Rector's Ramblings February 10, 2021
Almost a year ago, I was honored and excited to be a part, a very small part of course, of the election and confirmation of the new Vice-Chancellor at Sewanee. I have served as an Alumni-Association elected Trustee for three years and am about to begin a term as Diocesan Trustee for our Diocese here in Georgia, as one of the dioceses that owns the University of the South. Sewanee is, of course, my seminary alma mater, having attended the School of Theology for my priestly formation (as did Mtr. Ashton and Mtr. Katie). The search committee’s recommendation that we call Ambassador Reuben Brigety was well-received and represented (and still represents) an historic moment for Sewanee.
Ambassador Brigety, a native Southerner, is an academic, having obtained his Ph.D. from Cambridge and taught at several other Universities. He also served in the US Navy. Combining his expertise and his identity as a person of faith, he has done extensive work in international affairs and Human Rights on a global scale. As Sewanee’s official communication suggested at the time, Vice-Chancellor Brigety is uniquely gifted to “bring Sewanee to the world, and the world to Sewanee.” The true historic nature of the call is related to one other aspect of Ambassador Brigety’s identity: his race. He is the University’s first African American Vice-Chancellor. It will be a joyous day when such things are no longer historic, but given Sewanee’s particular history, this has been a poignant moment.
One occurrence that took place in Vice-Chancellor Brigety’s first year has been the completion of the Roberson Project, a years-long effort to investigate and record the full breadth of Sewanee’s entanglement with slavery and its legacy. The report was able to codify just how active the University community had been in perpetuating and championing pro-slavery ideas, as well as promoting and defending the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War, and Jim Crow segregation. It is a powerful report and certainly highlights the work that remains as Sewanee continues to confront its history and work for healing and reconciliation. I’m not rambling about the report today, but it is an important background piece to understand why I’m writing about our Vice-Chancellor.
This past Sunday, Vice-Chancellor Brigety was offering the first reflection in the University Chapel’s “Growing in Grace” service, a weekly worship offering that invites various persons to share their story. This semester’s theme at Growing in Grace is “Break the Bad, Cheer the Good.” In the course of his presentation, Vice-Chancellor Brigety shared something he has kept quiet during his first year: the harassment he and his family have faced through repeated vandalization and threatening messages at their home on the Sewanee Domain. His courage to share his experience is important and has been paired with an invitation to the Sewanee community to do some soul searching around our motto, “Ecce Quam Bonum,” the first words of Psalm 133, which states, “Behold how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”
He shared a bit of advice a mentor had given him, which included the assertions that as a leader, “you are what you do,” and that he would, “get what [he] tolerated.” That same reality applies to institutions as well, as he also pointed out. The Vice-Chancellor made it known that while he was forgiving those who had perpetrated this harassment, he was drawing a line in the sand and stating that there would be no tolerance for its continuation. He also called upon the community to wrestle with some questions in this spirit: “Who we are? What we will tolerate?” and “How we will all live together?”
The idea that there could be racism at Sewanee is not something that comes out of left field for those of us who have attended Sewanee. It grieves me to write that as one who loves Sewanee and had a much more positive experience than some others have reported. When I was a student in seminary, we had an African American student transfer to another seminary after repeated racial harassment within the wider university community. This is not to say that racism is rampant or always obvious, yet it has a long history at Sewanee and one that has been very difficult to fully address over time. From its inclusion in some of the architecture on campus (including the chapel) and its history, to the ongoing behavior of a few individuals, it is part of the environmental reality at Sewanee. It has been clear to both Regents and Trustees that this issue needs to be addressed, hence the call for the report that was issued in 2020 after six years of research and effort. Sewanee is not the only campus to address such issues, nor is this the first time there have been problems on this campus. Vice-Chancellor Brigety’s experience is unique only in the sense that it’s the first time such behavior has been directed towards the individual holding the highest position at the University.
The University-wide conversation, which will encompass alumni as well, is going to be difficult, no doubt. It is also essential that we engage the challenging work head-on. As an institution, we must be clear about what we will and won’t tolerate, and then live into that clarity. I am eager to see how this conversation takes place in a Christian community, particularly in an Episcopal institution. The work within the microcosm that is Sewanee is not dissimilar from the work that we need to be engaged in with regard to the wider culture we inhabit these days. In a time of unprecedented division and disagreement, we would all benefit from some soul-searching time spent on discerning who we are, what we will tolerate, and how we will live together.
We tend not to believe that we “are” the worst things done in our name. After crises like the Capitol attack or any violent and destructive riot, or after the tragedy of Amaud Arbery’s death we hear, “This isn’t who we are!” Such statements are both true and not true; we aren’t all defined by the actions of a few, but those actions are “ours”, and those actors are “us” to the extent that they are tolerated without an appropriate response and a clear repudiation of the things that are intolerable. If we aren’t represented and defined by these horrible actions, we must always be sure that we’re clear about that and then demonstrate it through our actions and words who we really are.
My last comment for today is to also say that in his presentation, Vice-Chancellor Brigety never mentioned racism or his race as a factor in the treatment his family has received. It could be a complete coincidence that former Vice-Chancellors (all of whom have been white males) and their families have not had to endure such things. It could be. I think we know better though. He didn’t have to say it. He doesn’t and shouldn’t have to say any of it, because it should never happen. But it did, and I’m grateful and impressed that he did it so calmly and faithfully – a gift to a community that some might say hasn’t always earned such restraint.
As a Trustee and an alumnus of Sewanee, and as a Rector of a parish in an owning diocese, I add my voice to the chorus that says that we will not be defined by nor tolerate acts of vandalism or threats against anyone in our communities. Any form of hatred that turns into action or terrorizes another has no place at Sewanee, in Christ Church, or in the community I live in. I will continue to everything I can to foster that realty. There is too much hate in this world already and we need to rediscover the love for neighbor and the humility of understanding that seem so far from our grasp at the moment. There is much work to be done, and we’re the ones to do it.
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thy servants implore thy blessing upon this University. Give the spirit of Wisdom to all those to whom Thou hast given the authority of teaching and of government. Let the students grow in grace day by day; enlighten their minds, purify their hearts, and sanctify their wills. Bless all who have contributed to this institution; and raise up to the University, we humbly pray Thee, a never-failing succession of benefactors; through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen. - Sewanee University Prayer
Photo Credits: Sewanee ariel and Vice-Chancellor Brigety photos are both copyright, Sewanee, and shared from the Sewanee web page, Sewanee.edu.