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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Calvin College - Where Identity Trumps Diversity


Below you will find another story dealing with a Baptist and the issues of race and diversity.

Denise Isom is an EDUCATION professor at Calvin College in Michigan. Isom is African-American and is a Baptist. This past fall Isom requested an exemption to Calvin's requirement that all faculty join a Christian Reformed Church (or one in another denomination in “ecclesiastical fellowship” with the Dutch-rooted church, known as the CRC). Such acceptable denominations include the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Reformed Churched in America and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.

Isom requested an exemption so that she could join a black Baptist church instead. In a letter to Calvin's President, Isom writes:

The needs surrounding my racial and cultural identity consist of a complicated set of issues that derive from the unique positionality I find myself in as a person of color on this campus and in this community. Each day, in formal and informal ways, I must address the issues of race and culture, often engaging in ways that carry a psychological, emotional, social, and physical cost. Though there are CRC churches and communities that are striving to reflect a multicultural vision in the church's make-up and worship content, they are not "there" yet. As a person who has long worked towards those ends in predominately White settings, I find myself at a place where, for emotional, social, and spiritual health, I need a place of worship that is already consistent with my culture and able to grapple with issues of race in ways which make it a respite, a re-charging and growing place for me, as opposed to another location where I must "work" and where I am "other."

As someone for whom research, scholarship, and service are centered around issues of social justice, race, culture, and gender, I need to be intimately tied to populations of people of color. My current work on racialized gender identity in African American children will be conducted in a church setting to establish the role of religiosity in those identity constructs. That work and numerous other projects and community connections would be greatly enhanced by my attending a Black church. My membership in said community will not only strengthen my work, but my ability to minister to and be ministered by those communities, gaining the kinds of spiritual development that informs by research and makes me a better scholar and Christian.

According to Inside Higher Education, Isom's request was rejected by Calvin's Board of Trustees back in October. Isom must join a church in accordance with Calvin's requirement or her tenure-track appointment will end at the end of 2008-2009. Calvin's Provost followed the announcement with this rather absurd statement:

For more than 130 years Calvin has been affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, and we believe that Reformed theology and a Reformed world and life view and heritage have served the college well. The history of Christian institutions of higher education in this country justifies caution in this area. 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.

The article notes that the conflict at Calvin highlights the challenge of recruiting and maintaining a diverse faculty, staff and student body at Christian institutions rooted in particular churches - that tend to predominantly attract members from one race over any other.

Alan Wolfe, a well-known scholar out of Boston College points out that there is indeed a shortage of African-American Calvinists! Noting the Dutch roots of the Christian Reformed Church, Wolfe points out that "Calvin's in somewhat of a unique tradition because its faith test is essentially both religious and ethnic. Imagine a national search trying to find an African-American Calvinist. It's going to be difficult." Another scholar asks, "If your church is non-diverse, and you limit your faculty to members of the church, how can you ever expect to {have a diverse campus}"

It's very clear that such strict church membership requirements are a huge obstacle to achieving real diversity among faculty. And when diversity is nonexistent among the faculty and administration - the student body won't be diverse either. Other Christian colleges and universities in addition to Calvin College have much work to do on this front.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous ben w. said...

Aaron,

I recognize that Calvinism does not define the majority of the African-American faithful, but I can easily think of several pastors and even organizations which are both. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile in Grand Cayman has recently published two books on Reformed theology and its decline among African Americans. He was also a speaker at the Desiring God Pastor's Conference last year. The Council of Reforming Churches (reformingchurches.org) is explicitly championing Reformed theology among African-American churches. Across the pond, Pastor Conrad Mbewe in Zambia leads a Calvinistic-Baptist Church and publishes articles and books with the Banner of Truth Trust and Founder's Press. And closer to home, I have several fellow church members who are both black and Calvinistic. It seems to me to be quite an overstatement by Dr. Wolfe that "it would be difficult to find" such a person. It all depends upon whom one interacts with.


Recent statistics have shown Calvinism increasing among Evangelicals in general, and I'm confident this includes the "black church" as well. This is not really a response to the Calvin College decision at all, just an observation from one who swims in different (ie-Calvinistic) circles that Reformed theology seems to be slowly increasing among all sorts of groups and this is certainly not limited to ethnic lines.

Thanks for posting this news.

3:26 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

BDW, saw this awhile back in the higher ed news and just signed. My question (and I don't mean this in a mean way) is: is diversity a goal at Calvin College?

Ben W., it should be noted that being African-American and being black are two different things. Several of the examples you've given are from other parts of the African diaspora, which leads me to assume that those Christians are Calvinists as a result of missionary activity. But I'm glad to hear that your church has more diversity than your average American Reformed church.

4:32 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

Oops, meant to say, "sighed." That'll teach me to type during a debate.

4:33 PM

 
Anonymous ben w. said...

texas,

Point taken. The church is Zambia has little to do with the African-American "black church." I reckon I just got excited about that one.

But it should be noted that pastor Anyabwile in Grand Cayman is actually a born and bred North Carolina boy, like myself. After growing up in the "black church", He converted to Islam by joining the Nation of Islam during college. This is why his name is now Thabiti Anyabwile and no longer Ron Burns. 4 years later he left the Nation of Islam and became a Christian. He began pastoring in Grand Cayman a little of a year ago after having never spent any time there. So his name and location actually belie his cultural connections. (I know this all because he officiated my wedding) And, his recent books and speaking engagements are examples that some in the "black church" are listening to him.

5:40 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

Okay, sorry for jumping to conclusions based on geography and names. Thanks for the clarification.

7:13 PM

 
Blogger Big Daddy Weave said...

TIA,

From what I read, it seems that Calvin College has implemented several programs to achieve greater diversity. So who knows?

The Provost's notion that Calvin College will cease to be Christian in any "meaningful" way unless the entire faculty remains committed to one specific theological tradition (i.e. Calvinism) is just silly. Such comments remind me of statements made about Baptist schools like Mercer and Baylor. Folks fear that the "light will go out" on those campuses (or they believe the light has already gone out in some instances) unless each Christian university embraces a specific form of evangelicalism - as if there is only one way to be Christian. That's the only way that Christian schools can stay Christian in any "meaningful" way...so they say.

Ben,

Obviously there are Calvinists who are African-American. Voodie Baucham comes to mind. Looking at the big picture, there just aren't many African-American Calvinists. Wolfe was right. If Calvin College wants diversity among the faculty as a whole, they will likely have a hard time finding African-American scholars who meet their church requirement. Maybe the scenario is changing as you state? I would need to see some statistics to that point.

10:57 PM

 

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