Emory Report
November 24, 2008
Volume 61, Number 13



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November 24
, 2008
Theology students fight for justice

Kim Jackson is a third year Master of Divinity student and the student body president of the Candler School of Theology.

My decision to go to graduate school three years ago seemed pretty straightforward. It’s just college again — a place set aside for reading books, writing papers and going to classes. Pretty simple, right?

Much to my surprise, theology school is not quite so straightforward. At Candler School of Theology, my educational experience consists of much more than reading and writing about theology, ministry and social justice. Here at Candler, we are constantly learning how to juggle readings, with family obligations, papers, worship, and ministry. The balancing act is always challenging because the weight of each obligation is constantly shifting.

Early in this fall semester, I joined with a group of Candler students in a movement to help with Troy Davis’ fight for justice. While doing social justice work is a normal part of a theology student’s life, in fact it is a required part of the Masters of Divinity curriculum, this fight for social justice was much different than our usual work in local nonprofit organizations. This fight for justice forced us to think creatively, and it allowed us to truly apply the lessons of the classroom to our work on the ground.

For me, my involvement with the Troy Davis case began only because I could not stop thinking about him. I don’t remember the exact day, event or place. I don’t even remember who first mentioned his name this semester. I just know that I woke up early one Saturday morning thinking about a stranger. I woke up thinking about a man I’ve never met — a man on death row accused of killing a police officer.

At that time, all I knew was that a significant number of people believed that Troy Davis was innocent, and that he was scheduled to be executed by the state of Georgia. Because I could not stop thinking about this injustice, I made a phone call to Karl Kroger, a fellow theology student. Karl is the president of Candler’s Social Concerns Network, and was incredibly knowledgeable about the Davis case. After briefly speaking with him that Saturday morning, I found myself caught up in the whirlwind of doing social justice work for Troy — a whirlwind that was demanding and sleep-depriving, yet incredibly life-giving and God-inspired.

For several weeks, I gathered with theology students from Candler in our apartment complex to form action teams and develop strategic plans. In those meetings, we pulled out readings from a Candler class on nonviolence and implemented some of the strategies listed in the articles. While standing on the steps of the Capitol at a rally for Troy, we engage each other and bystanders in conversations about the death penalty — conversations that were informed by an ethics class lecture on punishment and the death penalty. When I found myself inadvertently engaged in an act of civil disobedience with two other theology students at the attorney general’s office, I called a professor from Candler. As the officers wrote out our citations, she was on the line providing us with a reassuring voice and important phone numbers.

Together, as a Candler community, we put our gifts and talents to use on behalf of Troy Davis. While some of us painted large banners that read, “Pray for Troy Davis,” another student provided live music as a source of comfort and encouragement. When a second year student learned about our banner painting parties, she sewed together multiple bedsheets forming a huge banner that read, “Innocence Matters.” Another student filmed our activities for a class project, while yet another student led vigils on the steps of the Capitol for five consecutive nights. As we gathered signatures on petitions, others rallied together a large group of undergraduates.

Candler faculty and staff showed their support by offering words of encouragement, granting extensions for our late assignments, and some even stood alongside us during the rallies. In the weekly Candler newsletter, Dean Jan Love encouraged the entire student body to pray for those of us who were working on behalf of Troy. In addition to their prayers, Candler students talked with their youth groups and local congregations about Troy Davis, discussing issues of privilege and injustice. Candler students wore stickers, buttons, and shirts that bore Troy’s name. We participated in marches, die-ins and mock funerals. We woke up to hang banners in the middle of the night on overpasses, and we held signs on street corners.

On Oct. 24, just three days before Troy was scheduled to be executed, we put down our petitions and banners, and got down on our knees. At a noontime interfaith vigil for Troy Davis in Cannon Chapel, we combined our training in developing worship services with our commitment to fighting for social justice. Gathered together with the understanding that prayer is a form of direct action, Candler students led the Emory community in a time of prayer and reflection.

In the midst of the opening prayers, Troy Davis’ mother called us with the news that the federal appeals court in Atlanta has granted Troy his third temporary stay of execution.

A reporter from the Emory Wheel asked me if I thought that the actions taken by the students at Candler actually made a difference in Troy’s case. I responded that the students at Candler are honest in admitting that we are just a small drop in the bucket of a collective effort to save one man’s life. But we do believe that our small drop makes a difference.

During this semester, I have worked with fellow seminarians in an extraordinary struggle for justice. Alongside our fight for justice, we’ve also struggled to find a balance between our responsibilities as students, friends and spouses, with our callings to seek justice for all of God’s children.

That struggle continues...