Bouquet of Humanity: Vocation, Deep Sadness, and Hope in a Virtual Real World

Bouquet of Humanity

[1] Just minutes after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, I logged on to Zoom with a small group of St. Olaf staff and faculty convened by Dr. María Pabón, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion. The purpose of the meeting—scheduled before anyone knew when the verdict would be announced—was to decide how St. Olaf would respond to the Chauvin verdict and the potential aftermath. Bracing for a not-guilty verdict, the St. Olaf’s President’s Leadership Team had tentatively planned to declare a “Day of Healing” for the day following the verdict.

[2] The sense of relief was palpable from everyone on the call. Colleagues of color expressed a deep sense of shock that Chauvin was actually found guilty of murdering Floyd. Even though the initial hour after the verdict was announced was calm, VP Pabón led us to the decision that even with a guilty verdict, the campus needed a collective pause. So for the first time in memory, St. Olaf canceled all classes and events for the coming day.

[3] The following day on campus was a quiet one. Students took the day off from homework. Most attendees at Wednesday’s chapel service of prayer were virtual, and Associate College Pastor Katie Fick began the service with the acknowledgement that healing cannot take place in a single day. The service focused on prayers of thanksgiving, prayers for healing, and prayers of our individual and collective hopes.

[4] After chapel, over 100 staff and faculty met over Zoom to talk about the verdict and the trauma of the previous year—the relentless challenges of the pandemic and the toll it had taken on all of us across the campus. We talked about the trauma—especially for Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous people—brought on by Derek Chauvin’s kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds and the re-traumatizing effects of how often the video was shown again during the trial. Staff and faculty expressed appreciation for the college’s decision to create space to mourn, to breathe, to pause from this year like no other.

[5] Even as it was quiet throughout much of the campus on that day of pause, St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum invited students to channel their emotions and energy into creating a 30-foot mural with the words, “Bouquet of Humanity” at its center, a phrase Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison borrowed from attorney Jerry Blackwell to refer to the many courageous witnesses who testified at the trial. From Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who filmed Floyd’s murder on her cell phone and shared it with the world, to Minneapolis Chief of Police, Medaria Arradondo, who broke the blue code of silence when he testified that Chauvin’s actions were outside the bounds of acceptable police action, Blackwell and Ellison pointed to the courageous actions of a bouquet of people leading to the conviction that held Chauvin responsible for the unjust taking of the life of George Floyd.

[6] Blackwell’s image also gestured toward “the more” of the moment—a glimpse into the humanity of many who refused to let Floyd’s death have the last word. The mural students created embodied the paradox of the awfulness of the previous year—Floyd’s murder and other forms of racism (one AAPI student wove the words “I am many things but I am not a virus” into the mural) with a bold, beautiful witness to a bouquet of humanity that gifts us with glimpses of hope for a world transformed.

[7] This snapshot of a day in the campus life at St. Olaf offers some moments ripe for reflection about distinctive ways Lutheran institutions of higher education live out their mission of educating students in ways that are “nourished by Lutheran tradition,” as stated in St. Olaf’s mission, especially during the year of pandemics of COVID-19 and coming to terms in new ways with the deep-seated, long-lasting effects of white supremacy and systemic racism.

[8] During this time of pandemics, we have faced unimaginable challenges that reveal new insights about our identity and mission in the landscape of 21st century higher education. One of the hallmarks of Lutheran higher education is a commitment providing students opportunities to explore meaningful vocation, as is stated in St. Olaf’s mission statement. In the 1990s and 2000s theologian and writer Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”[i] was ubiquitous at Lutheran institutions as reflection on vocation took hold with renewed vigor with the help of grants from the Lilly Foundation.

[9] Especially after more than a year of struggling through the pandemics of COVID and systemic racism, however, all of us who work with students on vocational reflection cannot ignore the deep sadness that has pervaded many of their lives. A hallmark of Martin Luther’s theology is a commitment not to shy away from the awfulness that makes up human life. Luther’s orientation toward the cross as our this-worldly reality gives us warrant to make space for sadness and suffering. Wartburg College theologian Caryn Riswold suggests that in Luther’s view, none of us has to seek suffering and despair because he “knew that it comes to us all, unbidden. For [Luther], the good news was that in the midst of that despair is precisely where God is present, known, and revealed. It makes no sense. And it is the only thing that can make sense.”[ii] Living during the plague, Luther watched helplessly as two of his daughters died before his own eyes. Time and again he witnessed senseless suffering pervade his life and the lives of his neighbors, a reality that carries particular resonance as we emerge from living through a global pandemic.

[10] In the midst of the worst of life, Luther admits to experiencing the hell of God’s absence. In those times he sought out the psalmist’s words, gravitating toward those verses that spoke to his experiences of alienation from God. When the psalmist cries out, “How long?,” Luther resonates with “the feeling of being forsaken and rejected by God” and was intentional about making space for experiences of despair.

[11] In this time of emerging from the pandemic of COVID and continuing to address the pandemic of systemic racism, reflection on who we are and what to make of our current context needs to include not just our “deep gladness” but also our “deep sadness.” St. Olaf’s day of healing offered students, faculty, and staff opportunities to do both through lamenting the ways we and others in our communities have been wounded as well as opportunities to create collective expressions of hope through virtual gatherings and a vibrant work of art.


[i] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. (San Francisco: Harper, 1993) p. 119.

[ii] Caryn Riswold,  Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross.


Deanna Thompson

Deanna A. Thompson

Dr. Deanna A. Thompson is Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community and Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Before moving to St. Olaf, Thompson taught religion for over two decades at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Thompson is a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Martin Luther and feminism to the intersections of cancer, trauma, and faith, and what it means to be the church in the digital age. She is author of five books, including The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World and most recently, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry.