“This will be an unusual year.”
Such was the message heard by nearly half the members of this year’s graduating class when they began their YDS careers in August 2020. The statement, delivered by Dean Greg Sterling through a virtual Opening Convocation, referred to a still-raging pandemic and the tight restrictions it was imposing on campus life.
Almost all classes during their first semester were online; in-person gatherings were forbidden, and travel restrictions prevailed. Many YDS students were nowhere near New Haven, zooming in from places as far-flung as Hawaii, Romania, Korea, and Australia.
Nearly three years later, those students, along with dozens more who started at YDS in 2021, completed their degree programs in a joyous diploma ceremony on the YDS Quad, with hundreds of family members and friends applauding them on a sunny spring day.
“You have earned your degrees through tumultuous years,” Sterling said in his salute to the class on Monday. “I want to say, on behalf of all faculty and staff and your families, a very special ‘bravo’ for sticking with this through all that turmoil.”
The Class of 2023—51 receiving the M.Div. degree, 56 the M.A.R., and 12 the S.T.M.—graduates with two other distinctions, the dean pointed out.
They are the Bicentennial class of Yale Divinity School, completing their degrees in the year in which YDS celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding as a distinct school at Yale.
And they share their year—’23—with two men who studied at YDS long ago and are only now receiving degrees: the Rev. James Pennington and the Rev. Alexander Crummell. The two audited classes at YDS in the 1830s and 1840s, respectively, but because of their race were barred from officially enrolling and, thus, never received degrees—until now.
In late April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that honorary M.A. degrees would finally be awarded to Pennington and Crummell. At Monday’s ceremony, Sterling thanked members of the class, in particular Noah Humphrey ’23 M.Div., for their tireless advocacy on behalf of Pennington.
In his annual Commencement address, Sterling focused on a subject fitting for a class whose early YDS experience unfolded in the shadow of a lethal contagion: fear. More specifically, the dean addressed the role of fear in the graduates’ vocational lives—and the need not to let fear of failure stop them from pursuing their callings and careers.
“Today we are sending you into a world that is in desperate need of repair and change, not in one area, but in many areas,” Sterling said to the graduates. “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
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To illustrate his point, Sterling cited courageous achievers from different eras and walks of life who did not let failures deter them.
One of them—Jason F. McLennan, founder of the Living Building Challenge—gave up a conventional and lucrative architectural career to pursue a dream of regenerative building design that many thought quixotic. McLennan’s initial attempts to construct living buildings did not succeed, Sterling said. Yet he kept at it. McLennan—now a consultant to the Divinity School’s Living Village project—has seen the living building movement gain much wider acceptance around the world, with increasing numbers of businesses, universities, and other institutions constructing regenerative buildings that give back to the environment more than they take.
Sterling, a New Testament scholar, also reached back in history and cited the example of Peter—a figure famous for a failure; specifically, his failure to stand by Jesus in Caiaphas’s courtyard, where in the Bible telling Peter denied Jesus not once but three times. But Peter, Sterling noted, did not let his failure define him. He devoted the rest of his days to building the church.
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“If you go out and try doing something meaningful, you may fail,” Sterling told the class. “You will be in very good company if you do. … You’re going to have to take chances. If you want to make a difference, take the risk. And if you fail, realize that failure may be the first step toward succeeding.”