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Faculty, staff and students gather for black ecumenical prayer service

| Thursday, February 28, 2019

Emorja Roberson, a Notre Dame graduate student in the Sacred Music department, immediately set the mood for the Black Ecumenical Prayer Service on Wednesday afternoon by leading students, faculty and members of the Notre Dame community gathered in song at Geddes Hall.

Eliciting laughs from the congregation, Roberson said those gathered should enjoy and partake in the service.

“We’re going to do a very simple song. One that’s very popular in the black community, and it says ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.’ … I want you to like church, so don’t feel bad if you want to clap.”

After singing, the Rev. Canon Hugh R. Page Jr. — a professor of theology and Africana studies and the vice president, associate provost and dean of the First Year of Studies — welcomed those gathered. Page said Notre Dame plays an important role in ecumenism.

“The Notre Dame community features prominently in the ecumenical movement for a number of reasons,” he said. “Our own theology department played home to many of the activities that were associated with liturgical reform. This was also … a place where my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, held a very important special session of its general convention to talk about addressing issues with race and inequity in our own denomination.”

The noon prayer service, sponsored by the Black Faculty and Staff Association, was held in the African-American tradition with music and prayers inspired by the African-American religious experience. The theme of the service was “Stony the Road We Trod: Gathering Strength to Serve Black Students.”

Following Page’s address, Roberson, accompanied by J.J. Wright, the Notre Dame Folk Choir director, led those gathered in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This hymn is also referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” as it became the official anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1920s.

After a reading from Deuteronomy by senior Selwin Wainaina, Minister Karrah Herring — director of public affairs for Office of Public Affairs — delivered a short sermon, beginning by welcoming the congregation.

“In the black church experience … when the speaker gets up — and if you are so moved by the spirit — it’s alright to shout an ‘amen’ or a ‘hallelujah,’” Herring said. “Can I get a witness to that?”

After the congregation shouted a collective “amen,” Herring said it “might be the only amen I get for the next five minutes, but I will take that.”

In her sermon, Herring drew parallels between the wilderness experience of the Israelites on their 11-day-turned-40-year journey to the promised land in Deuteronomy and the Africana community and the black experience in North American culture. Discussing why the Israelites’ journey was so delayed, she said this can be partially attributed to the disobedience and complaining among the group as well as other powers and enemies inflicting oppression and injustice on the Israelites.

“I would argue that had they stopped for a few moments just to recognize the error of their own ways — regardless of what the culture was doing to them, regardless of what was happening during that time frame — had they stopped for a few moments to recognize that their murmuring, their complaining, their walking in circles wasn’t getting them to the next step that they needed to get to, I think they would have realized that they were on the brink of something great,” Herring said. “They were on the brink of the blessing of the promised land that was right in front of them within their grasp, and they didn’t see it because their minds were clouded with the issues and the challenges that were in front of them.”

Herring then compared the oppression the Israelites faced to the oppression and lack of economic opportunities African Americans face in the United States. She gave statistics on the wealth gap in the United States, which says that on average, African-American family wealth sits at around $17,600 while white family wealth sits at around $171,000. Herring said such statistics make it easy to fall into the pattern of the murmuring and complaining of the Israelites.

“When you look around you and you realize that on your professional journey, yourself and the people that look like you are often hitting a glass ceiling at a certain point — and when you look through that invisible barrier above you, you’re not looking at faces that have relatable characteristics looking back down at you — it could be very easy to lose faith, to lose hope and to lose direction,” Herring said.

Herring said the Black Faculty and Staff Association and their allies are challenged to avoid falling into that negative cycle, and instead to support the next generation in fulfilling their destinies.

“And just like God was with the children of Israel and God was with our ancestors, God is with us, covering us, guiding us, directing us so that we can move beyond our wilderness experiences and lead this next generation of leaders, students — many of whom are in the room today — into the destinies that God has called them to fulfill beyond the Golden Dome,” Herring said. “When we move out of that victim-minded state of self-pity, when we move out of the murmuring and complaining … and realize that the promised land is just on the other side of the challenges that are in front of you, I believe that we are on the brink of something great here at the University of Notre Dame.”

After Herring’s sermon, Roberson and Wainaina led the congregation in singing “Made a Way,” which was followed by a litany for Black History Month. Page concluded the service with a prayer asking for the power to see and the courage to do what is necessary. Before leaving the chapel for lunch in Geddes Coffeehouse, the congregation exchanged the sign of peace in the form of hugs and handshakes.

“I challenge all of us to keep in mind that though we honor the past and look to our ancestors and look to those who come before for us for guidance and wisdom, this is a new day,” Herring said in the concluding remarks of her sermon. “It is time to step into a new movement, to lead and guide the students of this University who need us to be strong so that we can all move together over it and into the promised land.”

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