Friday, November 12, 2010

Touchstone

In the past week, due to class conversations and recent events, I've been hovering around the two memories that most defined my time in college.

The first was a few weeks after the start of my freshman year. Just after Bishop Gene Robinson had been ordained as the bishop of New Hampshire (Side note: what does it say about the Church that Bishop Robinson is retiring early because he's tired of death threats?). The speaker was someone working with a ministry to distribute Bibles throughout sub Saharan Africa. In his presentation, this man displayed a photo of some leaders of the Anglican Church in Rwanda accepting copies of the Bible. He turned away from the photo and said "See, the Anglican church in the rest of the world isn't like this lily-white fagot Episcopal church in the US." As my mouth dropped open in shock, applause resonated through the auditorium for several minutes.
A few weeks later, an ECUSA bumper sticker turned up on my truck.

The second? My junior year, in a religious studies class. I have to give the instructor credit for talking about race at all. He made some comment about the failure of Conservative Christians when it came to minorities. And he asked "Martin Luther King Jr was a Communist. Why was he a Communist?" My response "Because he saw that the system we have in the US wasn't working for everybody, and there were problems with it." He shouted me down, in the most undignified way I've ever seen in a classroom. "No! It's because he could only get accepted to a liberal seminary, and that's what they taught!" In an instant, he tossed aside both my comment about inequality in the United States (which seems to have been what MLK dedicated his life to fighting!) and the idea that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could think for himself. No...of course, he just absorbed whatever ideology he was taught in that evil liberal seminary.

Chastised, by the instructor, I shrunk into my seat and tried to disappear. I...assumed he was right, because he was the authority figure, and the institution was on his side. It was years before I saw...beyond the attack on what I assumed was my stupidity to the disrespect expressed for the perspective of a man who changed the world.

Even, writing this now, I'm trying to excuse that instructor. "He was young. He got carried away by a flight of rhetoric." But regardless, I'll never forget.

Neither will I ever forget that a Christian institution affirmed the use of a gay slur in chapel.

I wasn't able to confront the powers that be at the time. I'm ashamed of that- even at eighteen, twenty, it should have been clear that this behavior was unacceptable, and it was my job, as a tuition-paying student, to speak up. But never again will I let incidents like these go unchallenged.

Friday, November 5, 2010

On educational institutions of different sorts.

I had to start this post with a reminder to myself that it's wisest not to name names and point fingers here. If you're reading, odds are you know where I did my BS degree,and that it wasn't a good fit, for numerous reasons. There's no need for me to plaster that information on the internet to be found by search engines- While my experience at said Small Christian Liberal Arts College wasn't exceptional, it was hardly typical either, and I won't depict it as such.

However.
Their quarterly update came in the mail this week, complete with a piece welcoming the class of 2014. It included statements from faculty and convocation speakers such as "I'm interested in giving students a vision of how to live well, not just for the next four years but for the next 60." and "You are being prepared to live in these times and shape these times...a [name of institution] education does equip you for future careers. But its major purpose is a development of the whole person and preparation for the life of Christ to shine in the midst of a society with all its challenges."

All good and lovely sentiments. But. I'm in the process of wrapping up graduate work- an MPH in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior accompanied by a graduate certificate of study in Women's and Gender Studies. I'm contemplating remaining at my present institution (state flagship university, big research school,football) for a doctoral degree, and one of the reasons that comes up is "I'm a better person because I chose to get this degree." Followed by "Why can't I say that about my BS from Small Christian Liberal Arts College that just about required me to get a minor in Bible courses?" A hugely obvious part of the explanation is that this is part of the intrinsic difference between Biology and Spanish and Public Health and Women's Studies. I'll own that. Then, after I've respected the differences in the disciplines, I'll point out that our WGST faculty here includes a woman with a PhD in biology, who is responsible for masterminding our undergraduate women's health course, and contributes greatly to the discussion on inequality and its effects on wellbeing.

There's a difference in culture here. What I learned in undergrad was that consequences and principles come first, at the cost of humanity. That a fetus is more valuable than its mother, that starving people in Africa matter more than those in the US. That we can blame the AIDS epidemic in Africa on the failure of the Africans to embrace biblical teaching about sexuality and that condoms have just made the situation worse. I learned that the God-honoring thing to do is to talk about the importance of family, raising children, caring for the elderly but breathe fire at the mention of any government policy that might make it easier for people (most especially lowerclass minorities) to do such a thing. I finished my undergrad degree broken hearted at all that was wrong in the world, angry at all that was wrong with the Church, and completely and totally lost.

That's how I began my graduate studies at the Big Evil Secular University. In a degree program (which then led me to a certificate program with similar values) infused with hope and the idea that change is possible, and making a difference, however small, matters. I learned about community organizing and advocacy, I learned about the importance of qualitative research and the opportunity it affords to give a voice to those who don't have one. I made friends and met mentors, and learned that the Church can be a powerful vehicle for the good of a community, when it's properly engaged and encouraged (note: I feel that just about any mention of the Church as a force for justice needs to include a shout out to President Barack Obama). I've had a thousand difficult and worthwhile experiences as an MPH student- from trying to evaluate a new program providing cardiovascular disease/diabetes screenings and a lifestyle intervention to low income women, to traveling to Belize to conduct interviews about family planning choices and obstacles to family planning in the community, to learning to deal sensitively with veterans while testing nondrug treatments for PTSD to assisting in the launch of a virtual women's center. This is work that I fully believe in some small way has helped make the world a better place.

My undergrad education didn't bring me to this place. It was my graduate studies. This is a big part of why we /have/ graduate school and why it's a good option for many people. But my point? Don't expect four years at the Small Liberal Arts College to teach students how to live their lives. Don't assume that all the students studying under the "biblical worldview" banner have all the resources to learn the skills they need, don't assume they're getting remotely all their questions answered. Life and learning continues far beyond college, sometimes in processes that look far different. No. Christian college is not the answer to the world's problems, and no one should pretend that it even comes close.