Barbara Taylor didn’t know the woman, only that her name was Carolyn. But it was Carolyn, a passerby who spontaneously joined and then summed up the “Breath of Life” gathering, just as Taylor had envisioned.
“This is what love is supposed to feel like,” Carolyn said.
“Breath of Life” took place on June 28, a day of prayer for healing from social injustice, racism, racial profiling and stereotyping. Taylor (M.Div. ’22) was one of about 50 members of the Perkins community and others who attended the two-part program, sponsored by an alliance of student, faculty and administrative organizations at SMU.
The event started with an impassioned email that Taylor sent to members of the Perkins community on June 2.
“As a world changer being shaped at SMU … I am requesting pastors, liturgical leaders, and students to unite as models of righteousness in organizing a peaceful communal gathering of prayer or march in protest of the death of George Floyd,” she wrote. “We must serve as God’s mouthpiece against social inequalities and racial injustices to unweave the threads of immorality and prejudice that course through this nation. If SMU speaks, the city will listen. If the church speaks, people will come.”
When Maxwell Urbina (M. Div. 21) read Taylor’s letter, he contacted her and encouraged her to “dream big.” As Senator of SMU-Perkins, as well as a human rights advocate in the United States and a Nicaraguan activist working for justice, liberty and democracy, Urbina offered his assistance to make the event a reality.
“Together we decided to promote this event and create history within our Perkins community on behalf of our Afro-descendant and vulnerable communities,” he said. Tracy Anne Allred, Assistant Dean of Student Life, assisted with the organizing, and Julian Hobdy (M. Div. ’22) handled the program and marketing.
The June 28 program began in the morning on the lawn of SMU’s Dallas Hall, and concluded in the afternoon at Dallas City Hall. Students led a series of prayers at each venue, and there were addresses from community leaders and elected officials. To minimize risks of COVID-19, participants observed safe social distancing practices and wore masks.
“When I heard Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson say the city needed prayer, I knew we had to take action as a community,” Taylor said. “This event focused on egalitarian prayers for healing from repeated injustices against Black African Americans and all marginalized persons.”
“We felt it was important, as students of theology and as theological voices, to give a theological response to what is going on,” said Hobdy, who is chair of the Justice and Action Committee of the Perkins Student Association. “The church has a powerful opportunity to respond that is different from that of political and civic organizations. Because it’s not just a civic issue. Racism, at its core, is a spiritual issue. Our understanding of community, at its best, is that when one hurts, we all hurt.”
At the Dallas campus portion of the event, Dean Craig Hill welcomed those gathered, and Perkins student Wallace Wyatt III, president of the Black Seminarians Association, offered the keynote. He cited the story of Jesus and the cleansing of the temple as inspiration.
“Like Jesus, we will continue to come in and out of this temple,” he said. “When we do so, we will heal, teach, and engage in conflict with the religious authorities here. We will heal our hurting brothers and sisters by sharing love. We will teach our brothers and sisters to dream like Martin, lead like Harriet, fight like Garvey, write like Maya, build like Madam CJ, speak like Frederick, educate like W.E.B., believe like Thurgood, challenge like Rosa, and inspire like Obama. Why? Because we will not be silenced, and we say, ‘Enough is Enough!’”
Dr. Melinda Sutton, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at SMU, also spoke to the crowd.
“On our own campus, we recognize that our students, faculty, and staff of color do not always feel welcome, seen, or valued,” she said. “That needs to change.”
Sutton noted that Perkins was the first part of the university to integrate and admit African American students in the early 1950s – but that more work needs to be done. “I am proud that SMU chose to lead at that time, and I believe we are called upon to be leaders during this time as well,” she said. “SMU’s tagline is ‘World Changers Shaped Here.’ I’ve given this statement a lot of thought over the last few months and last few weeks, in particular. It is important now – perhaps more than ever – that we as faculty and staff take this charge particularly seriously so that our students – in turn – can live up to this idea. We need change in our world; this change needs to start on our own campus, and it needs to start now.”
Other speakers at the campus gathering included James Parobek, president of THR Hospital in Dallas, and the Rev. Lacie Jefferson, chaplain at THR Hospital.
In addition, Urbina led those assembled in a prayer: “We pray for our communities. Where there is division, may we bring restoration. Where there is inequality may we bring justice. Where there is powerlessness may we lift up the broken hearted. Where there is damage may we bring healing.”
Gathering at City Hall
As the SMU gathering concluded, participants caravanned to Dallas City Hall, escorted part of the way by SMU police. Brenda Smith (M. Div. ’21), treasurer of the Black Seminarians Association, coordinated the City Hall portion of the program. Her aunt, Curtistene McCowan, mayor of DeSoto, Texas, was one of the speakers at that location.
“We can talk all day long about all of the violence, and the discrimination, and the things that are happening to our Black men, and Black boys, and Black women, and Black girls, but the Bible says, ‘God will heal our land,’” McCowan said. “And so, my brothers and my sisters, I am here this evening just to say that we can make a difference. This event today is just another beautiful example of how God is using each and every one of us to make sure that his word is not left void.”
Sponsors of the event included Perkins School of Theology; Perkins Black Seminarians Association; Perkins Student Association; Perkins L@s Seminaristas; SMU Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life; SMU Black Faculty and Staff Association; Hillel at SMU; South Dallas/Fair Park Faith Coalition; Interfaith Council of Thanks-Giving Foundation; and Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square.
“This event was organized by students but reflects our entire community’s commitment to racial justice and equality,” said Dean Craig C. Hill. “The church has work to do. But I’m optimistic about the future because of the passion and gifts our students bring to this effort.”
Event Photo Gallery
Click to enlarge images.
All photographs by Hillsman Jackson, SMU Photography.