Nazareth, Chicago, Oakland

Distinguished Alumna Address by Sandhya Rani Jha, June 10th, 2022

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Sandhya R. Jha was named the 2022 recipient of the Distinguished Alumna Award by the Alumni/ae Council. The author of four books and founder of the Oakland Peace Center, she is a speaker, visionary, and community organizer who serves with the Emerging Leaders Program at Allen Temple. She graduated from the joint MDiv and Master of Public Policy program in 2006. Sandhya Jha is part of an outstanding generation of religious leaders who studied and thought together at Disciples House. Among this remarkable group, she stands out for creating new forms and venues of shared transformative engagement that are grounded in keen social and theological interpretation, and for writing that connects present engagement with the testimony of the ancestors and urgent implications for the future.

Nazareth, Chicago, Oakland

The question, “What kind of goodness comes from this,” gets tangled up in my head with that important and comforting-to-me phrase, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” 

I come from Akron, Ohio, with only narratives of what is wrong with it, and I am shaped by my father's village of Tildanga, a tiny, mostly ignored and isolated village in West Bengal with limited futures and few ways out, and by my mother's town of Airdrie in Scotland, whose main street is now populated solely by charity shops and bars since the pit mines nearby long since closed. 

I am from a people of towns that no good could come of. And I love that Jesus and I have that in common.

I’m obviously overwhelmed by this award. I mentioned to Dean Culp that I felt a little like President Obama when, upon learning he had been given the Nobel Peace Prize, stated that he didn’t feel that he deserved “to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored.” Upon learning of my selection, I immediately looked up the list of people who had received it in previous years, people I admire, some of whom have shaped me in major ways through their work or mentorship. 

And because I'm me, I also noticed people who deserved it more than I did who didn't get it before they died, particularly two of my heroes from the House, David Kagiwada and William Fox. Everything in me wishes there were a way for them to get this award because they answer the question, “Can any goodness come from this?”

I came across Dr. Fox's brilliant history of Black Disciples of Christ when I was longing for a richer history than the most popular books had to offer. One of the greatest gifts I got as a House Scholar was to tag along for breakfast the morning after he came to hear Ayanna Johnson Watkins's senior ministry project presentation. He said to Ayanna, Laura Jean Torgerson, and me that we were the future of the church. He really meant Ayanna, but it was nice of him to include Laura Jean and me.

I asked Yvonne Gilmore what she'd want me to lift up about Dr. Fox, who was one of her predecessors in the National Convocation. Here are her words: “The thought leadership of William K. Fox expanded the theological imagination of DDH and the wider church. As he observed, ‘[In] an era when census data and mass media referred to Blacks as nonwhite, actually this meant nonbeing. This concept of nonbeing was one of the factors contributing to the omission of any significant reference to Blacks in American histories.’” 

She continued, “His analysis and theological reflection on ‘nonbeing’ and its registers between the church and the House made space for untold and liminal stories, registers of being, and a community of hope beyond hope.” In 1941, he became the first Black Disciples House Scholar. He served congregations, edited the Christian Plea, became Administrative Secretary, and co-authored Journey Toward Wholeness: A History of Black Disciples of Christ in the Mission of the Christian Church.

David Kagiwada, who entered DDH in 1951, founded what is now NAPAD, North American Pacific and Asian Disciples. His widow, JoAnne Kagiwada, a nonprofit executive, served faithfully and challengingly, on our DDH board from 1984-2018; she has kept the DDH West crowd, particularly Vy Nguyen and myself, in line for the last fifteen years as well. 

Rev. Kagiwada, after surviving the US concentration camps for Japanese Americans, recognized a calling to the work of justice. He initially came to Chicago for a social work degree but realized his questions were spiritual. In his ordination papers, he noted, and you’ll see from this why he’s one of my heroes, "I want to bear witness to the goodness which finds its source in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.... It is a ministry which involves judgment as well as healing [emphasis added]. It is to this task that I commit energies, talents, vision, and life." And he did, connecting with Korean American pastor Soongook Choi and modeling racial reconciliation and advocacy for a place at the table in the Disciples, a table that is open but has a lot of unspoken table rules.

They are my heroes because of what it would have meant to be here as men of color. I think often about what they may have faced and navigated—and how they opened the doors for people like me. They made it an easier place for me to be. Although not necessarily always an easy one.

I had an amazing student minister at First Christian Church of Oakland, who dealt with so much heartbreak as a Black man over the racism at his west coast seminary that he quit after two years. He told me he was considering finishing his MDiv and said, “You always have such great things to say about your experience at the University of Chicago; should I go there?”

