Video: 2020 Virtual Diploma Awarding Ceremony

May 28, 2020
2020 Virtual Diploma Awarding Ceremony
The HDS Virtual Diploma Awarding Ceremony took place May 28, 2020.

This online event to honor and recognize the HDS Class of 2020 took place May 28 and featured remarks from Dean David N. Hempton, the HDS Class of 2020 Student Speaker Ashley Lipscomb, a reading of the graduates names, and the sharing of well wishes, treasured memories, and more. Closing piano accompaniment is by Christopher Hossfeld, director of music and ritual at HDS.


Hello everyone and welcome to Harvard Divinity School's most unusual graduation ceremony in its 200 year history. A special welcome to our long suffering students and their equally long suffering parents and friends.

I love our annual commencement and I'm so sorry not to be able to host you in person, to see you, and to hear your inspiring stories of sacrificial love and support for our wonderful graduates, the unforgettable class of 2020.

Here I am speaking from Jewett House with a view of our locked down campus. There are no tents, no food tables, no champagne, no spectacular garb, no tall stories, no requests for photos, no twinkling eyes full of pride and joy, no embarrassing friends and family members.

On the plus side, this is my first graduation as dean when we have not had to make contingency plans for rain or storms. As an Irishman, I have to think about these things all the time, actually. I also get to see on Zoom what your living rooms and studies are like and how your plants are doing and what your pets are up to.

So what to say at a moment like this, as fate and the virus has robbed you not just of a very special day, but also has significantly altered the course of your lives already and possibly with more to come? Here you are with eyes strained from Zoom screens, debts mounting, employment opportunities receding, and with deep fears for the health and safety of yourselves and your families.

This is surely not what you signed up for two or three years ago when you arrived at Harvard Divinity School, with eager anticipation to come and learn and help change the world. In the melancholia of the pandemic, my mind has gone back to my own graduation in Belfast sometime deep in the last century.

Five years into the Irish Troubles, the death toll was roughly the same as the per capita death toll from the pandemic in the state of Massachusetts. We did not have to practice social distancing at my graduation, but there was a similar atmosphere of fear and foreboding.

The government had collapsed, there were troops on the streets, the urban landscape was charred and burned, with buildings and neighborhoods in disarray. The violence exposed deep structural failings and weaknesses in our society. Some people yearned for peace and quiet so that we could return to normal, but most of us knew that the previolence normal wasn't so good or there would have been no violence in the first place.

Similarly with the pandemic, we can all see more clearly the deep structural inequalities in our society as the virus has wrought disproportionate damage to the elderly, communities of color, the poor and marginalized, the uninsured and undocumented, the essential workers, incarcerated, the veterans, and the chronically ill, who bear the scars of discrimination deep in their own bodies. Who wants to go back to that normal?

Graduations, whether in-person or virtual are interstitial events, part celebration of serious accomplishments, part anticipation of a bright future ahead. The first part of this is real and needs to be congratulated and celebrated. The second part feels hard at the moment. How do we anticipate a brighter future? What is there to hope for in the midst of so much pain and suffering?

I am reminded here of a poem by Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate and onetime professor of poetry at Harvard who wrote these lines in the midst of the Irish Troubles when it was easier to feel despair at how long the pain had lasted than anticipate a brighter future.

His famous lines, The Cure at Troy, go like this. History says don't hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, the long for a tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme. So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.

So here are four takeaways from these lines that I want you to remember long after this virtual commencement has gone and long after the pandemic has receded. First, our critical faculties, which we have done all we can to nurture new, must not become the tools of pessimism and despair by the state of our society.

Keep hope alive on this side of the grave, even as we remain critical and realistic about how hard it is going to be to change what needs to be changed. Second, once in a lifetime, the long for a tidal wave of justice can rise up and rhyme with history, even with the toughest of historical legacies like slavery and racism and xenophobia and so much else.

