Rest, Grow, and Love

May 26, 2022
jessica young chang in academic regalia speaking at a podium at Harvard Divinity School's diploma awarding ceremony
jessica young chang, MDiv '22, was the student speaker during the 2022 HDS Diploma Awarding Ceremony. Photo by Caroline Cataldo

jessica young chang, MDiv '22, was selected by a panel of students, staff, and faculty as the class speaker for HDS Commencement 2022. Each year, the addresses of all of the finalists are published in the HDS Commencement Bulletin. The following remarks were delivered by chang at the Diploma Awarding Ceremony on May 26.


Beloved Dean Hempton; Devoted administration, staff, and faculty; dearest friends and family: on behalf of the graduating students of the Class of 2022, it is my honor to welcome all of us to the Diploma Ceremony at Harvard Divinity School.

I invite you to take a few deep breaths, and as you are able, to look around. Print this moment in your mind. Classmates, consider your colleagues who have gone on this journey with you. Look at the teachers, the spiritual care providers, the administrators, librarians, and staff who have been our thought partners and collaborators. Take in this space. Feel the air on your skin: we are breathing the same air that our ancestors breathed, ancestors of faith, of scholarship, or culture. Look at these buildings. These buildings are made of bricks and rocks hewn from our ancestors’ bones; the flourishing plants have been watered by their tears, their blood, their sweat. Let us whisper a word of thanks into the wind, carried to the spirits of those who have gone before, who have poured their land and labor, their dedication, their time, talent, and treasure into this ground so that we may gather on it to ask evocative questions and attend to the stirrings of our wondering hearts and perceptive minds.

If your experience today is anything like mine, you are feeling all the feels: joy, relief, anxiety, impatience. We are finally done! We feel ready! Maybe! Can we sustain our friendships through this transition? And what do we do now? Some of us will move into law, policy, or medicine in a country where people still battle for the right to their reproductive destiny; where Black, brown, queer, and trans folks are being disappeared in the shadows and under the search lights of The State; where to go grocery shopping, to attend worship, to enter an elementary school classroom is to take your life in your hands; where war and poverty are raging, and our planet is crumbling. Some of us seek ministry or organizing: in a world rife with anger, fear, and loss, we desire to abide on borderlands and hold wounded hands and hearts, helping to facilitate healing and to weave connection across chasms of difference that seem impassible. Some of us will use our skills as creators to illuminate the Intangible in image, song, experience, and story: we will build things that will show the magnitude of Art to transform. Some of us will move into classrooms as scholars who uncover the insight of religious study and the ways it intersects with other elements of the human experience. It feels scary: it should feel scary; the stakes are high. Perhaps you don’t know if you’re up for it; I maintain that we are, because we are here. To encourage us, I offer a few reminders for us graduates, as well as for our communities. For every one of us here, there are lovers, partners, siblings, colleagues, friends, and family members who have been listening to us, laughing and crying with us, hydrating us, sending us cute cat GIFs, bringing us food, lighting candles for us, and thinking of us. We cross this threshold together. Beloved, I issue this invitation to each of us as we move into this next beat of life.

First, Take Immaculate Care of Yourself. One of the first lessons I learned at HDS is that it would take as much of my time, energy, or peace of mind as I was willing to give. This is true not just about HDS, but about many things in life: a job, a school, a cause or community, volunteer work, organizing, a campaign, an institution; whatever you are willing to give, it is willing to receive. Let us be clear with ourselves, and then clear with one another, about the care that we must take to work in a meaningful and sustainable way. As much as you are able to and as much as it is within you, don’t cut corners on the things you do or don’t do, the ways you live, that bring you joy, or peace, or allow you to sleep at night. In one of the traditions I practice there is a word, viveka. It means discernment. Let us be discerning about what we need to be healthy, rested, and capable, so that we are able to share from our abundance. Centering our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health requires uncompromising attention. How it looks will change from time to time but let us be devoted to our wellness; our diligence in our care is a gift to ourselves and our collaborators.

Next, Don’t Get Too Comfortable. In my first year I participated in an anti-racism training hosted by Assistant Dean Steph Gauchel and the Harvard Div School Student Association. In that space, I learned about the growth zone. It looks different for each of us, but the growth zone is always outside the comfort zone. Always. It is a liminal space: it’s new and strange; we don’t know what will happen there; it might not always feel great. But we always grow there. Classmates, we have spent the last one, two, even three years in the growth zone, and don’t get me wrong, it is good to spend time in the comfort zone. My vacation starts Monday. But when it’s time to grow, let us be willing, like every seed, like every baby chick, baby turtle, and baby human, to break the membrane or shell of comfort and move into the space in our world that helps us grow.

Finally, Radicalize Your Love. My other tradition centers the narrative and teachings of a carpenter turned preacher/revolutionary who was disgusted with how the forces of political and social power treated members of his community with the least power. He was a religious and cultural minority in territory occupied by The Empire, and as such he had less power than some; still, he used his power to love others in word and in deed, in how he held community and how he moved through the world. In his best moments, he loved people with a rootedness that recognized their abiding humanity. The way he loved was profound, and he sacrificed everything for it. Our own way of love in the world may not ask the same sacrifice of us, but what are we willing to do for what we value, what we love? We call in the spirit and wisdom of Cornel West when we remind one another what he taught us, that justice is love in action. When we pour our capacity to do justice and love mercy at the root of one another’s humanity, we allow for the possibility of indelible change, within ourselves as well as in circumstances that should change. Let us be brave enough to take risks with our love, to be sloppy and generous with love, to adorn one another with our work for justice as love. Let us make our love radical.

“Initiation is ... a set of challenges presented to an individual so that [they] may grow.”[1] Our time at HDS has been an initiation, and we gather as a community to affirm it, the crucible of discovery and transformation from which we emerge. We have been challenged, comforted, hurt, healed, nourished, honed, and without doubt, bettered by our time here. We are grateful for everyone who has imbued ease and light into our experience. Classmates, I am grateful to be among you. I am humbled that you offered me the opportunity to speak to you. I believe in you. I love you. May we rest; may we grow; and may we love. Congratulations and enjoy this special day.


[1] Somé, Malidoma. The Healing Wisdom of Africa.