The Rev. Jennifer Bailey encourages graduates to show up and lead
In her May 23 Baccalaureate address, the founder of Faith Matters Network urged the Class of 2019 to be active participants in the change they want to see in the world.
It’s in the news and the messages shared all over social media. These are dark days.
While we might be living in apocalyptic times, the Rev. Jennifer Bailey told the Class of 2019 in her Baccalaureate message that it means we are in a period of remaking the world as we know it.
Quoting from New York Times best-selling author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown, Bailey said: “Things are not getting worse, they are being uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” She believed the sentiment so much that she made the audience repeat it with her.
It might seem hopeless, but Christian traditions have taught Bailey that from death comes the possibility of new life. She urged graduates not to choose the easy option and become cynics, snarky or fatalistic about these challenging times.
“It’s lazy,” she said. “Hope—radical hope—the type that actually requires us to take an active role in shaping the better futures we want to see is far more difficult. It requires us to put some skin in the game.”
Bailey was one of several people who spoke Thursday afternoon at Elon’s Baccalaureate service, a multi-faith ceremony the university holds each year to honor the graduating class, their families and the Elon community.
An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a theologian, Bailey founded the Faith Matters Network in 2014 to better equip leaders within and across social movements with resources for connection, spiritual sustainability and support. She began her career as a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow and later served on the staff of the Community Food Advocates and Interfaith Youth Core in Nashville, Tennessee. The work served as a catalyst for The People’s Supper, an initiative she co-founded, and since January 2017 has hosted more than 1,400 suppers in 121 communities nationwide.
As someone who graduated 10 years ago, Bailey said she was providing insight more as an older cousin than a wise elder sage. “What I’ve learned along the way is that what you build is less important than how you build it,” she said. “In particular, it is the act of investing time, commitment and energy into your relationships with family, friends and colleagues that will make all the difference.”
A lot of life is spent in those mundane moments between major milestones and while advancing their personal and professional lives at breakneck speed is possible, there are other options. “I am here to tell you that while fanning the flames of your ambition, it’s OK to pause and take a breath,” she said. “It’s OK to spend time sowing seeds of relationship and nurture in yourself and your community.”
That community will be an essential part of their lives, she said. “Cultivating community takes time and investment but when the inevitability of loss and grief, heartache and pain occur, it is those relationships that have the power to sustain us and see us through.”
That community will change over time. The graduates will change over time. The world will change over time, Bailey said.
“Yet if we continue to hold each other tight and pull back the veil, perhaps we can be active participants in guiding and shifting that change to move in a direction that opens the door to more love, peace, equity and justice for each living thing and the planet that sustains us,” she said.
Before Bailey spoke, seniors Kenneth Brown, Mariatu Okonofua and Hannah Podhorzer offered reflections about the meaning they’ve made out of their time at Elon.
It was a line in a siddur or prayer book that shifted Podhorzer’s thinking. “The creation of the world is not yet complete until you have fulfilled your creative function in it,” she said. It was a revelation that reframed her thoughts about who she is meant to be.
“Why was I still shadowed by pursuing exactly what I was meant to do in this world? After all, if we constantly live in fear of our own story, we never get to write it,” Podhorzer said. “For me, while at Elon, my art became my advocacy, my vulnerability, my voice, my purpose. It also became my conduit for leadership.”
While grieving the death of his sister, Brown felt the love from his Elon community. “The past four years and those experiences have taught me that the meaning we attempt to make with our lives is pointless if we don’t have love—a love that protects, trusts, hopes and preserves,” he said.
Through the relationship she made with then-Muslim Life Coordinator Anna Torres-Zeb during her freshman year, Okonofua is comfortable embracing all of her identities. “Now, several hours before my graduation, I can say that I am leaving more complete than I arrived,” Okonofua said. “I am proudly, unabashedly black, African and Muslim—a whole individual much greater and complex than the sum of my parts.”