George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, seems like an unlikely place for a racial incident: The small Christian college was founded by Quakers, who were active in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War and helped slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.
But last year, on Sept. 23, a university employee found a life-sized cardboard cutout of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama hanging from a tree on campus, with a sign attached to it that read: “Act Six reject.” The phrase was a reference to a program by George Fox and Portland Central Young Life that offers full scholarships and leadership training to area high school students. Most, but not all, of the recipients are from minority groups.
“We absolutely cannot hate those around us and say we love God,” George Fox president, Robin Baker, told a packed auditorium of students and staff the day after the incident, according to the Portland Oregonian. “Yesterday was not a good example of what it means to follow Jesus,” he said.
When he heard about the effigy, “my initial reaction was frustration, but unfortunately not surprise,” said Joel Perez, George Fox’s dean of transitions and inclusion. “What I was surprised by was the visual image of lynchings and those kinds of things.”
But before Sept. 23, “we have no records of anything of this magnitude happening” at George Fox, he said.
The effigy came a little more than a month before an Election Day in which the United States elected Obama as its first African American president–an Election Day that, in ways direct and indirect, have elicited all kinds of emotions on Christian college campuses.
On Election Day morning at Baylor University, for instance, a noose was found hanging from a tree on that Waco, Texas, campus. And after the election was called for Barack Obama, a verbal altercation occurred between black Obama supporters and a group of white men.
Then, on Nov. 20, Bob Jones University, the Greenville, South Carolina, institution that became infamous for its racially discriminatory policies, issued on Christians and race in which the school apologized for its racist past.
Though not related to Obama’s victory, the timing of the Bob Jones University statement hints at the kind of openness and candor that may now be given to racial issues in this new era of America’s first African American president.
Finding Real Solutions
All of this is happening at a time when the member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), an alliance of about 110 evangelical schools of higher education, are becoming more racially diverse. Evangelical Christian colleges have long endeavored to increase and sustain their numbers of non-white students and faculty, with varying degrees of success. So now, many Christian college leaders are no doubt curious to see how an Obama presidency will affect life on their campuses.
Students and staff members of color at these campuses say they generally feel comfortable but still see a need for more education, as the George Fox incident and other less-publicized episodes reveal.
North Park University in Chicago has dealt with racist graffiti and slurs toward students several times in the past few years. Last year, a student reported seeing a truck near campus with threatening language toward blacks on the side, along with blood and at least one dead animal.
“The occupants of the vehicle did not speak to the student,” said Terry Lindsay, dean of diversity and intercultural programs at North Park.
Lindsay added that North Park held a recent forum for students and faculty to share their experiences, as well as brainstorm solutions to prevent future incidents. Ideas included adding specific language about hate crimes to the student handbook and requiring students to take a class in Africana studies as part of the general education curriculum. Multiple speakers also called for prayer.
“We’ve had forums like this before,” said Karlton Gilton, an assistant certification officer in North Park’s education department. “I’m more interested in the actions afterwards.”
Junior Joe Williams, 20, agreed.
“The difference is we’ve finally incorporated some real solutions,” said Williams, who is African American. “But I’m not satisfied coming from this. What I am satisfied with is that we can get the administration here.”
During the meeting, Lindsay asked students to send him suggestions and also sought participants for an advisory board. “The feedback was very positive,” he said later.
Colors of the Kingdom
According to a study published in August by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the number of African American students has grown over the past 10 years at more of the 110 members of the CCCU.
At George Fox, less than 1 percent of all students in 2007 were African American, although 20 percent of undergraduates identified as non-Caucasian. According to The Oregonian, George Fox president Robin Baker said recruiting students of color has been an ongoing challenge for the university, but that his dream is to preside over a school that “more broadly represents the kingdom of God.”
Still, some Christian colleges seeing progress. At Eastern University, outside Philadelphia, 17 percent of students in 2007 were African American, up from 9.7 percent in 1997.
“It’s a really good community here at Eastern,” said junior Latosha Peters. “They try to put an awareness on campus of diversity issues. They focus on social justice and incorporating that into your faith.”
However, outside of class, “there’s a pretty big separation of racial groups at the cafeteria,” said Peters, whose father is black and mother is Filipina. “I see a few black students hang around with white students.”
Coming to a mostly white campus can also be unsettling at first for some students of color.
“I’m used to a huge mix” of ethnicities, said Abbey Green, a freshman at Indiana Wesleyan University who hails from suburban Chicago. Her father is white, and her mother is Chinese.
“I feel like here, people notice a difference, but they treat me the same,” Green said. “Some people didn’t grow up with different ethnicities, but they care” about how she feels.
Enrique Ruiz is a sophomore at George Fox who’s originally from Mesa, Arizona. His first year “was really hard, kind of a culture-shock thing.”
But now, “it’s changed me for the better,” said Ruiz, who is Mexican American. “For me, personally, it’s a great place and very healthy environment.”
‘Still Work to Be Done’
Many students — regardless of race — at other CCCU schools doubted that an incident like the one at George Fox would happen on their campuses.
