In the Presence of My Enemies
This memory still makes me smile. It also challenges me to think about my voice and how I use it now.
It was fall 1993. I’d just been promoted to full professor, and was the designated speaker for the seminary’s fall academic convocation. I worked on my address that summer in the context of angry national and local rhetoric about racial diversity.
The seminary valued its unusual diversity. It included race, gender, ethnicity, social status, church affiliation and age. Yet racial diversity had become our most challenging issue. It burst out into the open after what happened to Rodney King III in March 1991.
By fall 1993 some were weary with self-examination. Others were discouraged or angry. Why couldn’t we ‘just get along’? Old habits and assumptions were difficult to examine, much less change. Yet without changing them, we seemed to be going backwards, no matter how many heated conversations and difficult listening sessions we attended.
The text, Psalm 23:5a, gave me the title for my address.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies….
I was intrigued by the reality that these were my enemies, not necessarily God’s enemies. So I sent in this title for my address–“In the Presence of My Enemies: Theological Education at the Seminary [I inserted the name of our seminary].”
When the title came out in publicity notices, I got questions. I love titles that provoke thought.
Some were concerned about the title, though no one asked me about it directly. I think they were afraid this might make matters worse, or give a negative impression about the seminary. I chose not to change the title or what I was going to say.
The day of the event, faculty and other dignitaries processed into the chapel. Three powerful men were seated on the platform: my dean, my president, and the chair of the seminary board of directors.
I thought they might come and sit on the front row when I went up to the pulpit to speak. They did not. So there I was, with the three of them sitting directly behind me.
To defuse my anxiety, I made a comment about the ‘trinity’ (or was it the ‘unholy trinity’?) sitting just behind me. People laughed, if a bit nervously, and the ice was broken.
I proceeded with the address. I felt confident and passionate about what I said. Afterwards, friends and strangers expressed gratitude for the address. Some were crying.
The gist of the address was simple:
We’re invited to sit at the table God has prepared for us—
with others who appear enemy-like to us,
just as we appear enemy-like to them.
It’s a matter of life or death.
Not just for the seminary, but for our world.
We’re here to listen and learn.
To get some of that soul-food for which our hearts yearn.
Especially from those who seem strange to us.
God prepared this feast for you and for me.
Who will take a seat at this feast,
give up the need to be right,
and take the risk of listening?
My need to be right has hindered me most of my life. Not just in relation to others, but in relation to myself. There’s a brave woman living in me. She peeks out from time to time. I see it in my writing, and hear it in my speaking. It’s time I get to know her, one awkward conversation at a time.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 September 2016
Photo of tapestry can be found at http://www.leeporterart.com.