Larry Bacow and the Reverend Matthew Potts,

Harvard President Larry Bacow (left) and the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts spoke following Morning Prayers at the Memorial Church.

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Need to embrace pandemic lessons

4 min read

Bacow praises community for pulling together in address at first Morning Prayers in 18 months

Morning Prayers took on a special resonance Wednesday as members of the Harvard community joined together for a brief service of reflection and song in Memorial Church for the first time in 18 months.

The signs of change necessitated by the pandemic and the precautions Harvard is taking to ensure the safety of all those returning to campus were everywhere. The ceremony, which typically takes place in the smaller Appleton Chapel, was held instead in the main body of the church, enabling attendees to socially distance. Red ropes cordoned off every other row of pews, and visitors were asked to stop before entering to attest to their health, agree to wear a mask, and keep 6 feet apart from others.

But the message of community and togetherness, a common refrain during one of the University’s time-honored weekday traditions during the school year, remained the same. Harvard President Larry Bacow, who delivered the morning’s remarks, welcomed Matthew Ichihashi Potts, the newly appointed Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, and members of the Harvard community to the in-person service, telling them it was an occasion he had been “looking forward to for some time now.”

“The past 18 months have given me ample time to think about our community,” said Bacow. “In the early days of the pandemic, I actually worried that being apart would erode our care and concern for each other. In fact, nothing could have been farther from the truth. Seeing how we pulled together as individuals, as a community — all over the country and all over the world — to support each other, to support ourselves, to support our families, has really given me great hope for the future.”

Bacow noted how alumni helped secure personal protective equipment for first responders; individuals donated to the University’s pandemic relief fund that provided emergency financial assistance to members of the Harvard community; and “belts were tightened throughout the University so that we could ensure that we could keep literally everybody at Harvard employed.”

Reverend Matthew Potts.
The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, the newly appointed Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, leaves the Memorial Church following Morning Prayers. President Larry Bacow greets those in attendance.

Yet while optimistic about the future, Bacow said he also finds himself wondering as the academic year begins “whether or not we can bring the inclinations that we’ve had over the past year and a half — to be generous, to be open, to be understanding, to be kind — to this space and to many other spaces across this wonderful institution that have stood empty for far too long. How can we ensure that the capacities that we’ve all developed and expanded in the face of trauma persist and enrich the months and years to come? How can we preserve this sense of community? How can we demonstrate to our first-year students, who I welcomed just yesterday at Convocation, that Harvard — a place that often awes and intimidates the best of us — is really ready to embrace them?”

As a guide he pointed to his Jewish faith, which “teaches us that we sanctify God when we treat others with kindness and respect” and that puts “special emphasis on the small moments — the everyday interactions that shape how people feel about each other and about themselves.”

Being part of the Harvard community “creates ceaseless opportunities to excel in small moments, to treat equally well all of the many people who come to Harvard to live, to work, to learn, and to try and strive to, I hope, create a better future for everyone,” said Bacow. “May we commit ourselves — this year of all years — to making our University a bit kinder, a bit gentler, a bit more generous, a bit more understanding. May Harvard be as humane as it is humbling. And may we all stay safe and healthy in the year to come.”

Bacow’s comments resonated with Anya Bassett, who attended the brief service. “I have been looking forward to this for 18 months,” said Bassett, director of studies in the Social Studies Department and a senior lecturer. “It is incredibly meaningful to be back in this community, this space, to hear President Bacow talk about our core values, [and] to be reminded of who we want to be at Harvard as we return to campus.”