location

where do i find veins like rivers 

to carry me to the ocean 

where i am indigenous 

for i belong in no one place 

what do I call my own?

I finally took the time to watch Beyonce’s “Lemonade” this morning. I was afraid to at first because I’d heard so much praise from other black women, a sense of deep validation ringing their words, and I feared I would emerge from the experience feeling stranded. My relationship to my own blackness has undergone so many phases in past years, and when I hear of a media piece oriented towards black women, I tiptoe closer with the engraved expectation that it will not speak to me–that it can’t.

Black womanhood has been introduced to me in an array of forms: the strong, crinkled hands of my grandmother; my aunt’s afro-earrings and paintings of dancing dark women; the fawn-skinned, gleaming arms of models in Seventeen magazine; the razor-edged sass of countless black best friends and co-workers on television; the smoldering and unapologetic sexuality of the Rihannas and Beyonces; the deep-throated crooning and soaring vocals of Motown singers; the proud trading of natural hair tips among my friends on Facebook; the dignified swell of sorrow and triumph in the poetry of Maya Angelou.

These bits and pieces composed my mosaic of black womanhood– but not where I found myself. As a young girl growing up with mostly white friends in a New York suburb, access to blackness came primarily through my family. I strung together a narrative of my aunt’s Afro-centric street fairs and black female empowerment treatises, my mother’s Motown and drive to visit historic sites like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, my paternal grandmother’s stewpot stories of Jamaica. I craved these experiences, thirsted for more that could help me define what black could mean to me.

The TV shows I watched, the music blaring from the school bus radio, the images sprawled on commercials taunted me with a kind of black womanhood I couldn’t relate to as a teenager from a predominantly white suburb. They showed me black women who were either tough, brassy, carnal, and angry or submissive, needy, abused, and broken. You could be the token flipping your weave as the encore to your sassy quip or the damaged one needing a man, Jesus, a white savior, or all of the above. There were positive images that deviated from the norm, and I found them and clung to them, the Tia and Tamera Mowrys and others for my generation. Yet there were never enough.

For so long the media images overpowered the truth of my family connections, and like a parched sponge I imbibed the racism teeming in them. I wanted to claim that kind of blackness because I did not feel that my story as a Hisblasian mutt counted as a legitimate experience of blackness. I did not see my story anywhere; how many depictions of Afro-Latinos, blacks with Asian heritage even existed? Few to none.

Everyone told me matter-of-factly: “You’re black. That’s it. Claim it.” I wanted to, wished it was that easy, but I still grasped at the images of black womanhood elevated as the standard. Marshaling my thoughts, I tried to locate myself in my faith, in my identity as a Christian. Your identity is in Christ, I murmured as my mantra. It wasn’t as if it was untrue; there was a time in college where I had made my cultural background my idol as a defense mechanism to feel somehow superior despite my status as a minority student. I didn’t want to revert to that attitude, that kind of self-absorption in racial and ethnic markers.

Your identity is in Christ. God also designed me as what is labeled and understood by my society as a “black woman.” I walk through predominantly white spaces with a heightened awareness of my physical stamp of difference. Even in my current neighborhood of the South Bronx, I cannot walk unskinned because I am constantly cognizant of the skin that pales in winter and the curls that coil rather than kink. My story of middle-class privilege binds my skin in place, and I stand in a crowd, alienated from the people I am told I belong to.

So when I sat in front of my computer to watch “Lemonade,” I waited for the ache of self-consciousness to begin again. I had to ask myself, is it really that important that I can claim this–claim blackness? I didn’t answer the question; I planted myself into the chair and pressed play.

A poetry of sounds and images enclosed me…and liberated something. A knotted tension balled up in my chest for the first half hour-and it felt long-then somewhere around loss it loosened. I let the music and sights sweep over me. I watched black sisters of all shades staring into my eyes, caught the allusions to plantations and police brutality and infidelity and “good hair.” I held my breath, absorbing lyrics of ragged rage and unfiltered vulnerability. My defenses down, I allowed myself to be part of their story because there was finally nothing else restraining me in that moment from recognizing it as OUR story–the story of black women.