Be part of that tidal wave of justice after this pandemic is over and make it the business of your lives, wherever they take you to. Third, believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Heaney's poem was written in 1990 when few people believed that a further shore of peace and justice was reachable in Ireland.

But eight years later, a peace process brought an end to the violence and delivered at least the outlines of a more just society for everyone. Finally then, believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.

Even in the darkest places ravaged by the virus, there have been miracles of courage and sacrifice, cures delivered by a compassionate army of health workers, and healing wells of love and devotion from families, friends, and fellow travelers. Congratulations, class of 2020. Go celebrate and then go perform some miracles.

And now we will hear an address from the HDS student commencement speaker nominated by their peers and selected by a committee of faculty, students, and continuing students.

Continue, a poem 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 Beyonce would be jealous of, OK?

And so yeah, I'm disappointed just like you are. But I'm also-- I 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 our 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 work 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 just-- no, 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, O'Dallas, 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 Brianna 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!

We now present the graduates for the degree of Master of Theological Studies. Edward Zamorano Ablang.

Ali Al Youha.

Edwin Alanis.

Imogen Grace Angier.

Mirza Azam Baig.

Cameron Blais.

Shane Brodie.

Francis Brumley.

Sarah Casey.

Seth Alexander Castiglione.

Daniyal Channa.

Muhammad Qasim Chattha.

Jared Christensen.

Marissa Compton Jones.

Brigid Conroy.

Maud Doyle.

Victoria Edgar.

Tessa Monica Steinert Evoy.

Amirah Fadhlina.

Olivia Finster.

Odalis Garcia Gorra.

Mor Sara Gedalia.

Gray Turner Gilbert.

Garrett Morgan Haddock.

Harrison Davis Hall.

Azmera Adonai Aneesa Hammouri-Davis.

Elizabeth Ho.

Sahar Kazranian.

Sam Keaser.

James William Klimas III.

Jiyoung Kwon.

Joseph La Torre.

Queenie Luo.

Aleksandra Sasha Makarova.

Katerina Mangini Taheri.

K.C. McConnell.

Adam McLain.

Addison McTague.

William Thomas Moore.

Nicole Taylor Morris.

Sidney Faye Moss.

Kevin Newell.

Jessica Patey.

Ayesh Perera.

Syona Puliady.

Yena Sharma Purmasir. Rachel Quednau.

Elizabeth Pyjov. Hamzah Raza.

Liya Naomi Person Rechtman.

Alan Ruiz.

Laura Jeanne Ryan.

Federica Sasso.

Saran Sidime.

Lindsey Grace Smith.

Natalie Amador Solis.

Marian Stacey.

David William Streed.

Sarah Sturm.

Flora Xiao Tang.

Sara Jane Angell Therrien.

Elena Trueba. Hope Alexis Williams. Jessica Alice O'Neil Young. Najha Zigbi-Johnson.

Dean Hempton, members of the faculty, family, and friends, I present to you the Master of Theological Studies graduates of 2020.

Graduates, it makes me so sad to know that I can't give you an actual hug before you leave. So since I can't offer you M&Ms, I can't hug you, I can't offer you a cup of tea, I will simply say congratulations, stay in touch. Good luck.

Congratulations, graduates. Thank you for your creativity, your spirit, your perseverance, and for the important work you're going to be doing in the world.

I'm going to miss reading with you and talking with you, learning from you, and being challenged by you.

We are very proud of you. We wish you well in the next phase of your career. May your journey of life be smooth.

I wish you all joy for the journey, courage to live out your dreams. Your brilliance, your creativity, your caring, are so inspiring. My deepest thanks.

It's been a pleasure to have met and worked with so many of you. All best wishes for the future and please do remember to stay connected.

Wherever your path may lead, remember to stop on the trail and enjoy the beauty.

Thank you to the class of 2020 for joining me on your journey over the past two or three years. And I want to remind you to always make meaning as you continue to develop your particular ways of serving the world.

