As part of Covenant College’s first official “day-on” for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students Berto Dryden (‘18), Nyra Johnson (‘18), and Erik Peeples (‘20) shared their experience as black students at Covenant.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s been kind of a big deal that MLK Day hasn’t been celebrated,” Dryden said. In previous years, Dryden said, a group of students would miss class and volunteer in the community to celebrate the day.
Dryden, Johnson, Peeples, Chaplin Grant Lowe, Associate Dean of Students Sarah Ocando, and Professor Amy Bagby worked to plan activities to celebrate, including the panel.
“Sometimes hearing from your peers is good because they’re not above you or below you, they’re right there with you,” Dryden said.
Reverend Irwyn Ince introduced the panel, referencing King’s “guiding principle” which we usually refer to as “nonviolent resistance,” but the phrase most often heard in the early days of the Civil Rights movement was “Christian love.” The panel is important, Ince said, because Christian love is still our guiding principle.
“Christian love is not interested in ‘a cool and unfeeling faith.’ No, Christian love is particularly concerned with others and their well-being,” Ince said. “If we’re going to grow in learning how to love well, conversations like this one are necessary.”
“It is very important to hear and to know and to engage the experiences of our brothers and sisters here in this panel this morning, particularly life with them as minorities on this campus,” Ince said, encouraging listeners to push against their biases and even embrace being made uncomfortable by what they heard.
Lowe moderated the discussion, emphasizing that the students on the panel could not speak for the entire black community, but were giving listeners a glimpse into their lives as students at Covenant.
The students discussed a number of issues relating to their experiences with race in American society and at Covenant, ranging from white privilege to the N-word.
“White privilege, it doesn’t mean that just because you’re white things are automatically better or you don’t have to work at it,” Peeples said. “It means me, having to know and answer some of these questions on the panel, but you get to listen and never have to worry about it when you leave the building.”
“Don’t feel ashamed about it,” Dryden said. “Just know that white privilege does exist.”
The panelists talked about how encounters with the police are different for them and their white friends, dating and relationships, and how racism looks different today than it did fifty years ago.
The panelists shared the challenges of being black students at Covenant. It is hard to be the only black student in a class and sometimes being viewed as the spokesperson for all black people, Peeples said. But he appreciates that people are willing to learn and address tough issues.
It is a blessing to be in a place among others who love God and worship him openly together, Johnson said, but it can be isolating for black students because there are fewer people who have similar experiences.
The full one hour and fifteen minute panel discussion is available on SoundCloud or YouTube.
“There’s a lot more that could be said about race in America,” Peeples said. “There’s still more to be covered, to be talked about, to be learned.”
Listeners could text questions in during the event, but Dryden said he heard that the system crashed because so many people had questions. “That’s a good sign--people were curious.”
Dryden is a leader of the McRae-Zellner Project, a club that seeks to provide support for African-American students at Covenant, and is planning a annual black history night in late February. “Maybe I’ll find time to answer some more questions” during the event, Dryden said. “Being a multicultural leader, I feel I should know what kind of questions people have.”
Johnson said she expected the panel to have a more intellectual effect on listeners, but a number of people told her that they teared up during the panel. “It was affirming to know that it had an effect on people,” Johnson said.