I usually resist meta-narratives, for there is no ONE black story of womanhood. My experiences will never represent all those known by other black women–and neither are they meant to. Yet there remains a thread connecting the stories of all black women, a thread of histories and oppression and blood and love and body and family. I locate myself in that thread even as I continue to take ownership and work out of the unique story God has gifted me.

“Lemonade” reminded me of that kinship, and for once I felt relief rather than frustration. Without living all her experiences, I could resonate with Beyonce’s journey and with the women she presented beside her. Despite the racist history underpinning the social label “black,” I could value the vibrant, diverse, resilient peoples who have arisen out of it.

Wandering between different narratives of black womanhood, I will still struggle to locate myself and from where I speak. The pangs of diaspora are fathomless. They represent a division of peoples, a forced distance where there may have once been oneness, a place to belong to. I have felt isolated and unable to fully embrace my own blackness; that has been denied me by a world that cramps my story into its singular categories. It tells me that this is the way to be black–that having lighter-skin and mixed features only maps me as ambiguous. No security awaits those like me, no community for chameleons.

But us black women are used to making lemonade out of paltry fruit. Rooted in relationship with Christ, who tells me I am an heir of God’s abundance and freedom and promise, I claim what I have already been given and allow it to shape my path. I claim my darker-skinned sisters and celebrate them without denigrating my own face. I claim my African-American and African sisters without diminishing my Caribbean and Chinese beginnings. I claim dominicana, Jamaican, Afro-Latina, American, black without de-partitioning my body. I claim the anger of dispossessed peoples and enslaved ancestors and racially discriminated matriarchs without denying the miraculous work of forgiveness and grace and redemption.

This voice matters in the church, in this country, in this world. We must give such voices space to inhabit and affirm them in our midst, for there are lessons learned through the eyes and cries of black women. 

I am realizing that I no longer need one place or community to define the silhouette of my womanhood. Our journeys in the world cascade in fluid rhythms, and we find new words and experiences around each bend to realize who we are, from where and whom we come, and where we’re going. We are able to finally see the past refracted in beauty and the present tragedies and fears and victories as part of something ongoing and larger, extending beyond us. I am proud to be a black woman and take up space in that way, and I aspire to speak alongside-not for-my sisters of all stories. Instead of grasping to possess a narrow expression of black womanhood, I learn to examine and steward what I have and join the conversations that others like Beyonce are sustaining.

I thank God now for the moments in the morning when I claim my curls and call them black–and everything else mixed in. I call them mine.

re-vision part III

“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness; the truth more first than sun, more last than star…” -E.E. Cummings

The bus arrived in Chicago on a clear morning. I left the Greyhound bus station in a bluster of bouncing feet and flapping arms, throwing my duffle bag over my sore shoulder. Sleep-deprived, red-edged eyes latched onto the sight of the Willis Tower (I would always know it as the Sears Tower) climbing the barely-lit dawn, pinks and yellows melding on its glass surface.

I couldn’t catch the train for another two hours, so I wandered around the newly awakened streets, only a person or two brushing past me as the rest of the city stood still. My heart quickened its pace, catching up to the feet that propelled my steps off the pavement as if a hidden breeze boosted them. The city waited with me, restraining a dam of restless, twitching energy as I dawdled its streets. I found no relief in finally settling into the cushioned seat on the Metra; my thoughts fluttered and flurried, darting to and from every atomic emotion available. Close. So close.

There was a time I considered returning to Wheaton as a gleeful guarantee. I had envisioned myself as the seasoned alumni with maturity pleating my smiles, sharing stories with younger students and giving them a reason to exhale. I’ve been there, I would say, pride and affection scuffling for dominance in my gaze.

A few months ago, that vision hung tattered, soft edges unraveling.