My dear brothers and sisters, I want you to have the courage to unflinchingly look at all the misery and suffering in the world and have more courage to love thy neighbor as thyself.

I've been inspired by your resilience and your resolve during a difficult time. Well done.

As you look back on this semester, which was so difficult for all of us, just remember that you got through this time of pandemic. And in your ministry and teaching and research in years to come, you can do the same, sharing this experience and helping others to get through their difficulties as well.

We're going to miss you so much at HDS, but I know the world outside Harvard is going to be a much better place because you're out there in it working for justice.

Thank you for being such wonderful students and making our classrooms always spaces of creativity and exploration.

I'm so excited to welcome you to the alumni community. I hope you celebrate your accomplishments today, and I'm excited to keep in touch with you and hear about all the great things you're about to go on to do.

Thank you for your fierce and beautiful writing.

I'm so grateful for my fantastic advisees, Sarah, Jessica, Lindsay, Francis, and James.

It has been such a privilege to know you these last few years and to be privy to who you are and what you have accomplished. Best wishes in all that you do, and may it soon be possible for us to offer these congratulations in person.

And thanks so much for giving me hope for the future and for being so sweet to Louis.

Wishing you all the best for your future journeys.

The past few years have been a wild ride, but I can't imagine anyone better to share it with than all of you.

We at the library want you to know how much we've enjoyed getting to know you and work with you during your time in HDS, and how proud we are of your accomplishment. We want to send you this big virtual cheer from all of us.


Thank you so much for daring us to be a better, more just place here at HDS.

It's such a joy and honor to teach Div students. Your love for others and your commitment to them shines through every single day.

It has been an honor to learn with you. Thank you for your laughter, for your dedication, and for your commitment.

I'd like to thank all the students who put on noon service this year and sang with me in the choir. It's been a great year and I wish you well.

My wish for you is to keep the long view, especially now that we are in this moment of transformation, and that s spiritual.

Remember as you go forward from this time and place to always be guided by what Pablo Neruda called our twin stars, la lucha y la esperanza-- the struggle to bring justice for everyone and the hope that by caring for one another, we can push back the solitude.

Let nothing diminish the light you carry, nor the strength you've already shown us and yourselves. God bless.

Thank you for all your soulful contributions to our community during your time here. You go with our blessings and our love.

Thank you for your laughter, your humor, and your passion of working towards a more just and passionate world.

I can't believe it's been two slash three years since you were applying to HDS. It feels like yesterday and not just because time has no meaning anymore. Congratulations, and a special thank you to those of you who served as admissions ambassadors.

Congratulations, graduates. I offer special thanks to the graduates of our HDS Student Association this year for your humble, compassionate, and fierce leadership.

Thank you for inspiring me with your resilience and for showing me how to go through a storm and still bounce back. Congratulations.




Congratulations class of 2020.

Thank you for all that you've contributed to our community over the years.

Thank you for making us part of your journey.

Be ready for the wonderful future ahead of you.

God bless.

Congratulations, great job.

Great job, people!

We now present graduates for the degree of Master of Divinity.

Anissa Pecaut Abdel-Jelil.

Mary Elizabeth Atwood.

Ana Avalos-Chavez.

Mary Balkon.

Jarred Batchelor Hamilton.

Alexandra Claire Boudreaux.

Ismail Abdul-Hakeem Buffins.

Anna Burnham.

Francesca Louise Cipriani de Carrillo.

Tim Delong Jr.

Audra Jayne Franley.

Benjamin Freeman.

Jill Renee Gaulding.

Jason Hoelzel.

Meredith Nielsen Jeremiah.

Kyle Hall Kaplan.

Kelsey Karys.

Chew Lin Kay.

Grace Elizabeth Killian.

Gretchen Tracey Legler.

Rachel Leiken.

Leah Kimrey Limbaugh.

Ashley Y. Lipscomb.

Linda Robinson McKenzie.

Kayla McKinsey.

Lisa Oliver.

