“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.