#ReinstateDocHawk snagged the remaining threads of that vision, picked them apart and wrung them out. It was inevitable: once more Wheaton had faltered, failed to address those marginalized in their midst. Professor Larycia Hawkins, a black tenured female professor on campus, stood up against the Islamophobia in our nation by donning a hijab in solidarity with her brothers and sisters “of the book,” those who share the patriarchs and other aspects of spiritual heritage. I am not here to debate the controversy of that claim. What I witnessed though was a miasma of miscommunication, reactionary actions, and confusion on Wheaton’s part as an institution.

I bore witness to a misstep of power as the administration placed Professor Hawkins on leave with a vague rationale that pointed to her Facebook comments as grounds for evaluation of her job status (polite words for “being fired”), an anomaly considering that various white male professors had made far more controversial remarks with not so disproportionate a response. The administration’s actions put Hawkins’ statement of faith in doubt, and the lack of transparency regarding the process to reinstate her and the aspects of the Community Covenant she apparently undermined resulted in the deepening of the breach between students/faculty of color with their allies and the rest of the college.

Echoes of Chapel Tweets vibrated in my thoughts as I saw the outbreak of Facebook conversations from those who rallied to Hawkins’ defense and carefully tracked the administration’s movements–and the plethora of articles and news specials capitalizing on yet another controversy at Wheaton. Alumni, students, faculty, staff fell at all points on the spectrum and argued the theological implications, but most blatant, most inflamed and still bleeding internally lay the bruise of Wheaton’s community, fractured internally on racial, ethnic, and sexual axes. Some argued that race had little bearing on the Doc Hawk situation; my familiarity with the racial brokenness at Wheaton indicates otherwise.

Students of color, students representing marginalized identities at Wheaton, had prodded the bruises for years, sometimes only to receive a response from the administration that highlighted increased “diversity awareness” campaigns, more diversity themes integrated into the course curriculum, and more diverse chapels. Whatever insight and aid these sincerely-constructed resources offer, they are not enough. They do not adequately address the inequity of power present when a predominantly white college board and predominantly white campus community demonstrates at best blind-spots and at worst inertia when it comes to examining the origins of suffering for students of color on campus.

The grave reality reveals itself when a black student feels like a hosted guest with little access to people in authority who look like them rather than an equal member of their college community. More than mere complaining about feeling “unsafe,” this is systemic marginalization at work in a space cultivated to be a healthy sowing field for young Christian minds. Yet how many students of color have passed four years through Wheaton with this sagging weight of alienation?

Professor Hawkins represented one voice demanding diagnosis of the homogenized bubble Wheaton has become but does not have to be. She drew students to her not only because she preached challenging, visionary truths and embodied them through her thoughtful actions, but also because she defended those who lacked power in Christian spaces to do more than survive, endure. Her departure umbraged the sense of broken trust between Wheaton the institution and the students, faculty, and staff left angered and devastated at the outcome that became a loss for us all.

My first Solidarity chapel wrenched me into labored awareness. Chapel Tweets confused and battered me. #ReinstateDocHawk grieved me. For the long months of the conflict, a wracking sadness clamped my heart, shook it through motions of rage and mourning. I was no longer the freshman lost in a swell of ineffable racial tension or the new alumni bristling in resentment for hurts unspoken. I didn’t know what I was as I prayed over Wheaton, prayed for illumination, justice, and unity.

Shame and hope warred. Shame as everyone from co-workers to news anchors derided the school listed on my resume for its defects. Hope as current students fought to mercifully send flowers to school officials and pray graciously for the administration and students who opposed their views. I struggled to validate the rancor from students who had personally encountered racism, sexism, and homophobia on Wheaton’s soil and ask God to bless President Ryken and Stan Jones in the same prayer. To do one felt like dismissing the gravity of the other, and though I knew logically it wasn’t true, how could I address both?

The depth of my helplessness was a gaping maw as the notifications on my Facebook dash mounted, and I pressed the blue thumb of affirmation, commented rarely, hesitant to take any step beyond grief that could lead me astray. I feared the inferno of my anger, not knowing if it was righteous or wrong, so I quelled the flames and mourned in the ways I could. Lips shredding, exposing raw, stinging skin, I agonized over a way to move from the passive silence of my past to an unapologetic awareness that could act with grace.