Hannah Ozmun.

Salvador Tabare Pena Andujar.

Joseph Matthew Pinto.

Alexa Christina Rice.

Steve Rizzo.

Emily Rogal.

Allison Marie Clark Rosen.

Jessica Rosenberg.

Abtsam Saleh.

Alia Truth Shinbrough.

Shane Meredith Snowdon.

Carlyle Stewart.

Nora Colleen Sullivan.

Jade Sylvan.

KMarie Tejeda.

William Teresa.

Tselha Tenzin.

Shumo Wang.

David John Cobb Waters.

Amy Sarah Weston.

Nora Christine Williams.

Dean Hempton, members of the faculty, family and friends, I present to you the Master of Divinity graduates of 2020. We now present graduates for the degree of master of Theology.

Ursula Cargill.

Eunhae Grace Lee.

Alexis Simpson. Dean Hempton, members of the faculty, family and friends, I present to you the Master of Theology graduates of 2020. We now present the graduates for the degree of Doctor of Theology.

Eric Jirrard. Dissertation title, remember this day on which you came out of Egypt. The exodus, motif, and biblical memory.

Jason William Smith. Dissertation entitled, Tacit Tirukkuṟaḷ. Religion, ethics, and poetics in a Tamil literary tradition.

Dean Hempton, members of the faculty, family and friends, I present to you the Doctor of Theology graduates of 2020.

Greetings, class of 2020. On behalf of the alumni community, I am thrilled to welcome you into our strong and vibrant fellowship. We are so very proud of all that you have accomplished already, and we can't wait to see what you do in the world. And now your fellow alumni from around the globe have a few messages to share with you.

Class of 2020, I understand that you may be looking out at the world right now and thinking, what is this thing I am about to enter. But understand that your entire training at HDS was for this moment, so get out there and change the world.

(NON-ENGLISH), greetings and blessings to all of you. Have a great graduation, even if it's not the one we expected. We're cheering for you from a distance and we're here for you whenever you want to connect to the alumni community.

To the Harvard Divinity graduating class of 2020, may the odds be forever in your favor on life's fast journey.

My best advice for you, keep that sense of humor. Life is funny.

Life doesn't happen to you. Life happens for you.

Cultivate as much as possible gratitude and unconditional love in your life.

I would encourage you to stay faithful, stay strong, and stay encouraged as you take this next step. Four years from now, five years from now, eight years from now, you're going to look back and say, man, I've come a long way. And indeed you have.

I offer you this day, T.S. Eliot's poem, The Journey of The Magi. Like the wise kings returning home, neither are we living in the old dispensation.

And please know that we, your fellow alums, stand ready to support, walk alongside, and uplift you as you move forward.

The notions you have for how to succeed, those can be broken. Those are what other people have told you. Carve your own path, carve your own destiny. I am excited to see what you achieve. Good luck for the future.

As privileged graduates of Harvard, I issue a challenge for you to find your highest calling in this urgent time.

Just follow your hearts, follow your loves, follow what brings you joy, and we've got your back. We're here for you.

The most important factor in living a life worth living is our loving relationships. And in order to cultivate and nurture the kinds of loving relationships that bring us joy, fulfillment, and abundance, we must make time and we must take time.

You've learned at HDS how to think, write, and articulate a position. How to analyze a problem, how to communicate, and inspire, and inform. And these are all skills that will be useful in whatever your chosen endeavor is.

We need you to live your vocation, what you can do that nobody else can do. And if you don't do it, it won't get done.

Best wishes.

Well done. Well deserved.



Congratulations, Harvard Divinity School graduates.

Congratulations to you, your families, and all you hold dear.

Keep the faith. Bye bye.

History says, don't hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme. So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.

Congratulations, class of 2020. Thank you. Thank you, family and friends. As you watch these concluding reflections from our beloved students, keep hoping and working for justice and keep believing that a further shore is reachable from here. Never, never settle for the old normal.