Marsh Chapel’s Annual “This I Believe Sunday”: Grads Share Journeys of Faith at BU
“Somehow, this spring, 2020, these witnesses to goodness and mercy are especially telling, especially true, and especially inspiring to hear”
Each year since 1982, Marsh Chapel staff have invited members of the graduating class to share personal reflections on their spiritual journeys at BU with the congregation during “This I Believe Sunday.”
Traditionally, the event is held the Sunday before Commencement. Students submit an outline of their talk and the chapel staff select several speakers. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the chapel to move its weekly interdenominational services virtually, mandated a number of changes.
The special service was moved to Sunday, May 17, the scheduled date of the Class of 2020’s Baccalaureate service and Commencement exercises, which have been postponed to a yet-to-be-scheduled date. “We chose to feature graduating students this day in recognition of their official graduation from BU,” says Jessica Chicka (STH’07,’11,’18), University chaplain for international students. And because of the sudden shift to remote teaching and learning, chapel staff weren’t able to ask for submissions from graduating students this year. Instead, they invited four students who have been actively involved as Marsh Chapel associates to offer reflections: Tom Batson (CAS’20, CFA’20), Celie Wade Johnson (Wheelock’20), Alec Vaughn (Pardee’20, STH’23), and Hillary Santiago Alos (STH’20), who is graduating with a master’s in pastoral ministry.
Often, sitting in prayer, alone or in community, Dean Hill’s reflection echoes through my thoughts. The phrase is a striking one, a truthful one. It is one that interweaves faith and lived experienced with brevity and poignancy. Mind and heart, love and loss, reflection and action, all experience gives heartfelt substance to the sentence. As I reflect upon the end of my BU experience, I hear and feel the echoes of the phrase once again.
“Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human.”
2017- A Death Within Democracy: In January of 2017, I sat and watched our nation fall prey to privilege, deception, and fear. In this year, our country’s blinding historical hatred crept to the fore. In this moment, I was challenged to find belief in love, in the face of hate.
Listen to Toni Morrison. In, Song of Solomon, a work filled with the complexities of reobtaining identity in the face of death she writes, “Give me hate, Lord…I’ll take hate any day. But don’t give me love. I can’t carry it…it’s too heavy. Jesus, you know, you know all about it. Ain’t it heavy? Jesus? Ain’t it heavy?”
2018- A Brush with Death: In June of 2018, I sat helpless at the bedside of my former girlfriend, as she battled cancer and pneumonia simultaneously. In this moment, I became witness to the strength of the human spirit and body. Her full recovery in the face of death was an awe-inspiring act of courage and vulnerability. In this moment, I was challenged to find belief in the joy of perseverance.
Listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson. After the death of his young son, he reflects upon the strength of the human spirit writing, “Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart! — it seems to say — there is victory yet for all justice.”
2019- “O Untimely Death”: In July of 2019, I sat in my dorm room, grieving, unable to tear my eyes from three short words. The night’s reading assignment during summer term, Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play consumed by death, felt all too timely. In this moment, I mourned the death of former BU chaplain and theologian, my grandfather, Dr. F. Thomas Trotter. In this moment, I was challenged to find belief in peace, in a tragic time.
Listen to F. Thomas Trotter. In an op-ed on his personal love of baseball and time he wrote, “Time can be friend or enemy. We can save time, waste time, redeem time, lose time, make time, and serve time. If basketball and football help us celebrate our struggle with time constraints, baseball is timeless. It assures us of the possibility that life may be meaningful without the rush of time.”
2020- Uncertainty in Death: In March of 2020, I sat silently in traffic. Curling slowly along PCH, I pondered the abrupt end to my BU experience in the wake of COVID-19. Once home, my mind wandered aimlessly in the silence of the unknown. In this moment, I was challenged to believe in hope, consumed by uncertainty.
