Whether the college years actually make students more liberal is still an issue up for debate, but it would seem that many Christian colleges are creating space for their students to have difficult conversations about political issues that they often avoided in the past. A Christian college experience may lend itself to thinking about empathy and justice in ways that are new to some students. "The role of the Christian college at a time like this is to teach, to educate our students to think Biblically about the world in which they live," said Theon Hill, a communications instructor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Christian colleges have always paid special attention to shaping the character of their students, but conversations around issues of race are new for many.
That includes faculty, students, and staff at Wheaton. "It lingers on my conscience that the evangelical world largely sat out the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s," said Provost Stanton Jones. "I see our role as dealing forthrightly with these issues on campus, developing students who are thoughtful and informed on how they engage the issues."
Wheaton for its part appears to be taking a proactive role in reversing that legacy. Historians at the school, which is the alma mater of Billy Graham and Dennis Hastert, among other conservative Christian luminaries, have recently discovered evidence supporting the notion that the school was a stop on the Illinois Underground Railroad. Jones told me that Wheaton are in the process of putting African American religious art up on the first floor of its administrative building, Blanchard Hall, "as a testament to these roots." Some of Wheaton’s students are eager to see their work for racial justice build upon the school’s abolitionist legacy.
One such student is Justin Massey, 21, who moved from Laguna Niguel, California, to attend Wheaton because he consistently heard it was "the best of the best" among Christian colleges. Massey joined dozens of his peers at Wheaton for a demonstration that took them to five different locations on campus. At each site, the students did a "die-in," laying still on the floor for four-and-a-half minutes to represent the four-and-a-half hours Brown’s body was left on the ground before being removed in Ferguson. Massey said he was motivated to protest because of his Christianity: "In my time at Wheaton, I’ve really come to recognize the fact that our faith is not something that is just personal. It has big implications for the way that we engage with the world."
The demonstration wasn’t without its detractors. So the student organizers were careful in framing their message. "Instead of saying we’re aligning ourselves with the left, which is more divisive, we say that as Christians we’re all called to pursue social justice. When we argue from that point of view, most people don’t argue against it," said Jennifer Fu, a 21 year-old senior at Wheaton. Fu saw some apprehension from students and faculty members, people who were concerned that organizing a rally was unnecessarily disruptive or that the issue wasn’t big enough to protest. One of Fu’s co-organizers, a black female student, received an anonymous letter saying, "I hate you." Overall, though, even the students who disagreed with the protesters were "pretty respectful," Massey said.