Is This Really Happening at Calvin College?
January 30, 2008 by Edward Gilbreath
Where have you been, my Reconciliation Blog peeps?! Once again, I’m learning about a hot topic way late in the game. You’re supposed to be telling me about this stuff, especially now that I’m away from the pulse of evangelical happenings (i.e., Christianity Today).
Anyway, have any of you been tracking the story of Calvin College faculty member Denise Isom? Isom, who is African American, is an assistant professor of education whose request to worship at a predominantly black Baptist church was denied by the Calvin board. Check out this CT story for all the grisly details. When my coworker LaTonya Taylor brought this story to my attention, I had to read it several times before I could really believe it. Was I missing something? Apparently not.
Isom’s ordeal saddens and angers me. It has elements of some of the worst “Reconciliation Blues“ stories that I’ve ever heard, both before and after writing the book. How could something like this be happening at a contemporary evangelical college, especially one with such a forward-thinking reputation as Calvin?
When I read the CT article, I was reminded of a question that was posed to me by an African American faculty member of another Christian Reformed school. She asked, “Is racial reconciliation truly possible on an institutional level?” She was frustrated by the words of one of her college’s administrators who told her matter-of-factly that the school’s board of trustees would always be made up of those who were movers and shakers in the Christian Reformed denomination, that someone who didn’t fit this profile wouldn’t even be considered. To this woman’s mind, that was the same as saying “White males will be the only people considered for board membership at this college.” And this was at a school that had expressed a strong desire to become more racially and culturally diverse. Good luck with that.
The Calvin College board ruled that upholding its denominational requirement for tenure-track faculty was crucial to the school remaining a Reformed institution. They wrote in a statement: ”Nearly all Christian colleges and universities that distanced themselves from their founding denominations and theological traditions eventually also drifted away from being Christian in any meaningful way.” This line of reasoning seems to assume a superiority over other denominations and implies that the Baptist beliefs of Isom’s church will somehow undermine the mission of Calvin College. Yet, like that other Reformed school noted above, Calvin proclaims a commitment to racial diversity.
The American evangelical church acknowledged and (for the most part) rejected its practice of overt racism long ago. But something sinister still lurks within our institutions. Could denominational and theological tradition be one of the last barriers to true racial reconciliation among evangelicals today? A quote in the CT article from Olivet Nazarene University president John Bowling makes me wonder:
Any Christian college or university has an obligation to remain loyal to its core values and constituencies and to maintain theological coherence. To override those commitments could be a disservice to the university in the long run.
In my opinion any theological tradition that cannot take into account the realities of the culture in which that theology is being lived out and make adjustments where tradition clearly falls short, lacks the grace and love that God is calling us to. “So accept each other just as Christ has accepted you; then God will be glorified” (Rom. 15:7).
I did find several excellent posts from other bloggers who were on top of this story. This one from Rachel at her blog, Momentary Trace, is poignant and insightful. And this report from The Grand Rapids Press offers a somewhat hopeful update.