I said to him, All seminaries are racist. The University of Chicago isn’t less racist. It worked for me because I knew it was racist going in. Your heartbreak has to do with the fact that your school pretended it wasn’t.”

It evokes that question of our day: What good can come of this place that wasn't meant for people like us? What kind of good can come of this place where most of my Black friends faced harassment from UCPD, one of the largest private police forces in the State of Illinois; where students did not always treat Black staff with the dignity and worth they deserved; where the group called Minorities in Public Policy Studies clung to each other to survive the culture of the place we were so proud to attend....

“Can any good come out of Nazareth?” pointed to the inadequacy of a place, the inferiority of a place, but I wonder if the question can be posed equally to a university whose place in the world has hinged, historically, on othering.

Obviously, the reason my student had heard me speak so highly of this place was because of the community that formed so we could navigate and survive and even thrive.

I reflect gratefully on a place where my colleagues helped me confront the anti-blackness that still lurked in my commitments to racial justice; where my peers introduced me to Indigenous and Latina feminist and womanist scholarship when even Reinhold Niebuhr wasn't enough; where when I said I needed a spiritual discipline but couldn't find a spiritually rigorous devotional, Dean Culp introduced me to the genius of Howard Thurman; where only months later, I was supported in an internship at All Peoples Christian Church that changed the whole trajectory of what ministry I realized was possible, and where I got to meet DDH Distinguished Alumnus Dan Genung, who gifted me with his own copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited that had offered him spiritual sustenance in his decades of innovative, hard, front lines ministry as founder of that church.

As I sit with this question of "what goodness can come of this," I keep hearing the clear answer, "the goodness is community… but it takes work, because for now, it's still a community of resistance."

The question focuses on this particular moment in which we find ourselves—this moment of pandemic, of insurrection, this moment where disabled and senior and fat people are considered disposable as we re-establish the pace that capitalism requires of us. I wonder if each of us has our own answer, also related to community, possibly also related to communities of resistance.

The beginning of the pandemic was a horror show for people working on the front lines. I watched partner organizations of the Oakland Peace Center close down feeding programs because all their volunteers were senior citizens at greatest risk, while the need for food programs spiked as day laborers and others watched their income wiped out in the blink of an eye. Night shelters closed down, encampments grew, people whose health or age required them to shelter in place faced an excruciating level of isolation.

At the Oakland Peace Center, we didn't know what to do. We started a community garden because there were so many gig workers in our neighborhood with no money for fresh produce. We closed our doors to almost all programming to keep each other safe. And, in true University of Chicago spirit, we started a book club, The Beloved Book Community. 

People I had organized alongside for years and people I had never met but were neighbors and donors and local activists showed up to discuss A Black and Latinx History of the United States, The City We Became, Emergent Strategy, Our History is the Future, and Minor Feelings. They showed up to study the Storytelling Project Model to analyze stock stories, hidden stories, resistance stories and transformation stories. They showed up for good author videos and good questions.

Maybe three books and five months into the pandemic, I realized we had shifted from showing up out of desperation to showing up for community. It was the moment when I asked what had come up for folks in small groups. Tami said, "Keilani said something amazing; would you be willing to share?" And the group started inviting each other to share their wisdom. No one named the shift. I hadn't changed our group discussion protocols. They wanted to lift each other up. 

I'm not sure it's enough goodness, but for me, it was a tangible moment of goodness coming from an awful time.

When I finally got up the courage to tell people about the award (today was when I told people), a colleague of mine finally said the thing that made me at peace with this overwhelming accolade: "God keeps lifting you up; praise him!" 

It was my colleague Terri Butler, who helps her church, True Vine Ministries, organize vigils at every street corner where someone in Oakland was killed. There are enough murders that sometimes the vigils are months after the murders. For Miss Terri to re-center me on who to praise meant a lot. 

When she gets asked, “What kind of goodness comes from this?” she has an answer. Her answer is that goodness comes from community coming together and saying "Enough." That goodness comes from people of faith praying in the streets and not just in their sanctuaries, praying with their actions and not just their words. That goodness comes when the bullets stop flying and people can experience the fullness of peace. 

I think Miss Terri would say goodness comes from us, and not enough of it has come yet... and so we continue to exhort each other and praise God for making us the people who can exhort each other.

To me, this is the goodness that DDH has been and continues to be: a place where we can exhort each other to create greater goodness, and in the process experience it.

May we all encounter enough of that goodness that we may continue to create so much more. Thank you.