Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Getting Educated on Faith, Race, and Power at a Christian College | Righting America

by Kelsey Lahr

Kelsey Lahr is a communication professor at Los Angeles Pacific University. Her scholarly interests include climate change communication and environmental rhetorics. She also works summers as a seasonal Ranger in Yosemite National Park. Her writing about life in Yosemite has appeared in The Cresset, Gold Man Review, Green Briar Review, Saint Katherine’s Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as inclusion in America’s Best Science and Nature Writing series. You can find links to her published work at https://kelseylahr.wordpress.com/.

Photo of a stained glass window of Jesus dressed in a teal tunic and red sash standing with his arms outstretched.
Image of Jesus from the Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel at Westmont College. Photo courtesy of The Horizon

When I started college, I was a registered Democrat, a feminist, and a Baptist. I was aware of the contradiction; I was aware that I was a contradiction. 

 I had grown up in a Regular Baptist church, a denomination that is theologically similar to Southern Baptist, but with a greater emphasis on separation from the world. It had been an uncomfortable fit for most of my life, since I learned to read. I got my first Bible at age 7, and that’s when I had my first faith crisis. It was a King James Bible but, somehow, was supposed to be for kids. It had the words Holy Bible written in big, bubbly font on the apple-red cover, and colorful insets with kid-friendly commentary. I read that Bible daily, struggling through a chapter or two each night before bed. It didn’t take long to find something unsettling: there were contradictions in there. In particular, I was disturbed by the description of the plagues on Egypt before the Exodus. I noticed that in some passages, the Pharaoh is said to have hardened his heart each time he refused to let the Israelites go, and in others, it is said to be God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This inconsistency was just a matter of a couple of words, but it challenged a central tenet of my church’s teaching: that every word of the Bible is to be taken literally, at face value. How can every word be taken literally when one passage says one thing and a different passage says another? So, at age 7, I hit on the key tension inherent in fundamentalism and its strictly literal interpretation of Scripture. 

Other points of conflict piled up as I got older. How could women be kept out of church leadership, when it seemed that God had made many of us to be leaders? I returned again and again to the stories of Deborah, Queen Esther, the women at the empty tomb of Jesus, and Lydia—Biblical accounts of women taking charge and doing it right—while women at my church weren’t allowed to speak from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, not even to give announcements. I wondered why we didn’t help out at local homeless shelters or soup kitchens, even though Jesus told us to take care of the people with the least. As I got older, I started to wonder why just about everyone at my church was a Republican, when it seemed like the Democrats generally cared more about the poor, people Jesus also cared a lot about. When I turned 18, I registered as a Democrat, suspecting I was the only one at my entire church. Each of these contradictions incited an explosion of panic inside me, and I turned myself inside out to make it all work, to make all those pieces come together. But my church was also my home; it was a place where I was loved and accepted, where old people I barely knew sent me birthday cards with five dollar bills inside, where my family spent every Sunday morning and evening and every Wednesday night, where my friends met up for game nights. I wanted to be a part of this church, but I didn’t understand how to swallow all the questions and all the panic and all the doubt that came along with being part of it. 

And just as all this panic and doubt were coming to a head, I went off to college. I had decided on Westmont College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Santa Barbara, California. 

“Kind of liberal, isn’t it?” sneered a girl at my church youth group, who would be attending the ultra-conservative Master’s College.

“I don’t think so?” I said, recalling that Westmont didn’t allow drinking, smoking, or overnight guests of the opposite sex. But I secretly wanted her to be right. I hoped that Westmont would help me deal with the panic I continually felt reading the Bible, that it would help me figure out how to be a Democrat, a feminist, and a Baptist.

It didn’t. Instead, Westmont taught me that I didn’t have to be a Baptist, but that I could be a Democrat, a feminist, and a Christian. At Westmont I took Christian doctrine classes and Bible classes, and learned that the Bible contains metaphor, poetry, hyperbole, and figures of speech—elements of literature that make it beautiful. All of a sudden, I was free from the terror that came whenever I saw inconsistencies. If the hardening of a heart was allowed to be an evocative image instead of a literal and quantifiable process, then the contradiction that had bothered me as a seven-year-old was cleared up. If the first chapters of Genesis were allowed to be beautiful, poetic accounts of creation instead of a literal timeline, I didn’t have to reject the findings of science. I learned from professors who were orthodox Christians and who believed that women could be pastors; I learned from women professors who were pastors. I learned from professors who openly discussed their progressive political orientation and connected it straight to Scripture. Learning from these professors, I found myself in the company of progressive, hyper-educated Christians who made me feel like I could stop turning myself inside out to fit within the rigid confines of Christian fundamentalism, but still be an orthodox Christian. I stopped having panic attacks.    

