What we have to learn from students leading the charge for justice

We need to be the kind of faith and public leaders we want our students to become.

A sign is displayed at the pro-Palestinian demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

(RNS) — From my office at Union Theological Seminary, I have watched in the past few weeks as Columbia University’s anti-war encampments have been torn down and student demonstrators have been arrested. I’ve also watched as the surrounding streets grow more and more bloated with every kind of repugnant publicity seeker imaginable, from politicians to marching Proud Boys to an endless stream of outside protesters and press. 

But I’ve also had the chance to see the protests up close, where the simple message of the demonstrators can still be heard: Stop the war, now. And I’ve learned a lot about who these protesters really are. 

First and foremost, these encampments are filled with students from different religious traditions — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, unaffiliated as well as spiritual but not religious students. They are finding solace and courage among themselves, frequently singing songs from religious summer camp or their parents’ own faith-based anti-war protests of the 1960s. 

In this moment, Union has also offered spiritual support. On April 21, their first Sunday in place, I was asked by Union students to accompany them to the Columbia encampment to offer a Christian Communion service. I of course said yes. A weary group of Union students, alumni and local clergy bundled up on a very cold spring afternoon, went through the police checkpoints and formed a circle in middle of the encampment. One of our many brilliant students preached a sermon on the biblical story of Ezekiel witnessing that vast valley of dry bones, a wrenching text with its present-day corollary in Gaza and Israel.

As she preached, silence fell across the whole encampment as people slowly drew closer. Students listened and wept. I wept tears of intense grief. Some students rocked as they prayed. Some shouted “amen.” Some sat on the ground, arms wrapped around each other. Another student led a simple, open-table Communion service, inviting everyone to feast.

As this Christian ritual unfolded, I watched in awe as the line to take Communion grew longer and longer, making it impossible to divide up people into sharply defined traditions. More tears ran down people’s faces as they partook, as tears likewise kept running down mine. 

The next day was the beginning of Passover. In the morning, a large group of Jewish students came to us from the encampment, many of whom had been arrested and either suspended from school or expelled so they could not go back onto campus. They asked if they could hold a Seder in our courtyard.

What a gift, to us. Union seminary students — Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all sorts of students with other or no tradition — leapt into action, hauling out heavy tables, buying kosher food, digging out candles. As the sun set, I found myself smiling in welcome relief from the awful days we had just been through. There was laughter and singing as the Passover Haggadah was read and debated; stories were told; nourishment shared.

These spontaneous, interreligious communities happened organically, with the strikingly easy flow of connection different from self-consciously manufactured “interfaith moments.” It is simply who these protesters are: a community bound by a greater common cause to stop the mass killing of besieged Palestinians.

Many of the universities where protests are taking place have seminaries nearby, officially affiliated or not. I urge all of us involved in the noble work of education to join together in being sanctuaries in this moment of crisis, refuges for people to find their voices and to grow. You don’t have to “get it right,” call extra security or even spend much money. You just have to show up for those who need it.

In March, with the war in its sixth month as Ramadan got underway, we hosted an iftar, the evening meal at which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast. Muslim faculty, friends, staff and students mixed with people from the neighborhood and staffers from our Muslim partner organization, Peace Islands Institute. Together we prayed for peace and the release of all hostages. It was nothing fancy. Nothing was carefully orchestrated except the invaluably kind and gentle orchestrations of heart, body and mind that flowed between us.

Rev. Serene Jones. Photo courtesy Union Theological Seminary

Rev. Serene Jones. Photo courtesy Union Theological Seminary

But being a refuge is not a passive act. It requires putting love, not lawyers or policies, at the head of the line when push comes to shove. It means risking chaos but invoking justice. It means truly, deeply caring about the students we have been given to educate. It means being the kind of faith and public leaders we want our students to become. Let us join together to be true to our educational mission and be the educators our students need us to be.

(The Rev. Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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