Every year at Commencement, the graduating class and faculty select three students—one from each degree program—to offer words of blessing and calling. Here, we’re sharing the full video and text of the speech by Stephanie Johnson, Master of Divinity, about bearing witness to the painful marks beneath our skin. You can also experience the speeches from Cameron Carter, (MA in Theology & Culture), and Sarah Steinke (MA in Counseling Psychology).
I want to begin today by asking each of you—as you are willing and able—to turn your palms toward the ceiling right now and to look at them.
I invite you to consider the lines criss-crossing in unique patterns of creases and arches and loops, remembering these inscriptions in your flesh bear witness to the place where you began: in the holy darkness of another body, before you ever took in air and before the light ever saw you, that you and I come from somewhere and someone, and in some ways—though not all—we are forever marked by where we came from.
These past four years at The Seattle School for me have involved tending to the marks that live below my skin—the ways my body holds memories, especially those painful memories that one could consider scars, or even wounds.
For me, these parts of myself have felt most unbearable to look at, let alone touch, let alone be seen or touched by anybody, even the most compassionate witnesses.
And yet for the past four years I have been invited to do that honoring and excruciating work with you, which to me often felt more like fumbling than any sort of transformation. Actually it often felt worse than fumbling. More like flailing, or failing, or falling.
But as I considered these marks over and over and over again, I started to feel that the very places I most feared or hated or denied within myself could not only survive being witnessed by myself and others, but could even begin to heal thanks to that holy witness, or to borrow Hannah Seppanen’s term, “withness.”
Seattle School Graduates of 2019, I think about all of us dressed in black polyester gowns today, a sort of symbol that we shared something in common for a time. But it is just as true for me to say we remained and remain profoundly different in the ways we were and are marked, which means I find myself wanting to bless the worlds—worlds!—you brought into this community. You shared your worlds with me and one another. Thank you.
And now, since we are being sent forth into bigger worlds again, I bless you. I bless those of you who will dance down the streets of Seattle tomorrow wearing rainbows and offering your beloveds a holy kiss. I bless those of you who will faithfully bear the memory of Jesus as womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas says, “being in the world as he was…entering into solidarity with the crucified class in any given context.” I bless those of you who will sit in an office with someone who is bringing their world and their wounds into the open for the very first time.
And now, I am left wanting to offer one more blessing. Dr. Parker, this is your last commencement ceremony. We began our time at The Seattle School together, and we are ending our time together. I hope you know that forever, forever, as long as I live as a white American Christian woman I will be marked by your example as a black woman, a womanist New Testament scholar, a pastor, and a most cherished professor. I bless you and Victor on the road to Atlanta tomorrow, to the city where Katie Cannon earned her seminary degree, to a part of the country where your family is waiting for you, to a learning community that is already blessed because you are on your way to them. Thank you for everything here. Thank you.