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GTU Voices - Persevera y Vencerás: An Abuelita’s Words Revisited during a Global Pandemic

Persevera y Vencerás: An Abuelita’s Words Revisited during a Global Pandemic

By Wendy Arce

I am the associate dean of students at the Graduate Theological Union, and as you might imagine, normally, this week is really big for my office. The office of student services works as a team to organize and execute the events that honor the hard work and dedication of our graduates. It is particularly special because this team has accompanied our graduates through the highs and lows of the program, so the ceremony becomes one last gift to celebrate the people we have worked so closely with throughout their time at the GTU. 

But this year, everything is different. For the first time, the GTU will be celebrating our graduates online so as to not put our graduates, their family and friends or our community at risk with an in-person commencement. It’s with such a heavy heart that I present these reflections today, online, from the safety and isolation of home.

Four years ago, this week, I gave the remarks at my own commencement, and I shared the words of wisdom from my abuelita — my grandmother. Persevera y vencerás. Persevere, and you will overcome. Back then, these words were a beacon of hope through what felt like endless years in the doctoral program. Today they serve as a reminder that perseverance is the key, especially during the crisis we currently face. 

Persevera y vencerás. Persevere, and you will overcome.

I’m not sure my grandmother ever imagined that her grandchildren would live at a time when these words were so apt. Abuelita teaches us from her wisdom that troubling times pass — the tough part is to not lose hope and faith that one’s persistence and perseverance will see us through. My grandmother persevered through very uncertain times, but in all of those years, she built a strong foundation that holds my extended family together to this day — despite the fact that we live all over the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, the UK and Italy. Persevera y vencerás. 

But when we are in the thick of it, it’s very easy to lose this big picture perspective. I can’t imagine persevering in the face of your child’s hunger, in face the unemployment, in the face of an empty bank account, in the face of an eviction notice. This feels insurmountable, and yet, giving in to despair is so dangerous. Perseverance is a survival strategy. 

We could easily enter a downward spiral and lose all hope, but this is a time when hope and faith, coupled with wisdom, critical thinking and creating different forms of community can help us make safe and informed decisions while not feeling alone and scared. To stay home if we’re lucky enough to be able to do so, safely. To protect ourselves if we must go out to work or find new places to live. As our shelter-in-place orders have grown from three weeks to seven and seven weeks to eleven here in the state of California, we must find ways to preserve, to be persistent in desperate and seemingly hopeless times, to create space for what we are feeling but find ways to press on and give ourselves and others our very best. There will be a new normal, and yes, the world will look different when we emerge. We don’t know what it will look like. But what we do know is that the world is in need of the theological, ethical and spiritual leadership seeped in the wisdom traditions and academic training represented at the GTU. 

We don’t know what it will look like. But what we do know is that the world is in need of the theological, ethical and spiritual leadership seeped in the wisdom traditions and academic training represented at the GTU. 

Our graduates and our current students have always answered the call of a world in need of their leadership, but now more than ever our world counts on the leaders that emerge from the GTU to think critically, deeply, holistically of the changes our world faces. Our graduates and current students must think creatively about how to answer that call, how to persevere, inspire others to persevere and accompany the most vulnerable until we all overcome this current crisis.

Just the other day, I was on a Zoom call with one of this year’s graduates, Dr. Cecilia Titizano and our mutual friends. Among the circle we have myself; Dr. Titizano, who teaches and is building a network of indigenous women and Latinas; Mario Gonzalez-Brito, an organizer with the Alameda and Santa Clara County Employment Management Associations; Guillermo Durgin, who organizes with the California Teachers Association; and Paulina Gonzalez-Brito, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition. It’s a pretty great group of people, and we have wonderful conversations!

During one of our sessions, Mario Gonzalez-Brito talked about how he is bringing the notion of social solidarity to his web- based organizing. 

In response, Dr. Titizano said, “Yes! We do not need social distancing. Instead we should shift the conversation to physical distancing with social solidarity. We must still be in solidarity with each other despite physical distancing.”

This was such a poignant moment for me because in our fear and need to protect our health and safety, we distance ourselves from others physically, but that distance threatens the humanity of everyone around us. The less we interact with each other, the more we forget the humanity of those who are different from us, and in the world of COVID-19, those who are different can even be those who are not in our immediate homes. Social solidarity brings more into the picture. It gives us the opportunity to think not only about how this crisis affects me, but also how it affects those around me. 

How does this crisis affect the rich and the poor differently? How do we make sure to protect those who are most vulnerable — those who have health issues, who are unable to work from home, who have been unemployed or furloughed due to budget cuts? And how can we create community, offer support, and provide wisdom to societies that are afraid, at risk, in mourning, and isolated? 

Our graduates and our current students are engaged in this incredibly important work, supporting their communities, families and colleagues and finding ways to create social solidarity despite physical distancing. 

“Yes! We do not need social distancing. Instead we should shift the conversation to physical distancing with social solidarity. We must still be in solidarity with each other despite physical distancing.” - Dr. Titizano

It is with great pride and joy that I announce the GTU Commencement website (coming soon!) celebrating the accomplishments of the Class of 2020, graduates of the Master of Arts and Doctoral of Philosophy degrees! On this site, you will find several components that mirror our in-person ceremony. Dr. Susan Aguilar has shared some reflections to start us off. After that, you will find remarks from our Interim President and Dean Uriah Kim. You will also hear from Michael Dodds, one of our faculty members, and Dr. Yohana Junker, graduate of the PhD program. You will also find a dedicated page for each graduate that show cases their work accompanied by a short video or text tribute from their faculty advisors. At the bottom, MA graduate Albert Honegan closes our time together with texts from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, spoken in many languages. This sends our graduates go forth into the world. I hope you take a moment to look at the wonderful accomplishments of our graduates — leaders for a world in crisis. 

Stay healthy and be well.

This is the ninth reflection in a series launched by the GTU called “Spiritual Care and Ethical Leadership for Our Times: Faith, Resilience, and Community in an Age of Uncertainty.” Through a series of written reflections, video lectures, and online resources, scholars, spiritual leaders, and cultural critics from across the GTU will explore the meaning of spiritual care, ethics, and leadership from a broad array of perspectives and traditions, offering inspiration, encouragement, and insights from both ancient and contemporary to speak to the current context. Find out more at www.gtu.edu/spiritual-care-through-crisis

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