Coffin Prize finalists deliver speeches

On Saturday, six students competed for the William Sloane Coffin Prize for Passionate Public Speaking, which honors the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., Chaplain of the College in 1956. Philemon Abel ’19 was named the winner of the three competition finalists delivering speeches on activism and social justice. Nathan Leach ’17 was declared the winner of the other three finalists delivering speeches on spirituality and faith.

Wendy Suiyi Tang ’19 expressed the need to preserve and promote the study of non-dominant cultures, specifically the Asian American culture, and lamented the College’s lack of professors specializing in Asian American Studies. “We can’t afford to forget the struggle of those who came before us and the context in which we now make our living,” Tang said. “I ask, nicely, urgently, passionately, forgivingly, for a crevice within the academic Goliath to call my own.”

Abel delivered a series of poems on race and privilege in America. “Please check your melanin at the border, grab a dose of class and privilege, and please keep your hands where we can see them,” Abel said in his poem, “The Black Necropolis.” The poems considered the status of African Americans in American society today while others looked towards the future and the current fight for equality. Abel described his own beliefs: “I strive to be an example of my history, of Dr. King and Booker T. But not just black history, but all history, to be like Cesar Chavez, Fred Korematsu, Abraham Lincoln, because greatness is not limited to one race. But unfortunately, neither is stupidity.”

Penny Sun ’16  concluded with a speech on her time at the College and the role that faith has played in her activist life. “Despite my firm grounding in science rationale and atheism, as an advocate for activism, I find my work is unsustainable without faith,” Sun said. She explained how faith has given her courage and enabled her to succeed at times when she otherwise would have failed: “I believe that embracing the possibility of failure and finding the courage and faith to take action anyway is the way forward. It is something that I, at least, will continue to practice and nurture.”

The speeches on spirituality and faith began with Abigail Matthew ’18. She looked at the role of religion in activism and today’s politics and considered the perspectives and prejudices of figures living during the time of Jesus Christ. “My Jesus is active and empowers the people to take action and to seek justice,” Matthew said. “He feels the pain and anguish of every black mother who wonders if her son or daughter will come back home alive today. He hears the cries of Syrian refugees, fleeing their homes and looking for refuge. His heart hurts when we allow our prejudices, societal norms or racial divisions keep us from loving one another.” Matthew reasoned that religion encourages the fights for equality in today’s world.

Leach spoke next about the progression of his faith and the devastation he felt following the Charleston church shooting in June 2015. He explained that the natural human tendency is to look away from such atrocities but to practice compassionate lifestyles people must resist this tendency. “Such compassion can only begin with the simple and life-changing choice to face the suffering of our fellow human beings and to not turn away,” Leach said. “We must let our hearts be broken.”

Ranana Dine ’16 delivered the final speech in which she described her background in a strong Jewish community of Washington D.C. and how her strong religious priorities nearly kept her from attending the College. She stated that her encounters with other faiths actually produced some of the richest experiences of her education. “Williams burst my religious bubble, but for me, it was not a moment of destruction,” Dine said. “Instead, my bubble shattered into a colorful kaleidoscope of different faiths and religions, each only so beautiful on their own but overwhelmingly magnificent when also together.”

The competition was cosponsored by the Chaplains’ Office and the First Congregational Church of Williamstown. Winners in each category received a cash prize of $400.

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