“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.