My last year at Candler seemed markedly different than my first two. It had a purpose and drive, something more than just getting good grades, being moderately sociable, and paying my bills. First-years in the MDiv program are generally surrounded by the same small group of students. Determined by your Con Ed I group and the advised/required list of courses, you end up seeing a LOT of each other. For some people these folks remain their closest friends all through seminary. But in my case, my second year was so packed—a heavy course load, working 20+ hours a week to pay the bills, and throwing myself wholeheartedly into my Con Ed II placement—that my closest friends became the children I babysat and their families. Going into my third year, I didn’t know what to expect friend-wise, so it came as pleasant surprise when I found my social scene shifted, expanded, and deepened.

Last summer I participated in the Candler Advantage program, which allowed me to live in Pittsburgh studying anti-racism and community organizing for 2.5 months. I was challenged in many ways, including how I could apply what I had learned to my context at a predominantly white institution like Candler. When I arrived back on campus in the fall I didn’t have a clear plan for how I could work to dismantle racism at Candler. In fact, I felt slightly overwhelmed at the prospect. 

Yet, it’s amazing how those who believe in justice and equity find each other. As soon as I gave a presentation about white supremacy culture to my fellow Candler Advantage students, a few of my classmates approached me about giving the presentation again to a broader audience. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d found my people for this third year. Up until this point we had been friendly, but not exactly friends. They had been doing so much behind the scenes work for the last two years. Meeting with school leadership to voice the concerns of students. Advocating for various initiatives that benefit queer, international, disabled, and other marginalized folks at Candler. Serving on different Candler committees and chairing different student organizations.

They scooped up my enthusiasm and gave me a place to pour my energy. I gave my presentation again. Twice. These presentations gave white students new eyes to see and language to speak to understand how racism doesn’t just exist “out there,” but right here—even in our seminary classrooms, chapel, and social gatherings. Together we brainstormed what Candler could be at its best and how we could help it get there. In the spring, my friends and I worked together to collect signatures from over half the student body asking for an outside agency to conduct an in-depth review and assessment of Candler’s institutional strengths and weaknesses relating to all areas of diversity (not just race). We wanted to ensure that every voice had a chance to be heard. We worked with the dean, the Community and Diversity Committee, and other members of the faculty to pursue a Community Climate Assessment, which took place in April, and now we are eagerly awaiting the findings and the implementation of the recommended improvements. 

Shelby Hall a rising second-year MDiv student and Matthew Johnson 19T at the Crossroads training

Our second big hope was to get Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training to Candler to do an in-depth training for students, faculty and staff. Crossroads specializes in helping institutions analyze power, recognize unjust structures, and dismantle racism. A month before the event, I really didn’t think it was going to go through because we needed to raise so much money in such a short amount of time. Then the Aquinas Center generously offered to pay for our food we were off and running. Soon, over a dozen organizations pitched in to help us raise thousands of dollars in just two weeks. When the training finally happened on April 5, it truly felt like a miracle. With just two fish and five loaves, Jesus fed 5,000. Registration reached capacity and the room was filled with engaged participants asking questions about who has power, how they got it, and how unequal power structures can be disrupted. Led by Crossroads facilitator and Candler alum Jessica Vazquez-Torres, we analyzed the influences of colonialism, capitalism, and orientalism on our theological education. People wrote evaluations saying the training was “transformative,” absolutely necessary, and calling repeatedly for it to be brought back in the future.

As much as the Community Climate Assessment and the Crossroads training felt like miracles, they didn’t materialize out of thin air. They happened because people worked really, really, really hard all year. All three years. Despite many hurdles people kept going. Refused to turn around. Refused to be sidelined. But it wasn’t just refusal. It was feeding—feeding each other delicious food to nourish conversation and community. Feeding our first- and second-year classmates with knowledge and empathy to build their leadership for the coming years. Feeding our imaginations with hopes and dreams even when they seemed too far away to grasp. Feeding the energy and enthusiasm to change Candler’s culture for the better. Feeding a movement.

I am so deeply appreciative to you, my third-year friends, for reshaping my Candler experience. It’s been nothing short of an honor to get to work alongside you. When we messed up, we worked through it together because we were part of a team. When things went well, we celebrated each other. Thanks for welcoming me, nurturing me, and trusting me. I am confident I learned more from trying to organize and build leadership this year than I did from sitting in my classes. Textbooks don’t have anything on the “real” Candler experience! What we accomplished this year is more important than any of the papers I wrote and will have a far greater impact too. I don’t have enough words to say how proud I am of you all. Proud of you troublemakers, advocates, leaders, and friends. Keep going.