“That would never happen at Eastern at all,” Latosha Peters said, confidently.
“The friction I see between people here is just [based on] party politics,” said Steve Nichols, who is white and a junior at Indiana Wesleyan. “I couldn’t see something that serious happening here.”
Messiah College senior Kyle Cristofalo “was quite surprised and shocked.” He is an officer in College Democrats at his Grantham, Pennsylvania, school and leads the campus organization Whites Confronting Racism.
The George Fox incident shows “we’ve come far as a country, but we’re still lacking,” Cristofalo said.
Sophomore Katy Argueta-Romero said, “I wouldn’t say it was that shocking, but it’s still something you don’t expect to happen.”
She was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. as an infant. At Messiah, she serves as vice president of multicultural programs for student government and chairwoman of the Multicultural Council, which includes various groups, including Whites Confronting Racism.
However, Hierald Kane-Osorto, Messiah’s associate director of multicultural programs, said “of course” it could happen there because of “the reality of the KKK and other hate groups in this area [central Pennsylvania].”
Still, “I’d like to hope that it doesn’t, that we’re above that,” he said.
At George Fox, the students who hung the effigy were suspended for different lengths of time, and local police turned the investigation over to the FBI.
“[The students] have said it was a political statement,” Perez said. “The point they were trying to make was that Obama was not good enough to be an Act Six student. That’s what they said afterward. From their perspective, it wasn’t racially motivated.” However, he added, “from my perspective, I feel like there’s a disconnect.”
At a community meeting, neighbors said “the blame shouldn’t be put on George Fox per se because the students come to us from other places,” Perez said, and they’re not learning about lynchings and other racist parts of U.S. history from schools, parents, and churches.
But students elsewhere did recognize the symbolism and condemned it.
“When you’re hanging anything with an African American in a tree, there’s so much stigma attached to that because of our history,” said David Melton, the editor of Anderson University’s student newspaper. “You can’t do that.”
Melton, a 21-year-old senior at the central Indiana school, is white.
He added, “With the Christian base we have, I hope no one would go to that length to get their point across.”
Christine Lohne, a senior at Messiah and student body president, agreed. “That act was too harsh and out of line,” Lohne, 21, said. “There are other ways to communicate that that would have been more productive.”
Diversity programs and lessons on race are present on Christian campuses, but student reaction is mixed.
Eastern Mennonite University professor Deanna Durham said that in her Introduction to Sociology classes, for white students, “what’s been harder for them to look at is their own race–white privilege.”
However, to study immigration, they can go on a program to the Mexico-Arizona border.
“The Mennonite church has worked really hard to humanize undocumented people,” Durham said, based on biblical teachings about “welcome the alien in a foreign land” and “strong solidarity with the struggling, the poor and the displaced.”
At Anderson, “at chapel, they were telling us there was this huge problem with race, but I never saw it,” Melton said. “I never saw the problem because I was on the football team,” where players of different backgrounds got along.
Christian colleges often have added diversity in experiences from international students, required study abroad or Americans who grew up overseas, namely the children of missionaries.
Taylor University in Indiana has “a good percentage of missionary kids, third-culture kids,” sophomore Emily Moore, 19, said. That makes the campus “more informed about the world.”
Two CCCU members affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA — Goshen College in Indiana and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Virginia — require students to do cross-cultural engagement, most frequently by going abroad.
Also, EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding attracts people from around the world, student body co-president Sarah Roth said.
“Having diverse faces on campus makes people aware,” said Roth, a 21-year-old junior. “Students are sensitive to it and try to initiate it in their personal circles. We all want a little more interaction with each other.”
Regardless of denomination or race, students and staff said multiculturalism is something to be celebrated, rather than feared.
“The kingdom [of God] is not just one race,” Peters said. “I think that’s the way God wants it to be.”
Kane-Osorto said Christian colleges should promote diversity and reconciliation “because Jesus made it a priority to talk about these things.” The faith community “should lead by example. Secular schools are doing a lot more than we are.”
Despite the negativity surrounding the effigy, Ruiz and George Fox sophomore Courtney Greenidge said they’re happy with their college choice.
“George Fox is a great place to be,” Ruiz said. “Those negative things you hear about put a shadow over the great things.”
Greenidge, 19, is one of the Act Six scholars. Her father is African American, and her mother is white.
“I told my parents as soon as I found out” about the incident, she said. “My dad prayed for me on the phone. He wasn’t really worried.”
Her faith stayed strong, she said. “I’ve had a lot of bad things in my life, but the last thing I want to do is stop counting on God. He’s got things in control. Everything happens for a reason.”
Perez also “grew a lot professionally and spiritually.”
“What I learned was relying on God for wisdom and discernment,” he said. “You’re dealing with generational sin that continues to rear its head.”
Applications for Act Six have dropped slightly this [school] year, Perez said, from 50 to 31.
But Greenidge said prospective students shouldn’t be deterred. “I would tell them to apply, apply and apply,” she said. “There’s still work to be done on this campus. Just coming here is going to make a change.”