Listen to Abraham Lincoln. Surrounded by death on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln provided hope to an uncertain nation proclaiming, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Conclusions, climaxes, closings, culminations, death. All, instill an opportunity to discover belief.
I believe that even in our encounters with death, God’s presence actively challenges us to explore hope, peace, joy, and love. Advent, rebirth, rediscovery.
“Death makes us mortal, facing death with hope makes us human.”
“Death makes us mortal, facing death with peace makes us human.”
“Death makes us mortal, facing death with joy makes us human.”
“Death makes us mortal, facing death with love makes us human.”
I am grateful to be human.
Thanks be to God.
Batson has long ties to Marsh Chapel. His grandfather, Rev. F. Thomas Trotter (STH’53, GRS’58), was a Methodist chaplain serving under Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), dean of Marsh Chapel from 1953 to 1965. Batson has been a Marsh Chapel associate for the last three and a half years and says that his work, study, and reflection there “grounded my Boston University experience,” offering both “spiritual security and intellectual challenge.” He recorded his reflection from his home church, Foothills United Methodist Church, in San Diego, Calif. An English and piano performance major, Batson plans to pursue a career in arts administration, but is also interested in teaching, environmentalism, and the legal profession.
Four years ago, when I came to Boston, I knew that it would be a transition, and I knew there would be challenges. I chose to attend Wheelock College, a small liberal arts school specializing in education, human development, and child life. Things went well, and I was thriving as a typical college student from a small town in Alabama. That May, two weeks before I was to fly back, I received an email that would change everything . Wheelock College as I knew it was closing in June 2018, and would be merging with Boston University. I cried, I yelled, and I prayed my way through everything. I returned to Boston ready for the challenge and a new normal. Additionally, I was also determined to stay true to my faith. The most important thing for me was to find a church and a church family, especially then. Soon, I found my prayers answered at Marsh Chapel and got the internship of my dreams. The lessons I have learned during my time at Marsh Chapel will stay with me for the rest of my life. The first time I attended Night prayer at Marsh junior year, I immediately felt at home; I don’t know if it was the stained glass or the sound of the organ, but it felt so familiar to me as a cradle Episcopalian. In between prayers and meditations, I felt the Holy Spirit flow through the nave. It was at this moment that I knew I had found my second home.
Truly, I believe that things happen for a reason, whether we are prepared or not. I believe that God gets us through anything life throws our way. I believe that with God, all things can be possible, if we just have faith. Our lives, and our faith, prepare us for the transitions that life brings.
Johnson was a student at Wheelock College when it merged with BU in 2018. “As a junior, I suddenly had to learn how to relate to a new school with way more people than I thought could fit on a college campus,” she says. She was in search of a new church that could offer spiritual support during a time of great change. “I knew from the beginning that I was supposed to be at Marsh, that I belonged there,” she says. “Marsh Chapel helped me realize that my purpose is to walk in God’s love and treat others the way we are called to do.” She recorded her recollection at Marsh Chapel earlier this month, along with fellow Marsh Chapel associate Alec Vaughn, Rev. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, and Justin Blackwell (CFA’09), Marsh Chapel associate director of music. Johnson plans to return to Birmingham, Ala., to work as a preschool teacher.
I believe in the human race’s ability to build family: that we may find company with each other no matter where we are in the world, what language we speak, or what background we hold. I am what they call a wash ashore, a transplant. My parents relocated us from Maryland to the Cape when I was the ripe age of three. Growing up with no relatives in the North, I had to build my own family.
The village that raised me sent me off to BU in January of 2017 where I would be given the same task, building another family. At Boston University I have developed yet another list of family members. From classmates, dormmates, professors, and mentors, I have felt the same kind of care, respect, and concern that I do from my own biological family.
I believe that God is with us and in us and beside us. God has never left my side and has walked with me through these past four years. God brought me into community and into family here at BU. As I prepare to enter the next phase of my life my memories here will not fade because family doesn’t go away. They are always with you. This I believe, that we grow closer to God when we are with God’s children. That our faith grows in the power of love and understanding when we communicate and demonstrate these principles in our daily actions.
