'Be the One'

May 28, 2020
Commencement student speaker Ashley Lipscomb, MDiv '20. Photo: HDS
Commencement student speaker Ashley Lipscomb, MDiv '20. Photo: HDS

Ashley Lipscomb, MDiv '20, was selected by her student colleagues as the class speaker for HDS Commencement 2020. The following remarks were delivered by Lipscomb during the Virtual Diploma Awarding Ceremony on May 28.


"Continue" by Maya Angelou
My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to enlighten the burden of your tender heart.
Continue, in a society dark with cruelty, to let the people hear the grandeur of God in the peels of your laughter. Continue to let your eloquence elevate the people to heights they had only imagined. Continue to remind the people that each is as good as the other and that no one is beneath nor above you.

Good afternoon, Dean Hempton, associate deans, faculty, staff, family, friends, and of course, to my fellow graduates of Harvard Divinity School Class of 2020. I greet each and every one of you.

It is a little strange, isn't it? I was excited and expecting to be together with you, yelling and screaming as you walked across the stage. And even for myself, I was prepared to strut across that stage in ways Beyoncé would be jealous of, OK?

And so yeah, I'm disappointed just like you are. But I'm alsoI feel a sense of pride. I feel a sense of pride knowing that I get to address each and every one of you from my home in the city of Passaic, New Jersey, the city that has taught me how to be resilient and resistant and persistent, and I'm so excited and honored to be here in this place.

Thank you to the Class of 2020, and thought enough of me to entrust in me to address you today in honoring each and every one of you. I say thank you. If I were to be honest, I did not want to accept this nomination. COVID-19, like for so many others, has shaken my world to its core.

So I dedicate this speech to the loved ones I have lost due to COVID-19. To my cousin Willie Cooke, to my pastor who has been my pastor from childhood, the Reverend Doctor W. Lewis McDowell, the founder of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church of the City of Passaic, New Jersey, whom I love dearly and would have been proud to hear me address you all today.

I also dedicate this speech to those of you who have lost loved ones due to this pandemic. I honor all of the essential workers that risk their own health to go out each and every day to make sure our families and communities across the country have our needs met. My auntie is one of them, so I honor you as well.

Many of you know that I come from a preaching tradition. And when January 2020 rolled around, I was prepared to hear the sermons that talked about 2020 vision, the perfect vision. And I knew all this and it didn't disappoint. I heard them and I was excited to hear them. We were all prepared to have a visionary 2020 that was exciting and things like that.

But I'm sure right now, 2020 is not the year we all saw coming. And 2020 and COVID-19 are showing us what lies beneath those visions and what's really important. You see I wear glasses or corrective lenses. I'm not wearing them right now, because I'm trying to be fabulous and this light keeps reflecting off of them. It's a whole thing.

And so my corrective lenses help to clarify those things that are blurry before me, those things that are hard to see I'm able to see a little bit more clearly. And that's kind of what COVID-19 is doing for us. Now believe me, I understand we don't need a pandemic to kind of teach us these things. We don't.

But in the midst of all of this, we are beginning to see the disparities in our country that are all the more apparent. We are learning that the most vulnerable people in our country need our allyship, our protection, our advocacy, our assistance, and our respect.

Like corrective lenses, COVID-19 is spotlighting the systemic injustices that have an impact on health care, employment, housing, homelessness, education, and the list continues. Unfortunately, the leadership in our country values profit over humanity as they prepare to open back up to business as usual.

As the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 2020, I would implore you not to leave here and go back to business as usual. We cannot. We must be the ethical leaders of tomorrow that would rise up and pay attention to those injustices.

You see, today I wanted to deliver a speech to all of you that was full of hope and encouragement. But I didn't have those words for you today. I don't have them because, like many of you, I am experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and depression. I'm distracted, hurt, grieving. And what words can I offer you if I cannot offer them to myself?

I am choosing to be vulnerable in this moment before you because that is the type of leadership, service, ministry, and ethical work that the world needs from you. One that, even in the midst of hopelessness, would pay attention to the marginalized, the hurt, the lonely, the neglected, the over policed, the economically disadvantaged, the incarcerated, and the list continues.

Right now we are learning that poor leadership can embolden some in this country to show the worst parts of themselves. So therefore, we need leaders who are willing to pay attention to those things that this world is willing to cover up.

