There is a courtyard, just beyond the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) doors on 121st and Broadway, that is the quietest place on Columbia’s campus. It is surrounded by the cloister-style buildings that make up the educational, living, and worship spaces of the Seminary. It feels set aside from time somehow, with expanses of grass larger and better maintained than any of Columbia’s main campus lawns.
In the very middle is a small garden, surrounded by a circle of concrete, on which there are often chalk drawings made by children. Today there are drawings of boats and flowers and faces in pink and blue chalk, as well as the sentence: “Ralph is a lovebird.” There are a couple of students spraypainting a large canvas near the north end of the courtyard. They tell me that this canvas— which will read “PHILADELPHIA”— is part of a larger series of AIDS memorial quilts that will be displayed inside one of the main halls of the seminary.
Inside Auburn Hall, which opens onto the courtyard, is a cafe area with wonderfully kitschy turquoise and orange tiles, where there are children gathered around a table building with Legos. A bulletin board is divided into sections labelled “Worship/Chapel,” “Spirit Care,” and “Wellness/ Sport.” Besides liturgy and Eucharist, UTS offers meditation services several times a week, in addition to something called “innate compassion training,” and weekly Gregorian chant performances. I make my way up the staircase and to the left where many of the Deans’ offices are. The Dean of Academic Affairs’ office, inexplicably, has several ears of preserved corn hanging from it.
The Union has had a long commitment to social justice since its founding in 1836. Students at Union walked out on strike, protested, and were expelled and disciplined along with CU undergrads during the spring of 1968. UTS cancelled the last week of classes that year to reassess its mission and vision, and a group of mobilized students, alumnae, and faculty called the Union Commission was assembled. All of this was under the auspices of the Free University movement.
In the four-level Burke Library, which is the largest theological library in the Western Hemisphere, and which all CU students have access to, there are busts of Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass. The books on display sport titles like “Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywoman’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fractioning of the Southern Baptist Tradition” and “The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplations.”
Exiting the library you can climb to the very top of the cloister tower, which houses other library collections and academic office. It’s over six stories up. I reach the top floor sweating as the bells in Riverside Church just across the street strike one o’ clock. I expect that someone will come out from behind one of the heavy polished wood doors, whose door handles are in the shape of a cross, to tell me I shouldn’t be here. But no one does. You can see the Hudson over the pointed roofs. It is sacred. There is no way around it.