My faith at Boston University grew deeper roots as I saw the value of being involved in a religious community here at Marsh chapel. The ability to seek and build fellowship among my peers and be open about faith has helped me develop a certainty about my beliefs and actions, knowing that wherever I go I walk with Christ.
This I believe. That my family here at Boston University will be the catalyst for change that this world so greatly demands. That we will be the next greatest generation of scholars, leaders, educators, and change makers in the world, never quitting and always striving to make a difference. This I believe, that we shall never stop striving to be the best that we can be.
This I believe, that in our search for the truth in our life our calling is revealed to us, one step at a time. We are all called to fill some role in the world and as we seek this calling may we find family and friends along the way. That we may be blessed with people that support and love us.
My family here at Boston University has brought me closer to God, a gift I hope to share with my family in the future. I hope that we may all feel God’s presence in our lives as we prepare the next chapter of our lives.
Vaughn says that at Marsh Chapel, he discovered a place “where no one is a stranger, and all are welcome.” Recording his reflection to an empty congregation, he says, proved to be a milestone. “We said our goodbyes, and opening the chapel doors to the warm spring day outside was the opening to the next chapter in my life.” He will return to BU in the fall to pursue an MDiv at the School of Theology. He plans to become an Episcopal chaplain with the US Air Force or the US Navy.
After finishing my undergraduate studies, I didn’t know that I would be able to attend a university in the United States. Even though I had faith in God, I never expected such a door to be open for me, but God always works in mysterious ways that come to test the faith of those who believe in him. After my acceptance at Boston University everything seemed like a dream; everything was perfect, the people were friendly, Boston was beautiful, and the professors were very supportive. But nothing lasts forever, and two weeks into my M.Div .program, a category five hurricane impacted my home in Puerto Rico. For two weeks, I didn’t know anything about the status of my family, and it affected me mentally
Despite this tragedy, I saw God’s hand leading me one step at a time. I accidentally found a job after having a casual conversation with a lady. That gave me peace to be able to cover my expenses, but I never thought that I would also be supporting my family financially in Puerto Rico for almost four months. I saw God in every professor and classmate that came to see me and share words of encouragement. Now in my last semester, I’m surprised at how fast the time has passed. After everything that happened, I can’t stop thinking if those events were ways for God to show me how to learn to be patient
This year began with more challenges in Puerto Rico. A 6.3 earthquake occurred in January, affecting many families. However, people saw a symbol of God’s presence in that event. The earthquake caused half of a church that was more than a hundred and fifty years old to collapse. However, an open Bible on top of the altar with a piece of bread, beside it that survived the earthquake gave hope to many people that God was still in control.
After three years of studying at Boston University, I was looking forward to celebrating my graduation and closing this chapter of my life to explore new possibilities. But once again, another test of patience called COVID-19 has come to disrupt my reality. However, in this, I believe: “therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” [Matthew 6:34] These past three years have been a journey of learning, of growth, of taking one step at a time, and being patient. The future is uncertain, but my trust in God is permanent. Today I choose to work for others and believe that God will give me the strength to take the right step and help those that now need spiritual guidance.
Santiago Alos had just arrived at BU from her home in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria, a devastating category 5 storm, slammed into the island in 2017. The Marsh Chapel congregation offered comfort as she dealt with her anxiety over her family’s plight. When BU moved classes to remote teaching and learning in March, she returned to her family home in Canovanas and recorded her reflection there. She plans to become a pastor working with young people.
“I have found the statements of faith this year particularly moving because they arise in a difficult time, a time of uncertainty,” says Hill. “Yet here they are, all four, saying that life has meaning, even great meaning, and that the witness to such meaning is of great moment to each one….Somehow, this spring, 2020, these witnesses to goodness and mercy are especially telling, especially true, and especially inspiring to hear.”