Borderline or Borderland?

On Monday, September 18, inside Memorial Hall's Sanders Theatre, Harvard Divinity School held its 191st Convocation. In front of about 200 Divinity School community members, including faculty, staff, students, and alumni, Davíd Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America on the Faculty of Divinity and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, challenged the incoming HDS class to strive for excellence and understanding through a dedication to diversity.

"Today is a double beginning," Carrasco said in his opening remarks. "It is the beginning of the academic year, but it's also the beginning of what we may prove to be a serious long-term commitment to re-orient our thinking and some resources to more widely and deeply diversify our curriculum, faculty, and thinking."

In calling specific attention to Harvard's practices of diversity, his speech, "Borderlands and the 'biblical hurricane': Images and Stories of Latin American Rhythms of Life," stressed the need for self-examination during a time of continual diversification within HDS.

"As I look around the School and indeed our University, I am troubled by the often temporary and restrictive representation of Latin American, Latino, and Chicano scholars on our various faculties and African American on our own," said Carrasco, who in 2004 was awarded the Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca (Order of the Aztec Eagle), the highest decoration given to foreign nationals by Mexico. "Could it be that our beloved School is more a borderline that hinders the enlargement of our vision of religion and difference than a borderland where we share intellectual excellence with many ethnic and racial shades?"

His presentation featured various images of Latin American art that reinforced his themes of struggle, hope, and diversity. Carrasco, who has taught at Harvard since 2001, after teaching at Princeton for eight years, spoke with the confidence and focused manner of a successful politician, but, as a teacher, he communicated his topic with sincerity and depth. During the course of his 41-minute speech, even when Carrasco diverted the audience's attention with comedic relief, within the humor the objective was to reveal a larger point. 

Because of the rich content of his message, as well as his delivery style, Carrasco's address felt at times more like a classroom lecture than a typical Convocation address. Even though they were seated in the grand space of Sanders Theatre and not Andover 103, students who have taken a Carrasco class—whether "Colonialism as Ceremony" or "Religion and Latin American Imaginations"—undoubtedly felt a familiarity with Carrasco's message. 

Cormac Levenson, a first-year master of theological studies student from Miami, found the address more than just insightful. "I think that one of the most important jobs of academics is to inspire people, and I walked away from his speech feeling very inspired," he said.

Levenson, who already holds a master's degree from Duke University, said that he felt one of the overall messages of the day was to "not only be tolerant of differences, but also, be tolerant of those who aren't tolerant," then added: "If you can't create bridges and dialogue between very conservative people and very liberal people, then you're not actually engaging in diverse discussions." 

Levenson's observation was, in part, a response to the welcome address by Dean William A. Graham, who stated that, in a world of "conflict and contestations," Harvard Divinity School's role and mission are as critical as ever. 

"Let us contemplate our responsibilities to this community and to the wider world," Dean Graham said. "To help bring greater understanding of religious traditions and issues in a time of international and national crises in which religion and morality are constantly, but all too seldom intelligently, invoked." 

In her greetings to the HDS community, Harvard Vice-Provost Evelynn Hammonds invoked progressive themes from the past and their relationship toward a better future. "When I was growing up in Atlanta during the height of the civil rights movement, no one used the word diversity," Hammonds said. "We used words like justice and equity, and perhaps we should return to those words as we seek new ways to express a commitment to diversity and to excellence." She offered a challenge of her own to the HDS students: "We need your leadership in this work, and I look forward to being a part of the conversation."

Hammonds also acknowledged the steps HDS has taken to incorporate avenues of thought and belief at HDS, noting that the School's students and faculty represent nearly 55 denominations. The Divinity School is one of only a handful of ecumenical graduate schools of divinity in the country. 

The Sunday before Convocation, on September 17, nearly 20,000 demonstrators gathered in New York City's Central Park to protest and bring further awareness to what the Bush Administration has labeled genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. It was this crisis that Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity, seemed to reference in the opening invocation: "We pray today especially for those millions of our fellow human beings who are crossing new frontiers all over the world—driven from home by destitution and oppression, hunger, and murderous danger." 

Cox, who has been teaching both at HDS and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 1965, spoke unhurriedly at the lectern, allowing the words of his prayer to resonate with the audience. "In their weariness bear them up," he said, "in their despair give them hope, and for those of us who can still remain at home, at least for now, touch our hearts with compassion and a commitment to justice for those who wander in strange lands."

Even with the poignant timing of Cox's, Graham's, and Hammonds's words, as the audience filed out of Sanders Theatre and made its way through the crisp, pre-autumnal air to Andover lawn, the final words of Carrasco rang as loud as the bells at Memorial Church: "I hope you will join me and the many others who not only seek to understand this mystery and the potentials of the borderlands but who also seek to share it with the peoples all over who are struggling with their own biblical hurricanes."