civil War and chose to respond with love.
Howard is most certainly a historically Black college and university. But it has never restricted its services to the Black community. Two of our first four trustees were white. Our initial faculty included white professors. Howard let in white women who were barred from attending other institutions. Howard welcomed Jewish immigrants who fled persecution and found many parts of America to be just as inhospitable. Especially in those early years when America was grappling with Reconstruction and Jim Crow, Blacks and whites lived together on the Hilltop, a community founded by love and committed to its practices.
As a society today, we need to do more to facilitate interactions between people from different communities. We have to bring white people and Black people together. We have to bring Democrats and Republicans together. We have to bring together people who appear to be opposites or opposed to one another so we can practice seeing ourselves in all of those around us.
We need look no further than our own families for proof that this vision is possible. When I think of my family, I am inspired by the future of our country.
My children love their 96-year-old great-grandmother. In many ways, they have very little in common. They are American teenagers, and she is an elderly woman who lives in Trinidad and Tobago. But because they are family, the foundation of their relationship was love and acceptance. I know that when the pandemic is finally over, the first thing my children will want to do is visit their great-grandmother.
I have learned a lot about love from my children. While of course I love my grandmother, I am guilty of forgetting that she still has so much to offer. Every time I believe that I have heard every story she has to tell and everything she has to say, she surprises me with a new bit of wisdom.
These intergenerational interactions are templates for how we can interact with those whom we may disagree or who may have had different experiences than we had. We have to give people space to surprise us. Before we believe in someone’s flaws, we must give them room to display their goodness. We have to invite them to love us by loving them first.
My children have astounded me during the pandemic with their capacity for empathy. Despite all the bitterness in our country, despite all of the people who have been made out to be their enemies, they do not hate anyone. They are always willing to lead with love, to bestow empathy on any individual. They are willing and eager to listen so that they may grow and enlarge their circle of love and affection. While our society teaches us to fear those who are different, my children are always searching for what they have in common with any individual they encounter and in any way they may encounter them.
My son and daughter are not devoid of passion. On the contrary, they feel the full intensity of their tightly held beliefs as much as any people I know. But they let love lead them so their passion cannot blind them. They have come to realize that the more they understand someone the less likely they are to hate and the more likely they are to love. If we value truth and knowledge, then we must also value love for all people who can grant us with new perspectives and wisdom.
We certainly need passion. Nothing worth accomplishing in life has ever been done without passion. But we must channel our emotions in the right direction. Our passions should be enflamed by love rather than anger or hate.
In the aftermath of one of the most rancorous elections in recent memory, we should be guided by the vision Howard first brought forth of a country united by love and bonded by tolerance and acceptance of all. It matters not what we did or said or believed in the past. What matters is our ability to come together now to chart a course for a better and more prosperous future.
The pandemic has made us work harder to find that bit of God that exists within ourselves and others. But perhaps more important than finding God’s refuge in us is searching for where God is hidden in others. We must move forward with the firm belief that God exists in us all, waiting to be activated and called forward. To bring life to the divine seeds in our neighbors, we must water them with all the love we have to give.
If we withhold our love, I have to ask: What else do we wish to offer as an alternate? To bring the society we need, there is no alternative. We must lead with love. And if we do, I assure you, others will follow.
So as I close today, I want to thank you for your patience and persistence during these difficult times. And so from me to you, with all my love, it is a great day and a great opportunity to be at Howard University.