But I didn’t stop asking questions. I became increasingly aware of poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation, and the Church’s lack of concern about these problems. I became increasingly disturbed by the problem of evil as I studied human suffering through history and pondered God’s refusal to intervene. I became increasingly jaded about the hypocrisy of the “Christian” Right, which had begun to seem power hungry and corrupt. How could I be part of this Church, with all its failures? How could I continue to worship this God, with all God’s cruelty or indifference? 

A lot of my friends at Westmont asked many of these questions, too. By the time graduation rolled around, most of them were on their way out the door of the Church, and now, almost ten years later, they haven’t looked back. It was unsettling, of course, but I had other examples to follow. I thought again and again about those brilliant, progressive, hyper-educated professors who had seen more of the world than I had, who had probably seen more suffering than I had, and who still worshipped God. They had seen the failings of the Church and still stayed part of it. Those were the people who first made me feel like I could be a Christian and be myself, and they were the people who made me feel like I could stay a Christian. Today I have about as much doubt as I did as a panicky seven-year-old, but I’ve come to accept it as simply part of the contours of my own faith, a faith I practice even when I don’t know if I really believe it. I attribute this to the fact that I learned at Westmont that Christian orthodoxy is actually a pretty big tent, and that I could be myself, and ask hard questions, and still be a Christian. I had seen my professors do it. 

I will be forever grateful to the Westmont faculty who provided this template for a thoughtful, grace-filled Christian life. I wish that could be the end; just gratitude and a steady personal faith. If I had graduated from Westmont and never looked back, maybe it would have been. But alas, five years after I finished undergrad, I went to grad school and then I started looking for teaching jobs. 

Around the same time I went on the job market, I got a call from a Westmont professor whom I greatly admire. She had been my academic advisor while I was a student and I had taken a number of classes with her. We had stayed in sporadic contact after I graduated. 

She was going on sabbatical for the coming year, she told me, and Westmont needed someone who could take over her classes for her. If I wanted the job, it would be mine. 

I had spent my entire grad school career hearing about the brutality of the academic job market, and now, before I had seriously applied to a single position, a job was dropped into my lap. Sure, it was just a year-long gig, and I would be an adjunct making far less than a livable wage in one of America’s most expensive towns. But I had only a master’s degree, so even an adjunct job at a four-year school was a great opportunity. I didn’t have to think too long before I accepted. That’s when my education really began. 

As a student, I had been only vaguely aware of the workings of the administration. Now, as faculty, I saw it in staggering detail at each monthly faculty meeting. I was first unsettled by the college’s economic orientation. They funneled in who knows what massive sums of money, naming various institutes and programs after wealthy donors, institutes and programs that mostly had no benefit to students. And of course, it struck me in a rather personal way that I was living in a 200-square-foot-studio, barely making it on the meager salary Westmont was paying, while a newly-created position, the Vice President for Marketing, was making six figures. At the same time, a search for a new campus pastor was underway to replace the one who was retiring. This process ended with the selection of a generally unpopular candidate – who had connections to donors – over the candidate favored by students and faculty alike, a candidate with a record of speaking out on issues like racial inequality. This was the first real red flag that something was seriously amiss. And it just kept getting worse.  

After my first year as a sabbatical-fill, Westmont offered me another year-long contract. They said they couldn’t offer me benefits this year, so I was on my own for health insurance. I considered a little longer this time, but again decided that a job was a job, and I was lucky to have it. I picked up additional teaching gigs at two other colleges and took on a weekend job in order to scrape by.

This time, in addition to the classes I would be teaching, Westmont also gave me the role of faculty adviser to the student newspaper, The Horizon. This role gave me even deeper insight into the workings of the administration. It also gave me a greater sense of the conversations that were happening among students. I already knew administration wasn’t really working for me, as an adjunct. Now it became excruciatingly clear that administration wasn’t working for students, either, and especially not students of color.

Students, and to some degree, faculty, were deep into an ongoing conversation about race. Students were aware that Westmont desperately lacked diversity in its student body; it came up often both in my classes and in the pages of The Horizon. It was a conversation that administration really didn’t want to have. 

