Obama effigy prompts reflection on diversity at Christian campuses

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by Catherine Guiles
Nov 03, 2008

George Fox University in 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 on Sept. 23, a university employee found a life-sized cardboard cutout of 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, are from minority groups.

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. 24, “we have no records of anything of this magnitude happening” at George Fox, he said.

The effigy came not only as the United States might elect its first African-American president but at a time when members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities are becoming more racially diverse. Students and staff members of color at these campuses say they generally feel comfortable but still see a need for more education.

North Park University in Chicago has dealt with racist graffiti and slurs toward students several times in the past few years.

This 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.

As the election nears, “like lots of other institutions across the country, we are asking students to stay alert and be aware of their surroundings,” he said. Security officers are patrolling more frequently, as are Chicago police and security from nearby Northeastern Illinois University.

North Park also 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, very positive,” he said later.

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.

But at Eastern University outside Philadelphia, 17.0 percent of students in 2007 were African-American, up from 9.7 percent in 1997.

“It’s a really good community here at Eastern,” junior Latosha Peters, 20, said. “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, 18, a freshman at Indiana Wesleyan University from Glen Ellyn, Ill.

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, 19, is a sophomore at George Fox from Mesa, Ariz. 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.”

Many students – regardless of race — at other CCCU schools doubted that an incident like the one at George Fox would happen at their campuses.

“That would never happen at Eastern at all,” Peters said.

Steve Nichols, a junior at Indiana Wesleyan, said he got some ribbing for supporting Republican Ron Paul, but only “goofy stuff.”

“The friction I see between people here is just party politics,” said Nichols, 20, who is white. “I couldn’t see something that serious happening.”

Messiah College senior Kyle Cristofalo “was quite surprised and shocked.” He is an officer in College Democrats and leads Whites Confronting Racism.

The incident shows “we’ve come far as a country, but we’re still lacking,” Cristofalo, 21, said.

Sophomore Katy Argueta-Romero, 19, 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, “from my perspective, I feel like there’s a disconnect,” he said.

At a community meeting, neighbors said “the blame shouldn’t be put on Fox per se because the students come to us from somewhere,” 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, 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.

EMU 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 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 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 at George Fox.”

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Hierald Kane-Osorto, associate director of multicultural programs at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, sits in his office.

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Katy Argueta-Romero and Kyle Cristofalo are active in the Multicultural Council at Messiah College.

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Christine Lohne is Messiah College’s student body president.

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Steve Nichols is a junior at Indiana Wesleyan University.

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.