When my steps finally took me to the grassy knoll edging Blanchard Lawn this past March, I expected to feel the weight of a spiritual stronghold, a haze of darkness. I waited for a swarming prophetic anger to clench my hands and harden my eyes. I waited for revelation.

My shoulders rose as the heft of my duffle bag dropped to the ground. I stood alone and looked. Like one chilled morning years ago, fog wreathed the lawn and its winding paths, rain indenting the grass in shivering pools. I stood and waited for a sensation–for anything. Maybe for an answer to six years of questions.

I waited through all the four days of my visit to Wheaton for a declaration of war or a cessation of grievances, but none came. Weaving my way through crowds of students in Lower Beamer reminded me of the stark dearth of students of color as once again a familiar self-consciousness tingled along the brown roll of my arms. Yet buoyant chatter swung through the halls, and my eyes marked the students ringing the cafe counters and selling tickets at the long tables below the cafeteria stairs and furrowing their brows over slightly crumpled textbook pages as they sat sequestered in Blanchard Hall’s cushioned chairs and bouncing slightly on their way back from chapel on a sunny morning and huddling together in the OMD to debate the nuances of white privilege and sitting alone with wearied eyes in the crook between classrooms and drooping their way through cafeteria lines with latched lips that resisted the urge to tremble.

My eyes re-mapped Wheaton and saw all of it at once, and I did not recoil.

My survey drew me to one last destination: the birch tree hanging over Blanchard Lawn, bark still stippled with black and white patches and creased like an elderly brow. Steps tapering off into slow, quixotic brushes against the grass, I soon stood beside the tree and faced the verdant expanse of the lawn. Silence gripped invisible ropes cinched between the campus and I, quavering with taut tension. Taking one step closer, I let my body lean into the tree, and the tautness loosened but did not leave. And I breathed.

I breathed and allowed my gaze to linger on the shadows springing onto the grass from sun-washed trees now buckling under the mass of spring leaves. Waves of grass glided past each other as the breeze tugged them back and forth in a pendulum sway. Beneath it, I sensed a pulsing in soft staccatos. Relaxing into the birch’s firm body, eyes opening with clarion sight and ears alert, I heard the heartbeat of the place and listened.

No resounding promises or reassurances, not even an obscure God-voice with hypnotic prophecy. There was only the bewildering, aggravating, captivating reality that I still love Wheaton, not with eyes that look past its beasts to see beauty, but rather see both and choose to love it anyway. I am still invested in its present and its future, still care about its people. The mire of confusion and fear shrunk away, leaving only the one question, the same one driving this trilogy of thought regarding my relationship with Wheaton: How do you love those who have hurt you? 

There are layers of Wheaton to acknowledge: first the institution in its systems of policies and programs and hierarchies of power assuming a place in Christian higher education; then the administration and faculty and staff framing it, steering it; then its students, both as a collective body of differences and the constellation of individuals and relationships. I know so many people who have felt silenced and dismissed and yes, oppressed on these levels. Their stories of pain are real, their anger warranted. Loving Wheaton does not absolve it of the cracks lacerating it to the foundations.

How do I hold the suffering of those students and faculty, the grievous impact of Wheaton’s decisions regarding race, sexuality, and gender, and the everyday microaggressions that index the blight of America’s own racial injustice? Can all this dwell in the same space I allocate to the Wheaton that speaks through my best friends, the honest pursuit of intellectual inquiry permeated by faith, the tear-stained singing in All-School Communion where a community’s love for Jesus resounds?

Out of my return to Wheaton emerged the latest re-envisioning of a community I now realize I have re-envisioned ceaselessly over the years. New conflicts and heartaches transform how I perceive my alma mater, and I am discovering with humbling clarity that the God I once served was a pitiful entity, indentured to my judgments and ultimately unable to restore my love for an imperfect community. I serve a God far greater than that, and His sanctuary houses both grace and righteous rage. There I can challenge an institution, a community still blind to many faults without venom. There I can forgive those who unconsciously hurt me and those who willingly avoided my pain. There I can call out injustices Wheaton perpetuates through inaction and ignorance, not because I’m some superior being, but because I am a member of its family, of our family. 