We need you, myself included, to pay attention to the lives, the bodies, and the souls of those society has forced to apologize for their own existence. You see the black body, the body with disabilities, the indigenous body, the trans body, the aging body, the more to love body, the body with mental illness, the female body, the immigrant body. Once again, the list goes on.

Pay attention and rise up for the lives, the souls, and the bodies of those who have been silenced and rendered invisible. We need you to be the one who will rise up, pay attention, and, in the words of Audre Lorde, transform your silence into words and your words into actions.

We need you to be the one. Be the one to acknowledge when systems of oppression and violence have gone too far, and dare I say, abuse their power for far too long. We need you to be the one.

And when you are afraid to be the one and need a little encouragement, I encourage you to think of your time here at HDS. I hope that you will draw on the learning that you gleaned in the halls of Harvard Divinity School, from Andover to Divinity Hall, to the Rock, and later to Oxford Street.

And I'm not only referring to learning that happened in our classrooms, or in lectures, or conferences, where we discussed sacred text, philosophy, anthropology, ethics, and theology. I will not recite the words of some of the scholars that are prominent in the study of religion.

And it is not because they are not important, engaging, or challenging. It's just because they're packed in my car and don't feel like going in there to get them out to give you profound words to quote. And I justno, no.

But, you see, in moments like these, we may not have the mental capacity nor the time to go back to some of those theories and those methods that we engaged in. But we can instead draw from the learnings that we gathered in the classrooms and relationship with our community that we built at HDS.

Learn from the conversations that happened after the lecture. Learn from the conversations that happened sporadically in the lobby of the library, or in the hallway, or in the yard, or wherever. Learn from those conversations. Learn from the moments where someone had to correct you, whether it was kind or maybe not.

Because in those moments, we learned that we were not perfect and there was so much more that we can learn from the ways to grow. Learn from your colleagues who have one of the more visible, or dare I say, invisible bodies, who have been asked to apologize for their existence.

Learn from the moments where others have transformed their silence into action before you on the campus of Harvard Divinity School. Learn from them. You see, I draw from the conversations that I have had in ways that I have grown from all of you.

I remember graduates and alumni of Harvard Divinity School sitting at my kitchen table, Veronique Jones, Christina Desert, and Don Abrams, were able to, in such a loving way, helped me to unlearn some of the things that I had been taught to fear. And really, I had just been misinformed.

And I also appreciate all of you and those of you who have taught me how to be a better ally to those whom I may have failed in the LGBTQ+ community on our campus, in the moments where I too should have stood up, spoken out, and transformed my silence into action.

I will forever appreciate the day when I woke up in the ICU after nearly dying due to multiple blood clots. And I looked up and a nurse said, you have visitors. Each day I was in ICU, I had someone from HDS sitting in that room with me time after time so I would not have to sit alone.

That speaks to the community that you are, and that's what you need to remember when you graduate and leave this place. I learned from the conversations I have had with my fellow graduates today, Linda, Nicole, Najha, Ishmael, Aliyah, Odalis Ben, Jessica, Anna, Francis, Lexi, Leah, Rachel, Jared, Joe, Alexa, and so many more of you.

We have stayed up late together. We have written so many papers. There were so many. So many. We've written so many papers together. We have stressed together. We have worried about our finances together. We have been enraged together when Harvard University or even HDS may have failed us, and we have grieved together.

That's the community you get to pull from in the moments when you are afraid to just be the one, to be the one to transform silence into words and into actions. I will be the one because of each and every one of you. I will be a better person, a better leader. I will just be a better servant. I will be one who understands how to be in community to those who need it most because of you. I will be the one.

Will you be the one because of what you've learned from me? Will you declare when white supremacy has gone too far and stayed in this country too long because you understand the pain that I must feel when I have to hear of an unjust and violent murder of another innocent black victim to violence like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery?

Will you be the one to demand Harvard divest from prisons because you have learned that the prison industrial complex has committed crimes against humanity, including my own mother? Will you be the one, because of being in relationship and community with me?

Will you be the one for the next person who sits beside you, behind you, in front of you, around you? Will you be the one for the people you've never met? Will you be the one for others who need you most, even if society feels like they don't deserve it? Will you be the one?

You see, today I declare to all of you and to anyone listening, I will be the one. Will you join me? And so from my family to yours,

Congratulations to the Class of 2020.

Congratulations to the Class of 2020. We did it!