Morning Prayers: HDS Student Julia Ogilvy's Life-Changing Awakening

HDS Student Julia Ogilvy

Julia Ogilvy MTS '18, speaks about an experience that changed her life's path and brought her to Harvard. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



Good Morning –  A reading from the Gospel of Luke

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

It is a rainy day in November 2001 and I am being taken on a tour of a place called Easterhouse on the outskirts of the city of Glasgow in Scotland. This is an area of mass unemployment, known for having one of the worst levels of life-expectancy in Britain. For the last 10 years, I had lived and worked just over an hour away, running a successful business and living a life of great privilege, but I had never chosen to come anywhere like this before.

As we drove down the street we passed derelict apartment buildings, with boarded up windows and doors covered in ugly graffiti. We turned a corner and a large brick building loomed in front of us, surrounded by barbed wire and broken concrete slabs with weeds poking through. The building itself was partly burned down, blackened and scarred with rooms open to the elements. I asked my companion if it had been the local prison. There was a moment of silence and then he turned to me and said, ‘No, this is the local high school. There had been an arson attack but there was simply nowhere else for the children to go.

I vividly remember the tears that ran down my face that day as I thought of my young children in their cosy, warm classroom, surrounded by green fields and yet only an hour away. How could children have to live like this? How had I failed to notice the lives of my ‘neighbours’? This was my turning point, the moment that shook me out of my complacency and the spark that lit a fire inside me. I left my business to work on social justice issues and to begin a journey of self-discovery and what I hope to be radical empathy that continues here at Harvard Divinity School.

I pray that you have had felt that kind of spark. But as I look around the wider Harvard community I am increasingly aware that it is very rare for people to choose to really ‘see’ who their neighbour is or to face the truth of our world today. I have attended classes across the river where there seems to be very little awareness of the suffering of others. I find myself talking to people who have no idea what ‘stand your ground’ laws are or the new ‘Jim Crow’ of mass incarceration. They seem to know little about the increasing devastation caused by climate change, including the hundreds of thousands of deaths in developing countries from drought, flooding or disease related to global warming, or that there are 260 million migrants in our world today, escaping war and extreme poverty. I could go on and on and I know I am preaching to the converted here. But the fact is that this really scares me, particularly when we contemplate the power of corporations in our world today.

However, it is all too easy for me to judge others when I am so often horrified by my own complacency. If we are to remain turned towards the needs of others, then we all need spiritual practices to help us. We need to be in communities like this one, where talks and prayers orientate us to what matters and to be people who constantly bear witness to injustice. We need to be vulnerable ourselves, to be mindful of the world around us and our impact on it. We need to be willing to be uncomfortable and to learn the skills of deep listening. We need to ask those simple questions, ‘Where does it hurt?’ and ‘How can I help?’. This is what radical empathy means.

My text this morning was the beginning of the well-known story of the good Samaritan and as Luke went on to write: “a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds.” God calls on all of us to bandage the wounds of the world and to start by loving our neighbour but we can’t do that if don’t know our neighbour’s story or if we fail to really ‘see’ them.

That day in Easterhouse was a gift of God’s grace to me and it transformed my life. So, let us all be willing to have that fire lit inside us and to choose practices that can help us keep that fire alive. Let us show the wider Harvard community, on both sides of the river, what it means to love our neighbour and to turn our faces towards injustice and suffering.

Let us pray – Lord, give us eyes to see the pain around us, ears to hear the cries of the suffering, and the voice to share their story with others in our community. Let us find hope and joy in love for our neighbour and in building a world based on your values of justice, love and mercy. Amen