Christina Cleveland declared that we challenge the lines of “us versus them” when we recognize that we belong to each other. To my Wheaton family: You belong to me, and I belong to you through bonds reinforced by blood–Christ’s blood. As family, we keep each other accountable because our sight requires constant re-vision. We require each other to see clearly. There is too much at stake: the testimonies of Christian communities before the eyes of the world, and the lives struggling to make it through college without leaving disillusioned and damaged.

Even now I struggle to put these feelings into words because part of me still feels justified in fulminating about Wheaton’s sins. There is also so much I cannot voice because those are not my stories to tell; I speak only for how I interact with and view Wheaton. This is the love story ongoing, one blog post spilling into three because in delving into my thoughts about Wheaton, I needed to examine where I’ve gone wrong in engaging with my and others’ pain…and also where critique is not only unavoidable but vital.

My love for Wheaton is not trite. It is not couched in delicate aphorisms. I have waged war to keep loving Wheaton, and God in His mercy brings me daily to the space where the Cross stands, where a love without conditions, extricated from human limits, abides.

 

re-vision part II

“She lost her illusions in the collapse of her sympathies.” – D.H. Lawrence 

Lines of text slit my screen, and out spilled blood and tears. Chapel Tweets didn’t happen my sophomore year. Happen is a calm, pleasant word reserved for “it happened to rain” or “he happened to stop by for a chat.” Happen fails to represent the morning I found myself scrolling down the #chapeltweets page on Twitter, staring into words like “back to the jungle” and “too loud” and “less this, more Chappy K,” as if my gaze could render them immobile and unable to reach out and clench my heart until my breath stuttered.

The incident now known as Chapel Tweets wasn’t a happening. It was one more day that sliced into the smooth skin of the Wheaton College community , revealing layers of congealed blood from wounds years in the making. The Rhythm and Praise Chapel that I had participated in transformed from a rare moment for black students to worship in their heart languages and styles to a benchmark of their marginalization. As my friends of color crowded together at midnight hours to rant and weep and rallied to stage protests in front of chapel, I retreated again to my bathroom, hands locked over my mouth to stifle the sobs. I didn’t want my roommates to hear me, so I enclosed myself in the green-tiled room when my smiles could no longer camouflage the gales of shame and confusion whirling inside me.

Shame because I should have felt this pain more–it should’ve been personal as a black student in the chapel…why didn’t I feel it the same way my friends of color did? Why didn’t it hurt more? Did I even have a right to feel hurt? Then the most agonizing thought: Do I even count as black? 

The head and heart as conceptualized in Western cultures are irritatingly contradictory specimens. The head can know after arranging the histories and genealogies and experiences together that I am black–no doubt about it. But the heart, snared in nets of insecurity and memories of being labeled not “really black” and squirming at Black Achievement ceremonies lashes out of its imprisonment with the lies its been fed. So I listened and nodded to the words of my friends of color like an ally rather than a victim. I didn’t believe I was a victim, though everyone around me clasped my shoulders and offered a sympathetic glance for my plight. The guilt caged in my jaw tightened; I didn’t deserve their commiseration.

Inhibited from participating fully in the anger and grief of my friends, I instead re-evaluated what role I could play in changing my school. I knew now the extent of Wheaton’s brokenness, its failure to cultivate a safe home for all its students, especially those who lacked a Christian college legacy–or a white, middle to upper class background. The callous comments scrawled on the Forum Wall in response to Chapel Tweets exposed an apathy of majority students towards the suffering of students of color, and once seen, it could never be forgotten.

I started noticing what was already there: silences. Silence where one niche African-American Lit or Latinos in the U.S. class was squeezed in amidst an array of courses illuminating Western literature and culture–American culture. Silence where students of color hid their questions about why there were so few professors of color or why “Korean prayer” and gospel music were treated as special moments in chapel rather than a normal way to worship. Silence where mixed students crept as close to white as possible for fear of being labeled the “angry black student.” Wheaton was not perfect, and that truth finally latched itself to my chest.

