by Elizabeth Hurd
Boston University School of Theology proudly calls itself “The School of the Prophets,” and with the likes of Anna Howard Shaw, Martin Luther King Jr., and Howard Thurman once gracing the space of the institution, the moniker is accurately deserved. But it’s not just the historical figures that give the school this name. The students who walk the hallways and fill the community room on Wednesday afternoons do as well. Students who talk about all aspects of justice, of reforming institutional oppression, and fighting against systems that privilege the few while disadvantaging the majority. Walking through the school, one can hear railings against the exclusionary church, cries for mercy for neighbors, speeches against our current way of being, and aspirations of being great theological voices for a time such as this. It’s completely inspiring.
But it’s also wholly intimidating.
I walked through the doors of STH with the vision of completing a three year Masters degree and then going out into the world as a pastor, caring for God’s people and figuring out a way to use my pulpit to make the world a better place. I have no aspirations to get any sort of doctorate, because at this point in my life I don’t see how my ministry would require one. I don’t want to be a great theological voice, I just want to be a quiet voice of God’s love in the world.
Furthermore, I walked through the doors of STH very privileged and a little idealistic. Back home, I had a voice that mattered. I was told to use it in every situation. Although I had never truly encountered issues of social justice, I still wrote impassioned Facebook statuses, because I had thoughts on the subject that I had to express.
And yet, after about a month of being in STH, I began to question that. Suddenly, I was in a space where the people surrounding me did not all share my white, cis-gendered, straight, middle-class background. Their lives and their experiences were vastly different than mine. It was within that first month at STH that I began to understand my privilege, and that my privilege came at the expense of others’ very lives.
I began to wrestle with myself. I had been so sure that my voice needed to be added to the conversations I felt passionate about, but what if that wasn’t the case? What if my privileged voice did not need to be inserted at every intersection, because it was speaking without truly experiencing? When I speak to those who are like me, I know what my voice fits. But how does it fit with those who are not like me? And if there is a part of me that feels called to serve those who are not like me, then how do I do that without coming in as a privileged savior? And don’t I need to figure all of this out right now?
Lost. Confused. Silent, but wondering if silent was the right way to go. Contemplative. Praying to God, “Where do I go? What do I do? Are my words needed in this moment? When do I speak? When do I not?”
This year I’m doing Contextual Education. One thing that we’re asked to do within Contextual Education is write theological reflections. I wrote about the struggle I was having finding my voice, and my mentor asked me, as she always does, “What Bible verse do you see connecting with this experience?”
It took me a moment. And I thought. I truly thought. And then it popped into my head.
Moses, standing at the burning bush, having God tell him that he needed to go to Egypt. Moses pleading “God, why me? Why me? My voice is not strong.”
We assume that Moses was talking about how he had a stutter, a physical speech impediment that slowed his tongue and made him hard to understand. Even he admits he was not eloquent. And yet, I wonder if there was something more.
“God, my voice is not strong.” Moses says. “Why me?”
Why Moses? Why this man who was raised in the privilege of Egypt’s palace? Why the one who was taken in by Pharaoh’s daughter and given all the benefits of dominating the Hebrew people? Moses, whose entire childhood had been raised in the violent shadow of oppression. Moses, who was a Hebrew but wasn’t a Hebrew. Who had once tried to help, but ended up literally killing a man. Who fled after being asked “Will you do the same to me, you Egyptian, you? If you treat your own like that, how will you treat us?” Moses. Who had never in his life lived under the oppressive system of Egypt, but was suddenly being asked to speak out against that very oppression on behalf of people who had lived under it their entire lives.
God. Why me? My voice is not strong.
I can imagine Moses’ questioning. I can imagine his confusion. I can imagine him wondering how he would do this, where his voice fit, and if he even should be allowed to speak when he had never experienced what he was speaking out about. And I can imagine his relief when God told him about Aaron, his brother. Someone who he could listen to and learn from when going into the depths of this calling he was not certain of.
The human element of uncertainty exists. It’s the uncertainty of not knowing what to say. The uncertainty of not knowing when to say something. The fear that my actions and words will end up doing more harm than good, hurting more than helping. Dealing violence instead of healing. And this fear and uncertainty exists in tandem with the trust that God isn’t going to lead me astray, that my calling is true, that I do have a voice that needs to be used, and I just need to sit and speak and wrestle with God, as Moses did, to discern and clarify what my voice is going to be, and who I should be speaking with.
There is silence in the process, silence of asking God “Are you sure? Is this true? Why me? What do you want me to say?” And then listening for the answers.
God. What is my voice? Is it needed? Is it strong here? And how can I be a prophet in the school of the prophets if I don’t even know how to speak?
If you can’t tell, I definitely do not have any answers. It would have been a true miracle if I had this figured out by the end of my first year. And as I go through seminary there are times that those questions reach further. It’s no longer just asking about speaking out against injustice, but also caring for people. It’s not just about “should I post this on Facebook?” it’s “Is this an appropriate place for me to speak?” There’s discernment, there’s silence, there’s asking God “Why me? Why am I here?” And pleading “Please, God, my voice is not strong.” And then listening for where God tells me I should speak anyway.
It’s learning. It’s growing. And it’s about finding a voice, whether it be a prophetic one or not, and then discovering when, where, and how to use it.
Elizabeth Hurd (’19) is a 2nd Year MDiv Student from Michigan. She is currently on the ordination track in the United Methodist Chruch, with the hopes of becoming an ordained Elder.