Just before Halloween, the humor section of the paper ran a piece of satire called “How to Spook White People.” The piece poked fun at Westmont’s lack of diversity and highlighted issues of white privilege. (Some options for spooking White people included telling them that they have white privilege, suggesting that some Halloween costumes are racially insensitive, and taking away their almond milk lattes.) The piece was written by a white student, who acknowledged her race and her privilege within the article. Over a decade since the advent of the widely-read blog Stuff White People Like, this piece of satire struck me as utterly tame and uncontroversial. Yet it earned me an appointment with the provost, and it earned the student editor-in-chief a stern talking-to from the Vice President of Student Life. The provost told me the piece “ruffled some feathers,” and the rumor I later heard was that those ruffled feathers belonged to a couple of alumni. Nowhere in the paper’s charter is there any mention of alumni; The Horizon exists for the benefit of students. Yet students weren’t the ones complaining about the piece of satire. It began to dawn on me that alums and donors are the audience Westmont’s administration cared the most about. 

If this tendency to cater to donors instead of students were limited to a silly piece of satire in a mediocre student newspaper, I could get over it. But it goes much deeper than that, and has been on display in many other ways. For example, last spring, The Horizon was once again part of a racially-charged controversy, one that showcased the administration’s concern for donors and alumni over those of students, particularly students of color. The Horizon published an open letter to the campus community from three students (none of them on the paper’s staff) asking for the removal of a high-profile depiction of Jesus as a white-appearing man. As I wrote for Adam Laats’ blog I Love You But You’re Going to Hell, at the center of Westmont’s spiritual life is a prayer chapel in the middle of campus. The chapel is always open, and is the only overtly “religious” building on the campus. At the front of the chapel is a stained-glass window that depicts Jesus as white, standing on a globe that is positioned so that he is right on top of North America. 

In the past couple of years, students have begun to recognize this depiction as problematic, colonial, and inappropriately conflating Christianity with whiteness. Many students of color expressed that the centrality of this depiction on campus made them feel even more marginalized than they otherwise would, in a school where white students and faculty far outnumber students and faculty of color. At the same time a group of students wrote this open letter in The Horizon, they also started a petition asking the administration to take the window out of the prayer chapel and put it somewhere less visible and less central to the community’s spiritual life. (You can read more about the window issue here and here.) As a faculty member, it was my impression that most students either supported this proposal or didn’t really care about the window one way or the other. Yet the administration balked, and their responses always revolved around the importance of the window to Westmont’s history. (The chapel and the window were both installed in 1961 as a memorial to the daughter of the college’s president at the time, who died in a car accident as a young woman.) The prioritization of “history” over the concerns of current students of color seems typical of the administration. And of course, older donors are the ones who care about that particular phase of Westmont’s history. 

Today the window remains in place. Westmont remains a campus lacking in diversity. Some of the few faculty members of color who were at Westmont when I was a student have since left, and one of them told me flat out that it was due to the racial climate on campus, primarily coming from administration. All of these things together—the lack of diversity among students and faculty, the prioritization of donors and alumni over current students, the administration’s unwillingness to take a clear stand for racial inclusion—all of these paint a picture of a college that fails to live up to the Biblical imperatives of seeking justice and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I, too, have left Westmont since the White Jesus controversy brought into focus the white supremacy that permeates the college. I wish I could say I left Westmont because I could no longer be part of that white supremacy. The truth is that I left mainly because they didn’t pay me a living wage and I was simply exhausted from working so many jobs just to be able to afford health insurance. But when I learned last month about Westmont’s final decision to leave the White Jesus window in place, I contacted the alumni office: “I would like to be removed from Westmont’s mailing list due to the handling of the recent White Jesus situation,” I wrote. “In light of the administration’s shameful disregard for the needs and feelings of students of color in this situation, I no longer wish to be associated with Westmont.” Then I took to social media to let my network know what step I had taken and why. I asked my fellow alumni to consider taking a similar stand. It’s a small step, to be sure, and probably a trivial one. But the administration isn’t going to listen to the students or faculty asking for a more inclusive community. And if their past track record is any indication, they might just listen to alumni.

When I take a step back and reflect on the role Westmont has played in my life and faith, I ultimately have to be grateful. I am still part of the Christian community in part because I saw progressive, loving Christianity modeled by faculty members at Westmont. And it was there that I really learned to think critically, to examine issues of race and privilege. My ultimate disillusionment with the college is largely due to the values that very college instilled in me as a student: the importance of justice and inclusion, the critical necessity of examining privilege, the skills to assess and begin to dismantle unjust power structures. I can only hope these values will one day percolate back up to Westmont’s administration. Maybe one day Westmont will be the kind of place that truly models what it means to love the Lord our God and love our neighbors—all of them—as we love ourselves.