Convocation speaker Bishop Roaf speaks on race and reconciliation in the 21st Century

Bishop Roaf charges the new initiates in the Order of the Gown to “aspire to be bridge builders in your communities.” Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).

By Caroline Nixon
Staff Writer

On January 17, the University honored six individuals with honorary degrees and 89 newly-gowned students at winter Convocation. Honorary degrees were given to  Dr. Ramona Doyle (C’81), a Rhodes Scholar, practicing physician and professor of medicine; the Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools; the Rt. Rev. Samuel Rodman, Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina; Lee M. Thomas (C’67), former chairman and CEO of Rayonier and former EPA administrator; and the Rev. Francis Walter III (T’57), a long-time advocate for social justice. The Rt. Rev. Phoebe Roaf, who received an honorary doctor of divinity degree, gave the Convocation address.

Bishop Roaf attributes her drive to become a priest to her mother’s time in the church: “She was someone I could look up to… there were no female priests of color to be role models for me,” Roaf said.

She wanted the best for her life, and she thought a priest’s “collar” was her way to achieve that. Roaf began this journey by earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master of public administration from Princeton University. She then went on to study law at the University of Arkansas, and later earned a master of divinity at Virginia Theological Seminary. Once Roaf was ordained, she held various positions in churches in Virginia, including St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the oldest African-American church in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Roaf was ordained as the fourth Bishop of the diocese of Western Tennessee in May of 2019, becoming the first female bishop of color in the Diocese’s history. 

Roaf began by first congratulating the honorary degree recipients and gowned students, and stated that they are now charged with promoting the traditions and ideals of Sewanee. She then asked, “But what does it mean to uphold [Sewanee’s traditions and ideals] in our own day and time?”

The university was built on the backs of slaves. African-Americans and women were not welcome at the university, thus it is impossible to remove Sewanee’s beginnings from the racism and sexism of its founders. 

The university was one of many educational establishments that excluded African-Americans. Roaf cited religion to be one of the only educational outlets to which black people could turn. 

“Religious instruction was the only acceptable form of education… blacks used storytelling, spirituals, and a strong connection to nature as a way to educate each other,” Roaf said. Christianity shaped the African-American discourse. 

Roaf cited Christ as the force that connects all people, “Jesus moves outside the walls of race, culture, and social class,” Roaf said. “He came to this earth on behalf of all races and nations… We are connected by God, we are his children.”  

Leonidas Polk, a founder of the University, was a Confederate general, man of faith, and slave owner. Roaf stated that we, as members of the University, should not shy away from figures such as Polk. “When we are uncomfortable and have good intentions, we avoid the conversation all together,” Roaf said. 

Roaf called for students and faculty members, in spite of discomfort, to be aware of fellow citizens. “All of us have blind spots,” Roaf said. “I too have blind spots… But we must ask ourselves, ‘Who have I assigned to the role of second class citizen? Can I discipline myself and listen deeply to the concerns of others?”

She further highlighted her optimistic future for the region that manifests in students: “Aspire to be bridge builders in your communities, to approach the structural barriers that determinants minority communities. Usher in a new era for the South. There is so much potential for the South!”