The school I fell in love with had hurt people I loved, and I could not reconcile that–I tried. When white peers approached me in dorm hallways with questions about why everyone was so angry and “doesn’t talking about race cause more racism?” I leaned into their questions and steered them into conversation. I listened and saw their eyes widen with cognizance. I saw their confusion and fear of being called racist, and it tugged at my conscience and barred me from bitterness. How could I stay angry when they looked as lost as I felt? When the school held a service to encourage “reconciliation,” I sang Amazing Grace alongside my white brothers and sisters, voice broken but swelling with hope.

Laying my head against birch bark, shredded black from a storm, I made an unspoken manifesto: I would not become jaded. If I did, something so deeply bound to my character would rupture, and I would never be the same. I had always prided myself on being the empathetic one, the hopeful one, the person of color at the crossroads of white and black and brown worlds who could help build bridges. I would not lose myself.

I didn’t realize that by my junior and senior years at Wheaton, my inner manifesto had already crumbled. My vision of Wheaton irrevocably changed.

The bus to Chicago hit a bump in the road and jostled me out of reminiscence. Massaging my aching neck, I asked myself again why I was spending over 19 hours on this transport of torment called a Greyhound bus to return to a place that kept offering an abundance of reasons why I should distance myself. Why should I go back to Wheaton? 

While my freshman and sophomore years were crystalline in memory, heightened in their joy and heartache, my junior and senior years were a blur of weariness and muscle-tautening growth. As I maneuvered myself again into a tolerable sitting position, I picked through the good moments, inspected the relationships that created my Wheaton. There were many; I still told people that I had a good experience at Wheaton because that was the truth. It gave me some of my best friends, and it gave me an education that stimulated my faith and deepened my thinking. It gave me laughter and love. Then I squinted at the grey residue stuck to the bottom of those memories like expired syrup clinging to the bottle’s belly. Tired. I had been tired too, so tired from talking about race, attending conferences and inter-group dialogues, waiting for the rest of campus to wake up to the reality of it all. I had been tired, but didn’t feel the full ache of it until I left Wheaton.

The realization unfurled itself in the most unexpected moment: a prayer with my small group leader at an Intervarsity winter retreat during my first year of grad school. The retreat focused on evangelism, on reaching the lost, but all I felt was a blank sense of detachment. A barrier existed that repelled me from caring about those who didn’t know Jesus–and I hated that. I prayed desperately with the leader to figure out what was preventing me from interacting with this topic, and she asked me if any images or words were emerging. Her gentle voice dissipated as I plunged deeper into prayer, begging God for clarity…and there I found my callus. Everything else in me split apart until all I could see was my heart shrouded in a thick casing of calluses. Hesitating, I reached to peel back a layer, and there, stinging and bleeding, was the estrangement of me and Wheaton.

All the frustration and anger and disappointment and confusion and tiredness and love in misshapen layers that pressed into my heart, hardening it because I had not forgiven Wheaton. I didn’t even know I believed they had sinned against me. The splinters of jade embedded in the calloused grooves evidenced the startling, unbearable reality: I felt betrayed by Wheaton.

I had learned to love a school that esteemed Christian community as a virtue and valued the minds and souls of all its students. I felt betrayed by a school that showed me that Christians are neither exempt from racism nor sheltered from its destructive impact. To protect myself from dealing with this wound, I unconsciously distanced myself from the label “Christian” because “Christian” had somehow become synonymous with ignorance and narrow-minded thinking and blindness towards racial issues. I saw so many Christian leaders in the news that bolstered my resentment and sharpened it until I scrutinized every white Christian around me, gauging them for their racial awareness. I picked apart each of their words to see if it too was perpetuating this heinous structure of white supremacy in the American church.

