In Exile We Become Prophets

May 26, 2022
Lindsay Sanwald in black academic regalia holding her right hand up standing in front of seated people during Harvard's Commencement ceremony
Lindsay Sanwald, MDiv '22, delivered the graduate student address at Harvard University's Commencement exercises. Photo by Kris Snibbe, Harvard Staff Photographer

At morning exercises in Harvard Yard on May 26, 2022, graduating MDiv student Lindsay Sanwald spoke on behalf of Harvard graduate students on recognizing our ancestors and being great visionaries.


A long while from now, living beings not yet born today will want to know: where were you when the world stopped? It could be your future granddaughter, interviewing you for her middle school research project on the coronavirus. Or perhaps you’ll be writing a chapter about it in your presidential memoir.

How will you tell this time? For many of us here today, we get to answer that we were students at Harvard when the world took its great pause. I’ve been at a student at Harvard for three years. Yet, this is strangely both my first and final spring on campus. I began in the fall of 2019 as a fully embodied presence in the classrooms. And then, very suddenly, this all disappeared.

When I came back to Cambridge this past fall, it fell like a reincarnation. I’ve been here before, I thought, in a past life. What happened? Where did we go? And what miracle is this that we get to be here together again today?

Whether you started out in the flesh or on the screen, COVID-19 became an all-consuming component of your curriculum. Much of our study happened in quarantine, in a cloister called Zoom. I had already been practicing a bit of this monastic life at the Divinity School—that old place at the edge of campus where folks of every faith go in search of how to think and talk about the divine.

Not everyone knows that Harvard College was initially founded as a place to train future ministers. I am delighted to be a continuation of the original mission, and love that my presence here today—as a proud, queer, heathen woman, and first-generation graduate—all of that would probably make the original, puritanical clergymen who established this institution very uncomfortable.

These years, I think we were all made into ministers. We were all called to sit with great grief as we studied the self. We were all asked to make meaning of our lives when everything seemed lost. And it is my sincere belief, that to have been a student during these pandemic times was an immense lesson. It taught us something about stillness, about how to listen, about how to recognize what is most precious and far too often taken for granted. This privilege of being alive, it showed us just how vulnerable we are. But here’s the gift. To be made vulnerable is to become visionary. To be human is to be thrown into the deep end of mystery. We stay afloat on hope, and hope is a prophecy. Hope is an optimistic oracle telling a story. It anticipates what is possible and calls forth a better future. Hope is risky because it asks you to expose yourself, to unmute yourself, to take off your mask, turn on your camera, and tell your story.

Here is a bit of mine. My great grandmother ran away from home in Kyiv at age 18. It was called Russia back then. Legend has it she bribed a guard with a bottle of vodka to get on a boat to Manhattan. She worked as a tailor in a tenement building on the Lower East Side where she brewed moonshine in a bathtub and threw parties during prohibition. She pulled my grandmother, Sonia, out of school at age 15 to help sew clothes on Delancey Street. My grandmother and great grandmother were legit women of the cloth. Not leaders of the clergy, but sacred seamstresses who knew how to stitch the fabric together. Their courage and sacrifice stitched a future for me.

We are all being tasked now at mending ourselves back together so that we can stitch a world for future generations. To everything that’s been sacrificed, I refuse to waste my vision endlessly thumbing a scroll of screen. We are renaissance artists reborn after a plague. I want us to make more than memes; I want us to make masterpieces!

A friend in a dream tells me now is the time we’re supposed to become the people we’ll be remembered as. We have never been more vulnerable than we are today. Good. May this great vulnerability turn us into great visionaries. In exile, we become prophets, we part seas, we leap! You have made a path for yourself. Now cross it. Go forth and share all that you have learned. Be contagious with your knowledge, contagious with your kindness, contagious with your enthusiasm and inspired human vision. Let us go beyond the boundaries now, and may divine truth, wisdom, and grace continue to guide our way.