This upcoming week, August 29, marks the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many of my friends and fellow New Orleanians - and I - lost everything, relocated, rebuilt their lives and their homes. Plenty of people I knew found ways to commemorate that moment: leaving up the spray paint marks left on front doors by the National Guard, saving memorabilia that survived the flooding, and lots and lots of fleur de lis tattoos. All of them shared the goal of demonstrating the change that this event had on our lives, how we have been wounded, and how that wound does not just heal but leaves a permanent impact on us from then on.
This evening, Sunday August 23, SLU will hold a vigil for peace and justice, echoing the vigil we held in the same spot one year ago, the Sunday immediately before classes began, to share our desire for peace in a city that so desperately needs it and to challenge ourselves to be engaged in making that change happen. The university is working on plans for a memorial of last year’s #OccupySLU and the Clocktower Accords that concluded that challenging week - a week for which SLU’s leadership has been hugely lauded and hugely criticized - but statue or no statue, we still have a long way to go as a university to be more connected to the city around us.
Last year opened more, and more serious, dialogue about race, privilege, and the place of our university in St. Louis than I have seen at any other time during my seven years here. It was a singularly difficult year, but one that challenged us to pay attention to problems that have been going on for decades and centuries in this city, but which we on our campus have mostly had the privilege of not having to look at. As our newest SLU students and staff and faculty join us, I wonder what it is like for them to come here, knowing at least something of what has taken place in St. Louis and on our campus in this past year. I can’t abide hearing tour guides on campus talking to prospective students and parents about how safe the campus is as long as people don’t go north of Delmar or into this or that neighborhood. The so-called “SLU bubble” is made more real by telling people they should be afraid of this city, particularly in neighborhoods that are poor and/or mostly African-American, but our SLU Mission is made LESS real by reinforcing that prejudice. On the contrary, in one of his essays on the role of Jesuit higher education in the world, the superior general of the Jesuits talks about the importance of engaging with the “gritty reality” of the world, and last year forced us to do so; we did not keep this city’s racial issues north of Delmar, and to our benefit. I think of that week in October of last year when we were “occupied” - some of us tried to minimize our contact with the disruptions, keep focused on the alleged “real work” of being a student or professor or staff member, while others of us tried to listen, or dialogue, or challenge, or keep a respectful eye on the proceedings. One of my new colleagues recently discussed with me the difference between “safe spaces” and “brave spaces” - being able to risk a conversation or an encounter that is challenging rather than being so focused on keeping everyone feeling safe that no hard realities can come to light.
I have been student and faculty and staff member here over the years, and cliche though it may be, I am increasingly convinced that the “real work” of Jesuit higher education only makes sense to the degree that it puts us in contact and keeps us in contact with the world around us - not in sterile, abstract, numerical ways alone, but through real solidarity with real people and stories of their real lives. A lot of us got our butts kicked last year by being shown how out-of-touch we were with what is going on just a few miles, just a few blocks, away from the comfort of our offices and classrooms. Many of your friends, your professors, and your classmates put themselves in the thick of the action over and over again, both to help magnify the voices of those who have gone unheard and to educate themselves about what is going on away from campus. As we begin this year with a vigil for peace and justice, I hope that we will take seriously the goal of transformation - we are not praying in a light, easy, “hope-to-God-something changes” kind of way, but out of an earnest desire to learn about what is going on and to be a part of building a better reality.
Patrick Cousins is a member of the Department of Campus Ministry.