I had never allowed myself to grieve for the ways in which Wheaton hurt me; now I was threatened by a ragged cynicism that was permeating my relationship with Jesus and fellowship with other Christians. Heaving breaths, rocked with the weight of these revelations, I knew I could not go on this way. But what was the alternative? Return to a state of blissfully ignoring the Church’s scars? Sing Amazing Grace until reconciliation dawned on gilded cloud?

I had seen too much brokenness to return to that sparkle-eyed freshman who loved Wheaton without reservation; but living with a gritted anger that lacked a door or bridge to anything constructive was warping my perception of my fellow Christians who were white. They were my brothers and sisters, and I no longer trusted them. The conviction to change this pricked my skin until I could no longer avoid confronting the wounds that had created a stony interior in the heart of a once pacific college girl.

I had to go back. Now I was going back. My teeth gnawed on my lips until tinny blood tipped my tongue as the Greyhound bus ambled towards Illinois, and towards what once was home.

 

re-vision part I

“The beautiful ghosts of our past haunt us, and yet we still can’t decide if the pain they caused us outweighs the tender moments when they touched our soul. This is the irony of love.” -Shannon L. Adler 

I visited my alma mater this past spring break after months of planning and daydreaming what it would be like to return to a place that I called home for four years. It had been two years since I last stepped foot on the campus of Wheaton College, really no great span of years, but two years is enough to scrawl another draft of a life out of the old one.

Squashing myself into the slick faux-leather seat on a Greyhound bus, I braced myself for 18 hours of driving from New York to Chicago. I slid down the seat, arranged my limbs in every possible permutation to induce sleep. Failing utterly, I finally perched uncomfortably on the edge and let my thoughts meander, hoping to numb the growing ache in my backside. A blotchy grey sky hovered over the undulating hills. Browned plains passed through my window’s eye, and I remembered that initially, I never wanted to go to Wheaton.

My parents (and every other person in my childhood church) knew the school and lauded it as the “Harvard of Christian colleges.” For that reason alone, I stubbornly resisted attending the institution in the pique of rebellion so common among 18 year-olds dressing up in independence and adulthood for the first time. I didn’t have any concrete reasons for disliking Wheaton–I just opposed it on a whim. Others’ praise only reinforced my shield.

My campus visit tested my opposition. Not at first, because I visited campus on a soppy, dreary day, squinting to locate the shapes of buildings amidst the screen of fog. No light ringed the students’ heads like the Byzantine halos of ancient mosaics. Instead, wet tendrils crowned their foreheads, leaking water onto cheeks flushed from the glacial temperature (this was March?!). Hardly the stuff of Christian legend. Yet as the campus tour guided my family and I across the foreign expanse through the florescent-lit corridors of Fischer, around the shining glass walls of the then-new science center, and though the vast and deliciously-scented chamber of the cafeteria, I felt the foundations of my resistance crack–a little. I admitted inwardly that it wasn’t so bad–the intimacy of a smaller campus layout, the well-kept and open dorm rooms, the food.

Then on the steps of the Student Recreation Center, I found my flaming bush.

My brain registered the words before I had gazed at them for more than a second. Hebrews 12:1-2. My life verse, stamped on the wall in navy blue letters.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

My stomach twisted. I was going to Wheaton. I knew it, as surely as I knew that I would repel the pull of destiny every step of the way. Several months and a handful of back-and-forth conversations with my parents later, my mind resolved itself. If God was calling me to Wheaton, then I would go with a smile. Still I remember a frantic call to one of my childhood friends, my whispered stream of anxiety that I would be a minority at Wheaton, isolated in another predominately white place, and I didn’t know what to do with that. She consoled me that I was making a big deal out of something that would probably be fine. Though she couldn’t see me, I nodded, even as a vein of doubt twinged in my fingers that maybe, just maybe there was something that she, a white MK, wasn’t quite grasping.

Doubts tucked in the small cavity of my mind assigned to all the feelings I didn’t have words for, I arrived on Wheaton’s campus and, in a stroke of divine intervention, fell in love. I didn’t know you could fall in love with a place. I didn’t know you could step onto the grassy skin of a place and sense its heartbeat resonating with yours, pulsing deep within the soil. During my first week on campus, I waded in the downy grass of Blanchard Lawn and leaned against the stippled bark of a spindly birch, and I watched the sun canvasing the gentle slope, my brown skin, with light and heat.

