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Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout

Pro-Palestine protesters cheer inside Harvard-Epworth Church Thursday during HOOP's People's Commencement. The church's leadership later said that they did not authorize the protest held in the sanctuary.
Pro-Palestine protesters cheer inside Harvard-Epworth Church Thursday during HOOP's People's Commencement. The church's leadership later said that they did not authorize the protest held in the sanctuary. By Frank S. Zhou
By Elyse C. Goncalves and Matan H. Josephy, Crimson Staff Writers

The leadership of Harvard-Epworth Church, the venue that held the “People’s Commencement” following the pro-Palestine walkout at Harvard’s graduation, said they were angered and dismayed that the church became the site of a large-scale protest, according to a Friday email sent to the church’s congregation.

Mitch Hay and Barb Lemmel, the pastors of the church, wrote in a joint email that they did not grant Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine permission to host the protest and were under the impression that they rented out the venue to a “small student group” to honor the 13 undergraduates who were barred from graduating.

“The protest in the sanctuary was in no way approved by Harvard-Epworth,” Hay and Lemmel wrote.

“We are dismayed that the church became the locus of a large student protest. We are angered that this overly political message took place in the sanctuary. We are troubled that we were not present to provide in-person leadership, as we are currently in Italy on vacation,” they added.

During the pro-Palestine alternative graduation, HOOP organizer and Harvard Law School graduate Lea H. Kayali told attendees that the church was “generously offered” to organizers for the ceremony.

But Lemmel wrote in a Saturday statement to The Crimson that church leadership were not informed of the “People’s Commencement,” of any impending demonstrations, or of HOOP’s involvement.

“We would not have allowed banners to be hung on the altar or flags of any nation to be displayed or waved in the sanctuary” Lemmel wrote. “We are dismayed at the lack of awareness and respect for our sacred space.”

More than 1,000 people walked out of Harvard’s Commencement as interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 began to confer degrees on graduating students.

Many of those who participated in the walkout later marched to Harvard-Epworth Church, where they staged the alternative graduation event to honor the 13 students prevented from graduating over their participation in the 20-day encampment in Harvard Yard that ended earlier this month.

Lemmel wrote on Saturday that the student who rented Harvard-Epworth for the “People’s Commencement” had rented the space in the past for a different Harvard student group, and the church’s administration assumed the student was renting it for the same organization.

“Today, however, I’ve received an email from her saying that she did not rent on this group’s behalf,” Lemmel wrote.

HOOP wrote in a statement that “the student who made the request to the church made clear that the space was being reserved on behalf of Harvard students and community members who wished to celebrate the 13 seniors being denied their degrees and to mourn the loss of Palestinian lives.”

“The church may have assumed that this student was reserving space on behalf of an organization they have previously reserved space for, although the student did not, at any time, indicate that this was the case,” HOOP added.

In the email to their congregation, Hay and Lemmel noted that Harvard-Epworth has a long history of serving as a forum for “difficult conversations about controversial issues when bounded by mutual respect and listening,” they wrote that the “nationalistic tone of this demonstration was not in keeping with our values as a house of worship.”

In an emailed statement to The Crimson, HOOP praised the “on-the-ground staff” at the church as “incredibly welcoming, warm, and supportive.”

While HOOP wrote in its statement that the number of people who attended the protest graduation ceremony “exceeded our expectations,” it did not address the church’s claims that the protest was unauthorized and that its leadership was misled by organizers.

HOOP wrote that Harvard-Epworth staff “offered us the church space, including the sanctuary, as well as an additional 170 chairs for overflow seating.”

“We are grateful to the beautiful faith community of Harvard-Epworth for opening their doors to us, for enabling us to celebrate the students unjustly punished by the Harvard administration, and for uplifting Palestinian voices,” HOOP added.

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at elyse.goncalves@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elyse.goncalves.

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached matan.josephy@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

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