INVOCATION AT VIRGINIA UNION UNIVERSITY, February 3, 2017 – RABBI ESOR BEN-SOREK
Esteemed President Dr. Joseph Johnson, Distinguished members of the faculty, reverend clergy, honored guests, dear students and their families:
I am humbled and honored by the privilege given to me to share this Founders Day with you. It has been 62 years since I was last on this campus at a time of turbulence in the sad history of America’s race relations. In 1956 & 1957 I was invited by President Samuel DeWitt Proctor to accept a teaching appointment as the only white member of the faculty and the only Jew in a Baptist University founded 152 years ago on the site of Lumkins jail, a terrifying place when men and women of color were brutalized and sold on the slave market. Virginia Union University was founded to provide a solid education to black freedmen and to afford them an opportunity to find a place of dignity in the world.
In our lifetime, the great champion of freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which he called for an end to racism in the United States and called for civil and economic rights. Dr. King delivered that historic speech to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters 54 years ago from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.
But going back to the year 1865, the founders of what was to become Virginia Union University and the American Baptist Home Mission Society also had a dream. After the Civil War some four million former African-American slaves became freedmen and the mission and dream of the founders was to provide a quality education for them. Virginia Union University has been doing it for 152 years. From small and humble beginnings the founders’ dreams were realized.
Virginia Union University is today an honored institute of higher learning. Its achievements are great because those brave men and women who followed in the footsteps of the original founders gave their blood, sweat and tears to make it great.
They have passed along the light of freedom to this generation. It is my dream that you will forever remember the fine education you have received in these hallowed halls and will continue to practice the virtues and ideals which you learned here.
Three weeks ago on the evening of January 15th, I watched a TV documentary on the history of the White House. I learned things that I had not known before. The original design for the Presidential Mansion was made by our first president, George Washington.
In 1792 the design was enlarged by Scottish immigrant engineers. But the work of building the White House, of constructing it as it appears today, was done by thousands of African-American slaves. But it took 71 years until those slaves were freed when, in 1863, two years before the founding of Virginia Union University, president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. No longer slaves but freed-men.
Be proud, dear friends. Be proud that it was your ancestors who built America’s national home. And whenever you are confronted with bigotry, just remind the bigots that America’s palatial White House was the skilled handicraft of your ancestors. Something always to be proud of.
Avinu she ba Shomayim…Heavenly Father, Architect of the Universe, we are grateful to those who came before us, to those who laid the foundations for this beautiful university, and to those enlightened leaders who guide young Afro-American men and women to enhance their lives through a quality education and to enable them to bring light into the lives of all whom they will encounter.
Bless the Founders, the scholars, the philanthropists and the hard-working men and women who dedicated their lives and their resources for the benefit of Virginia Union University and for all those who sit in the seat of learning in its hallowed halls.
While living in the present, it is our obligation never to forget the past. We must never forget the human sacrifices that were made to create this fine academic atmosphere on this beautiful campus in the heart of what once was the birthplace of racial segregation and intolerance in America.
I recall the words of the ancient Hebrew prophet, Malachi, who proclaimed “Have we not all one Father? Has not One God created us all? Why then do we deal so treacherously every man against his brother?”
So I say unto all those here now present: go out into the world. Where you see darkness, bring light. Where you see despair, bring hope. When you see intolerance, strive to insure tolerance for all. Where you see injustice, join the struggle to create justice. Where you see hate, respond with love. Go out into the world with your heads held high, knowing that the Lord our God has given you a mission to be His partner in improving our world.
One of this country’s youngest and most brilliant Rabbis is right here in Richmond. Rabbi Michael Knopf serves as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El where I served from 1956-1957. In an article he wrote for The Times of Israel, he quoted the first Chief Rabbi of what was pre-State of Israel Palestine in the 1920’s, the sainted Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who wrote in an address to the nation “the old becomes new and the new becomes holy”.
You, dear students are the new. And as the Hebrew Bible states “Kedoshim Tihiyu”…you shall be holy. You are the new generation chosen to prepare the way in the wilderness for generations yet to come.
As William H. Yancey, class of 1933, wrote in the VUU Alma Mater, “You are God’s gift to humanity”. Always remember and treasure those words: “You are God’s gift to humanity”.
May Almighty God bless you, dear students, and the administrators and faculty of Virginia Union University with His greatest gifts…. The gifts of love, of brotherhood and of peace. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.