*A version of this post has been posted at RaceRhetoricandReligion.
On Wednesday, I awoke to the news that Bethel University’s St. Paul, Minnesota campus – the school I attended for Seminary – experienced a racist incident. The Kresge rock that had been recently painted in solidarity with Black Lives Matter was now painted over in white paint with the message “BLM = Racist, Blue Lives Matter.” As I scrolled through my facebook feed, searching for clarity about the event, I became angry but I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Over the years, Bethel has experienced its share of attacks against Black people specifically and other populations of color as well.*
Back in 2003, there were a slew of incidents targeting people of color on campus which included one student’s car being vandalized with racial slurs. On the night that Obama was elected into office in November 2008, racist language was once against used against black students in reference to the president elect. Then in 2010, a white student dressed in blackface and impersonated Lil Wayne for a campus AIDS fundraiser. Disgusting, right? And sprinkled in between all of these incidents is your typical share of microaggressions and Minnesota Nice covert racism. So once again, I wasn’t surprised. But I was reminded that the school where I spent four years of my life, had a lot of work to do in terms of being an institution that would stand up for racial justice.
But isn’t Bethel University a Christian college?
Yes, it is. Since 1871, this school has been preparing future pastors, lay leaders, administrators, businessmen and women, nurses, and so many others, how to integrate their faith experience into their professions. And while it can be said that not everyone on that campus professes to be a believer, the vast majority of students subscribe to the Christian faith. And yet, these same Christians, who are studying theology and serving in their churches on Sunday, are guilty of racism. How do we reconcile these two realities?
I used to ask myself the same question when I first moved to Minnesota from Milwaukee, WI and attended another Christian college, North Central University, for undergrad. For the very first time in my life, I was surrounded by a sea of white people on a consistent basis – black people were few and far between. Also, for the very first time in my life, I felt as if I was being discriminated against because of my race – the fact that I felt more excluded at a Christian college than I did in one of America’s most segregated cities ought to say something!
In the North Central bubble, as students so affectionately called it, I felt isolated and alone. For nearly two years, I struggled to make and maintain friendships with roommates and classmates. Between the summer of my freshman and sophomore year, I watched my roommates help move each other’s stuff to another dormitory on campus and left me to carry my stuff alone. When I ended up in the emergency room due to a bad allergic reaction to God knows what, the only person who helped me in my moment of desperation was a Sri Lankan woman who happened to live down the hall (thank God for her). When I spent a holiday completely by myself, as all of my family lived in Wisconsin, and the church I attended was just as white as my school, I seriously contemplated hurting myself because the pain of isolation hurt so bad.
Time and time again, no matter how hard I tried, I felt excluded, talked about and ridiculed at NCU. These feelings went on and on, in a Christian school, until I found a diverse church outside of campus that loved me for me, a dark-skinned African American woman. Once I found that place of refuge, I distanced myself from the school as much as possible and was there only to get my degree and leave. Other black students who encountered the same level of hostility at NCU didn’t bother completing their degree, they just left. I am no more brave than they were scared – we all make decisions to the best of our capacity with the resources and knowledge we have in the given moment.
It wasn’t until I learned the history of my denomination, the Assemblies of God, that I started to put things together. The isolation and racism that I experienced on my college campus, which was affiliated with the AG had everything to do with history of exclusion and racism within this body of believers. With intention, the AG broke away from the teachings of William Seymour, an African American man, who was the key leader in the Azuza Street Revival between 1906-1909. With intention, they defamed his leadership and said that it was ungodly for them to submit to it. With intention, they excluded blacks and latinos from their membership. With intention, they upheld the same bigotry and racism that was commonplace in America for far too long.
But it isn’t only the AG who has this tattered and torn history of racism, so many other Christian denominations in America do too. In fact, many churches and Christians themselves, have been complicit if not explicit actors in the terrorism against black lives throughout our country’s history. Everything, from the leadership structure to theology to the way it engages in politics to the way that it conflates the constitution with the Bible, suggests that Western Christianity and more specifically, the white Church, has a strong disregard if not flat out hatred, towards African Americans in this country. Which is why incidents, like those that occurred at Bethel on Wednesday are awful but not shocking.
The white Church’s history of complicity also explains why it, as an institution, remains silent as black bodies are continuously hunted and killed. Through all of the police killings in recent years, the white Church has literally nothing to say. #MichaelBrown. Nothing. #TamirRice. Zilch. #SandraBland. Nope. #PhilandoCastile. Who? Well, that is not exactly true. The white Church has been crying #AllLivesMatter, which sounds great in theory because yes Jesus died for all lives. But in practice, this chant is nothing more than a clever ruse to detract energy and focus from one of the most important movements of our time. Because if all lives truly mattered to the white church, they would not only turn up for our crucified sons and daughters, they would also rally against the senseless police killings of their own sons and daughters.
All Lives Matter lulls a church that is already asleep to the oppression of black people into a further state of hypnosis. And if the white church feigns unconsciousness, they can neither speak or act which is really their point – a clever ruse, right? Here’s the thing though: no matter how silent the white church is or ignorant it pretends to be about #BlackLivesMatter and its importance in this hour, God still holds it accountable. In the same way, that God called after Cain asking the whereabouts of his brother Abel, God calls out to the white church asking the whereabouts of its black brothers, sisters, and sons. Can you hear God calling? Or will you ignore Him, too?
*Thursday afternoon I had the awesome opportunity to participate in a prayer service led by two black students at the site where the racist incident had previously taken place. I am horrible at estimating numbers but it *feels* like hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and alumni showed up in solidarity with the black students on campus. The rock in question has been painted again (by the president and campus pastor) and now reads ‘Us for Us’ a message that the students chose.