The Rev. Andrew Wilkes of Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York

Black Ministerial Caucus and Graduate Division of Religion Student Association rally students, administrators, clergy.

Student Reginald Charlestin sings Stand.
Student Reginald Charlestin sings Stand.

October 2016 – At the altar of Craig Chapel at Drew Theological School were six easels, each displaying a photograph of a black person who died young, all at the hands of police.

Student Lewanda Miller

The display was part of a Black Lives Matter service at the chapel that featured pleas for compassion and justice, a rousing sermon and heartfelt songs. Delivering the sermon was the Rev. Andrew Wilkes, an associate pastor at Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York who later led a workshop on peaceful protest and a silent march to downtown Madison.

Dr. Traci West, a professor at the seminary
Dr. Traci West, a professor at the seminary

Beyond students and administrators at Drew, participants included local ministers, students from Farleigh Dickinson University and the College of Saint Elizabeth and Madison Mayor Robert Conley.

A sobering sight
A sobering sight

Police brutality generally isn’t an issue in Madison, but students of color complain of racial profiling and feeling unwelcome. So, the service, workshop and march—as organized by Drew Theological School’s Black Ministerial Caucus and its Graduate Division of Religion Student Association—provided an outlet for such concerns.

The activities also enabled the Drew community to connect to larger, societal problems—at the urging of Wilkes, who’s also a lecturer in public policy at City College in New York and a contributor to The Huffington Post.

Wilkes, who regularly peppered his thoughts with the refrain, “Am I talking to somebody?” stressed that without honest talk, fervent action and transformational change, life will be a “charade.”

“We need an awakening,” Wilkes said. “We need to take the blinders off, and I include myself in that critique.”

During his workshop, the reverend differentiated between individual and structural transformation and underscored the importance of symbolism. “Symbols matter,” Wilkes said. “We’re about to engage in some symbolic work that I hope will be powerful, profound and impactful for the community.

“So, we’re going to do a silent tour, which means we’re going to be silent and as you are silent as to speech, I want us to be sustained as to our thinking about all of the various acts of injustice.”

Before marching downtown to Borough Hall, students and administrators—including Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger, Dean Chris Taylor, Associate Dean Tanya Linn Bennett and Vice President of Student Life Sara Waldron—prayed amid rows of small, white signs planted in the grass behind Mead Hall. Like the photos inside Craig Chapel, each sign represented a fallen person of color. This time, though, the number approached 200. It was a sobering sight.

Wilkes encouraged marchers to pick up and carry the signs with them, along with larger oak tag posters with messages such as “We Can’t Breathe.” Remarkably, the men and women remained quiet as they streamed off campus and followed Madison Avenue to Main Street, Prospect Avenue and Kings Road, where Borough Hall stands.

On the front steps of the hall, Baenninger led a brief prayer and Conley talked about community building, vowing repeatedly, “We can do better.” Phd student Dawrell Rich closed, appropriately, with several lines from the Lord’s Prayer. The group then began walking back up the hill to Drew—this time to the full-throated cry of, “Black lives matter!”