Dealing with the wounds of history

September 27, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Desmond Tutu Center dedicated during time of painful remembrance

Opinion | Greta Sowles

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Reconciliation professor Curtiss DeYoung stands with Archibishop Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak at the airport following the dedication of the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Curtiss DeYoung

In his book Reason in Common Sense, Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” This eminent quote certainly seems applicable during the past few months. With the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the end of August, the death of four girls at the bombing of the Birmingham church and the assassination of President Kennedy, we must come to terms with the fact that history is chronically painful, like a sore that refuses to heal.

Sadly, the Trayvon Martin case or Paula Deen’s comments on national television reopen the wound – a wound that tells us that there is still a division in America. These very examples trouble Professor of Reconciliation Studies Curtiss DeYoung.

“We haven’t reconciled, and we haven’t healed,” he said. “These things are still occurring.”

While DeYoung asserts that racism still exists in a worldwide form, he also acknowledges the need for appreciation of the civil rights movement, especially as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of many vital events.

DeYoung sees great progress in the growth of reconciliation studies programs and courses, which he believes are necessary to avoid ignorance and the reopening of the sores of history.

Recently, DeYoung traveled to Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind., where he attended the dedication of the Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies on Thursday, Sept. 12. The center is North America’s first and only academic center named for Archibishop Tutu.

DeYoung, who co-wrote a book with Allan Boesak, South African cleric, anti-apartheid activist and first director of the center, was invited to enjoy.

“To get to hear Desmond Tutu speak is a delight,” said DeYoung. “He is in his 80s now, so he doesn’t travel much anymore.”

DeYoung then attended a smaller dedication ceremony the following morning and was able to shake Tutu’s hand. To DeYoung’s great surprise, he ran into Tutu and Boesak at the airport on Saturday morning and had a brief conversation with them, which he described as “the icing on the cake.”

DeYoung also established that the relationship between Tutu and Boesak is magical, as they have a history of working together on the front lines of the anti-apartheid movement. Additionally, DeYoung mentioned that Tutu’s humor has an ability to bring the truth to light.

DeYoung hopes that the addition of the Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary reconciliation center will prompt further growth of the study nationwide. Seattle Pacific University now has a reconciliation studies minor. The program at Bethel maintains its status as the only reconciliation studies major in the country.

Leon Rodrigues, chief diversity officer at Bethel, grew up in segregated South Africa and was actively involved in his own struggle for freedom and justice. He speaks adamantly about the importance and need for reconciliation studies at Bethel and around the nation.

Here is what he said:

What are some significant dates in the civil rights movement that have been recently commemorated?

The two most significant ones are the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The second is the commemoration (Sept. 15, 1963) of the four little girls who were killed in a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

These events led to the emergence of strong opposition to racial discrimination and Jim Crow treatment of Blacks in the South. Several groups such as the Southern Leadership Christian Assembly (SCLA), led by Dr. King and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) mobilized and got people to support marches for voting rights and an end to segregation. These were met with bloody opposition and racial attacks fueled by white southerners.

How is this relevant to Bethel today?

Firstly, we must lament this sad history and horrible treatment of Blacks, Native Americans and others because of their race. We must educate ourselves and be open to the stories of communities that faced these tragic events and act against ignorance.

Students today should understand that having the privilege of education means serving society and improving it. We have serious challenges today and we can learn from the commitment of students such as those in SNCC, SCLA and those who were involved in the voting rights campaigns, Freedom Rides and organizing for freedom and dignity of all people.

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