The Last Word


"Who is this person that I call myself?"

The Rev. Nita C. Johnson Byrd, Dean of Spiritual Engagement and Chaplain

As a college chaplain, I have the privilege to journey beside young adults who are on an exploration of life. Throughout this journey, possibilities are investigated, potential is tapped, lives are transformed and the individual is constantly striving to do more. My role is to be a voice reminding students that outward and inward exploration are equally important.

We forget that our mere existence is the greatest miracle of all. However, when we acknowledge the beauty of our own existence, we are faced with the question: "Who is this person that I call myself?" Exploring the possible answers to this question is the exploration of identity that must be honored when a person takes steps into adulthood.

This road is often clouded with a fog of misconceptions, however, namely that this is a journey of independence where identity is determined in isolation. The opposite is also a misconception, namely that one's identity is defined exclusively by societal norms. These misconceptions must be counteracted with the ideas that 1) we are socially constituted beings who form identity in community; 2) we possess rationality and intuition, granting us the power to narrate the particularities of our identity; and 3) our identity is multifaceted and often hangs in a dialectic tension of society's opposites, and thus opens space for unprecedented markers of identity. As a chaplain who is an Episcopal priest, I explore identity with students through the lens of my community.

As I interact daily with the Hobart and William Smith community and the larger community of Geneva, N.Y., I also bring my life of experiences from North Carolina, where I was born. The relationships in these places honor the voices of those I know around the world and throughout time, including a woman whose approach to identity was groundbreaking in the 20th century.

The first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray is part of the fabric of the women and men who were members of the St. Titus' and St. Ambrose parishes in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., where I served in my early years of ministry. The Rev. Dr. Murray's work for a better world grew from her identity that was grounded in the very soil and people of North Carolina, as described in her autobiography, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. For Murray, identity was not exclusionary. In her family autobiography, she did not alienate portions of her identity, but integrated the various aspects of her ancestry and community into the richness of her total being. This gave her strength to focus her intellect on the challenges that she and others faced in the 20th century.

Murray trusted her intellect and intuition to narrate her own identity in a way that allowed her to emerge as authentically herself. She states in a 1967 letter to the chairwoman of the National Organization for Women: "…as a human being, I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another. I must find a unifying principle in all these movements to which I can adhere … This, it seems to me, is not only good politics but also may be the price of survival."(1) Murray paid this price of survival to define her own identity as she named herself "The Imp, The Crusader, The Dude, The Priest" in ways to navigate a world that was not always accepting of a non-binary person of color.

The price of survival is the currency that we must all be ready to invest in our personal exploration of identity. Murray's avant-garde approach to defining her identity serves as an example to a generation of people who strive to create a new space for identities that are formed within communities navigating a virtual reality that has compressed spatial distance while expanding cultural awareness in an unprecedented manner.

Therefore, as I serve as a chaplain in this unique place called a college, I must always trust that the students at HWS have the God-given reason and courage to explore the possibilities that will be integrated into their identities in the days and years to come.

(1) Pauli Murray, November 21, 1967, letter to Dr. Kathryn F. Clarenback, Chairman, National Board, National Organization for Women;