Proclamation and Practice

Like Whoa. So, like many of you, I have been watching all things Moody unfold. And here is the truth. This happens almost every year at someone's college/university. Moody is not at all special or different in its unfolding drama, only the latest. This afternoon I had the opportunity to talk about higher ed, so its all one my mind now! And because of all this, I want to tease out something important for all of us to grapple with in Christian higher ed. 

We have some decisions to make, people. And by "we" I mean administrators and leaders at our churches and higher education institutions. 

The language sounds so great doesn't it?

We are going to be a place where all students belong.

We believe that diversity is an important component in the life of our campus. 

We know that our students are made better when they experience diversity. 

We know its important for all of our students to develop cultural competencies. 

And there are plenty of references about the difficulties too- to being uncomfortable, to the road being long, to being committed to change. Yes, much time has been spent crafting the language, the theology, the website, the document... and yet. 

And yet, students of color (and often faculty/staff of color) regularly find themselves in the center of what feels very much like a race war.

How could that be?

Well, its usually because people of color believe(d) you. We looked at your website and believed the words. We read through your documents and believed the words. We heard your theological support and believed your words. We heard your MLK speech and believe what you said. 

My guess is its been a long time since someone walked into your institution and had to make the case for diversity and inclusion. I'm guessing its been a decade or two since you first made the declaration that diversity, inclusion and reconciliation matter to you. These students are not holding you hostage to some arbitrary personal desires on their part. Students are holding you accountable to your own declaration. Faculty and staff are holding you accountable to your own declaration. Congregation members are holding you accountable to your own declaration. 

Because your declaration must come with actions, or your declaration is a lie. 

I know thats super harsh. But if we switched out the subject of our conversation, imagine the reactions. What if we promised students good, consistent meals and didn't provide them? What if we promised our students regular chapel services and only held one once a year? What if we told students their books would be in our stores and then didn't order any? What if our churches made a declaration that we were going to pray more and didn't? Study the Bible more and didn't? Do some outreach and didn't? 

We would feel awfully convicted if someone called us out on the lack of follow through. We would apologize profusely. We would appoint someone or somebodies. We would find a budget. We would fix it. We would apologize and fix it. We would try to make it right, immediately. We would plan and act. We would talk and act. We find immediate solutions while building long-term solutions. We would act with urgency and love. 

And yet, when it comes to all things diversity related, there is an immediate reaction to "manage" the conversation, to manage expectations. The preference is to move slowly, find incremental changes. There is a demand for patience, trust, understanding. There is much celebration for the accomplishments of the past, but there is little excitement to create anything new to celebrate. 

And then there is an explosion of frustration and anger aimed at students/members of color who are simply asking for evidence of your own proclamation.  Students are notorious for opening wide the gulf that exists between what is proclaimed and what is practiced. 

Rather than jumping at the opportunity to bring in a new leader, or to make changes to the chapel service, or to add to the curriculum, or to create a new center or department... there is instead a retreat, a pumping of the brakes, usually introduced with the words:  

I'm not sure we have enough buy-in yet.  

I'm not sure the student body / congregation will understand.

This just its the right time.

We have so much that we are juggling right now.

There are competing values at play here. 

Next time. Next time. Next time.  Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. 

All that talk. All that scripture. All that training. All those proclamations and documents and language undermined because you lack courage for change and remain unconvinced of the immediate necessity for change. 

And student/members of color carry the weight. They go to class wondering if the institution will acknowledge their hurt and pain. They eat dinner wondering if the board will finally approve their center, their organization, their event. They fall asleep wondering if the institution will hold their experiences as sacred as the alumni's. They do their homework wondering if they will ever really belong in this Christian place where they live. They worship alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ and wonder if they will ever truly be considered to be made in the image of God. 

That cannot be acceptable. 

That cannot be acceptable. 

So, there are some decisions to make. Are those pretty words true? Is there enough conviction to to live them out with urgency, love, and faithfulness. We can get mad or we can get busy- harnessing that energy and excitement to support all of our students/members and creating communities that live up to our words.