Students gathered together for a convocation led by Sarah Thompson in light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.
Thompson is the executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an organization that seeks to rectify injustice in nonviolent ways. She is also a licensed pastor in the Indiana-Michigan Conference of Mennonite Church USA and has traveled to 60 countries and countless communities through her work.
Thompson spoke at College Mennonite Church on Sunday, Jan. 15. Her sermon was on Martin Luther King Jr. and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These four horsemen were relating conquest to racism, war to militarism, famine and economic exploitation to materialism and death as the ecological destruction as a result.
Thompson included stories from working with CPT in Kurdistan and resisting the attempts of the oil companies to take their land. She also spoke on her own life and growing up in a Mennonite community before attending Spelman College.
Thompson’s presentation at the convocation, entitled “A New Unsettling Force: MLK and the Poor People’s Campaign,” was given on Monday, Jan. 16. She focused on Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the ongoing struggles that our society faces in relation to poverty, racism and privilege.
Eliana Neufeld Basinger, a junior, said that she liked that Thompson told stories from her own experiences. Basinger also felt that everything Thompson said served as a call to action.
“I appreciated how she talked about the unfinished work of Dr. King,” Basinger said. “It seems that MLK Day things so often find ways to confine him to the past or to distract from his unfinished work. Thompson avoided that really well.”
During her speech, Thompson said, “We have to bravely look into the past, because the past is the future.” She went on to say that there is a lot to learn about people’s movements in the past.
After being asked how people can enact change within their communities, Thompson said, “I believe that every change that is made counts, and we often don’t know on what scale our change will impact. We do what feels best in the situation and see what happens after that. Even the smallest change we can see in the ecosystem creates large change later.”
Thompson also emphasized that it is important for people to stay in their discomfort. It may be tempting to stay within one’s comfort zone, but Thompson encouraged students to “stay in our discomfort, stay in our anger at unequal power.”
In the middle of the presentation, Naomi Gross and Mimi Salvador Lucero, seniors, stood up and yelled about sexual assault on campus, Standing Rock and global environmental issues. The interruptions were planned ahead of time, and much of the audience was left shocked and uncomfortable, which was Thompson’s goal.
Alia Byrd, a sophomore and Black Student Union leader, said that, for her, the important message was “to not be afraid to interrupt, but to remember that the best way to make change is to be respectful and direct with the changes you want made.”
Byrd said that it is necessary to realize that everyone is aiming for a common goal, “no matter what our cause is. Whether black rights, immigration rights, Latino rights, LGBTQ rights and so on, we want equality, opportunity, love, our voices to be heard and a peace of mind to know that we are taken seriously.”
Byrd also mentioned that, to her, the most important things about Thompson’s speech were what she left up for interpretation and for students to discern.
“She still left a powerful impact on all who listened,” Byrd said. “I appreciate her originality and her willingness to be completely herself because that is what we need in this world.”
After the convocation, Thompson was asked about how she feels speaking about race.
“Race can be an uncomfortable topic, but it’s much more uncomfortable to not speak about the historic and ongoing pain that is in so many of our lives as a result of the history of interpersonal and systemic violence on various communities,” Thompson said. “I love talking about [race] because it makes us feel really human and helps us both see our commonalities and appreciate our different perspectives.”