I loved everything. I loved hearing the prayers of my professors filling the classroom. I loved the rigorous intellectual conversations on theology paired with debates on so-called “secular” media. I loved the smirked ribbing about Saga dates and the “sinfully erotic and harmfully violent” dancing barred by the Community Covenant. I loved being crushed on a rumpled dorm bed with five other girls my age, watching Tangled together for the first time.

Once in a while, there would be a twitch of unease. I entered my literature class and my eyes darted reflexively around the room to search for another brown face. My lips wavered from its smile when I watched the guys on my brother floor swaggering and attempting to rap to be “gangsta.” Scanning my ID card for lunch pinged my radar in a moment of ineffable guilt as I averted my eyes with flushed cheeks, feeling the cashier’s eyes, Rosa’s eyes, weighing on me; my skin prickled with a hyper-awareness of all the people who looked like me vacuuming the dorms and serving food with warm smiles. But these were pangs, nothing more. I loved Wheaton. Like the heady affection between you and a new friend, all glimpses of disquiet were brushed away. Nothing was perfect, and this was okay.

I loved Wheaton until I didn’t.

My first Solidarity chapel yanked out the threads of discomfort and anxiety once hidden away in that cramped mind cavity. As I sat ramrod straight in my chapel seat and listened to the stories of minority students who had experienced exclusion and alienation and racism on campus, all those unlabeled feelings shot out of their secret places and surged to my throat. I choked on confused, furious tears, furious because I didn’t understand why I was reacting this way.

My brown skin now an inflamed copper, I stumbled out of chapel. The weight of phantom gazes locked on my skin, fixed on the color that stood out starkly from the sea of pale faces; suddenly I was drowning. Collapsing into a pile of trembling arms and legs onto Blanchard Lawn, I could see even then that the green hue had faded.

It was as if hearing the stories of others gave me permission to feel all of the less-than-positive emotions I had barricaded–even if I lacked the courage to voice them. In the shelter of my shared suite bathroom, doors closed on both sides and roommates away at class, I could welcome the tears. Vision blurred, I saw clearly for the first time into the well of pain stored in my gut, the pain of being brown and black at Wheaton.

From orientation week when I exhaled in relief from detecting another black girl on my dorm floor to all the times eager friends rifled through my curls without permission to the majority of chapels where I latched my arms to my sides, hesitant to sway and stamp like I was used to during worship, the reality of my minority status at Wheaton was exposed. I thought I was accustomed to representing the spot of color in a white room; I was wrong. Every classroom I scanned, every event I attended, I was conscious of my skin, my body, my hair in a way I had never experienced before.

At least I had the buffer of an upper middle-class upbringing so I could fit in with the dominant culture at Wheaton, but I knew other students of color suffered from further alienation. I saw the forced smiles as they declined dinner outings because they couldn’t afford them and the cringed grimaces when a professor asked them to speak to an issue relevant to “their people.” I caught the nodding, knowing glance passed around the table when yet another girl bemoaned the difficulty in finding a hairstylist near campus who could do black hair.

Though the knowledge of my peers’ hurts dimmed my once resplendent vision of Wheaton as a bastion of Christian community, my stubbornly optimistic self could not help its attachment to my school. Tethering myself to all the good things I knew about Wheaton (my friends, the “integration of faith and learning,” the commitment to community), I avoided dipping deeper into the brackish tumult revealed story by story to me. When the eddies coiled too tightly around my chest, I continued coasting.

Conflict a dull, familiar churning in my stomach, I coped by throwing myself into every sparkling wave, reveling in every moment of beauty and goodness I could find on campus. I went to every dance and lecture and Saga date and floor outing I could; I waited for the churning to dissipate. I knew nothing of the storm seething on the horizon, or how it would hurtle my already complicated love story with Wheaton into upheaval.