“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.