The Official Student Newspaper of Calvin College Since 1907
October 19, 2007
Volume 102, Issue 8
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Reformed multiculturalism?

Prayer served as a powerful medium for a group of peaceful protesters on Thursday morning.

A group of students, faculty and staff gathered at the Prince Conference Center to join in solidarity, prayer and support for a decision that would be discussed by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. The decision involves a particular case of a request for an exemption from a certain faculty requirement, but brings to light the larger issue of how Calvin can promote multiculturalism and preserve a Reformed distinctiveness at the same time.

Dr. Denise Isom, a professor in the education department, went before the Executive Committee of Calvin’s Board of Trustees with a request to be exempted from the church membership requirement of Calvin’s faculty policy. This mandates that all faculty personnel must be members within the CRC, RCA, or select branches of the Presbyterian denominations, or international denominations in “ecclesiastical fellowship.”

Isom wrote a formal letter to Calvin College President Gaylen Byker expressing her reasons for requesting exemption. She explained that it would be most beneficial to the Calvin community as a whole if she would be able to receive social and spiritual fulfillment by being a member of Messiah Missionary Baptist Church instead of belonging to a church within the CRC or other “ecclesiastical fellowship” denominations.

Isom articulated in the letter her “need to be intimately tied to populations of people of color,” which she didn’t feel could be accomplished through membership within other churches with predominantly white congregations. She feels her research in areas of social justice, race, culture and gender demands that she be deeply connected to the black community.

Calvin’s Faculty Handbook explicitly states that “faculty members are required to be professing members in good standing and active participants in the life, worship and activities of a Christian Reformed church” or other churches which meet certain requirements. Churches within the Baptist denomination do not fit into these specifications.

In her initial letter, Isom said that although she feels strongly about her decision to request exemption, the decision “was not made easily or lightly, for [she] agrees with the spirit of the requirement itself.

“I understand that part of the intent of the church membership requirement is to secure oversight of one’s faith life and development, foster continued development in the confessional community in which Calvin resides, as well as integration of the beliefs of this tradition into our teaching and scholarship,” Isom’s letter states. “These are goals that I have and will continue to pursue throughout my career here and beyond.”

As an institution which prides itself on academic excellence and successful integration of faith into all aspects of learning, Calvin College sees these faculty requirements as extremely important.

“The membership requirements are practices that keep that holistic, integrated vision together,” said Provost Claudia Beversluis.

“The faculty membership requirements, while they seem like they might be a narrowing, really say ‘No, we want people who work with us, live with us, worship with us to be thinking with us,’” said Beversluis. If students are going to learn adequately from a Reformed perspective, or if Calvin is going to stay true to its foundational Reformed principles, faculty members play an integral part as incorporators of those ideals in the classroom

But on the other hand, Calvin also states in documents such as the “From Every Nation” (FEN) document that “Calvin College will develop a more racially and culturally diverse faculty, one that increasingly reflects the multiracial and multicultural character of the Body of Christ.”

Do these two sides of staying true to foundational Reformed roots and seeking integration of many cultures into Calvin really need to be at odds with one another?

“The committee in general and even the Board will say, ‘what’s the long term identity of the college and how to do we preserve that? And at the same time, how can we honor an individual faculty member’s work here among us?’” said Beversluis.

“I would like to see more conversation with the Board and with the faculty about how to preserve our unique identity as a reformed college. I think that’s so important to keep.” Beversluis said. “I also think that a strong idea of the church and that we need to be shaped together and worship together — I think that’s worth preserving as well. I would love if such a conversation happened as a result of some of the tensions around [these issues].”

“In light of the FEN document, how do we maintain our Christian distinctiveness and yet embrace multiculturalism,” asked David Koetje, chair of Multiculturalism Advisory Committee. “How do we make Calvin look a little more like the Kingdom of God?

“The college has not fully come to grips yet with the

implications of FEN,” Koetje said. “The FEN document needs to be worth more than the paper it’s printed on.”

While Calvin may seek to be committed to anti-racism, some members of Calvin’s community wonder how well we are achieving this goal.

“There’s so much fear that if we don’t hold tight to the faculty requirements, we’ll be headed down the slippery slope where we’ll lose the Christian Reformed identity. And that is an extreme fear, an entrenched fear,” said Jackie Rhodes, Assistant Dean of Multicultural Student Development. It may be out of this fear that Calvin unintentionally shows some discrimination for its faculty members of color.

Dr. Isom’s case is one example of how these tensions come to a head, as they have for other faculty members before her. For Rhodes, “the contribution faculty members of color give to the community far outweighs what it is we’re trying to hold on to so tightly by not allowing them exception.”

“We live in a day and age when a vibrant Christian faith, whatever stripe it is, is far more important to this institution,” Koetje said.

“You cannot be afraid of the subjectivity that comes with knowing somebody more than the ‘I recognize them walking across campus,’” said Koetje. With individuals and deeply personal implications involved, these issues demand more than an objective consideration.

“Relationships are more important than standing on principle,” he said.

Decisions regarding personal circumstances inevitably have deeper implications than the policies and ideas they involve.

“Sometimes faculty come to give this community a try, and they realize they cannot live by the practices,” said Beversluis. “These situations are painful because usually we have begun to love the faculty member, and they have begun to love us.”

Thursday morning’s prayer vigil was a representation of this tension between Calvin’s drive for multiculturalism and traditional Reformed ideals and how to move forward from the discussion.

Jeff Bouman, director of the Service-Learning Center said that “the prayer vigil is a way for many members of the Calvin community to express their deep hope that Calvin will take its very public commitment to diversity very seriously.”

Bouman expressed that “the potential outcome of the Board of Trustees’ decision runs quite deep and affects many members of our community who are still working to feel a sense of belonging. Prayer and physical presence are ways to tangibly support Dr. Isom and the members of the Board of Trustees simultaneously.”

“I think it’s important because we want the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors to realize that there are people here at Calvin who feel that this is serious and that this situation is bigger than even Dr. Isom,” said Rhodes. “If you love and really want to see Calvin be a reflection of the Kingdom — which Calvin says it wants to be — then it’s our duty to have some sort of protest or stand up for what we believe is unjust.”

Rhodes expressed her participation in forms of letting the Executive committee know how much passion Calvin’s community can have on this issue. But her involvement also helped represent to Dr. Isom that she is not alone in this process, but has a loving and supportive community behind her.

“The reason I’m participating is entirely about the ways in which this goes beyond being a personnel issue to hint at a larger problem that has been brewing in the Calvin community over the past several years,” said senior Amy Jonason, who participated in the vigil.

The members of Calvin’s community who attended the vigil are hopeful that these discussions won’t end with the final decision of Dr. Isom’s situation. Rhodes hopes that through her involvement with the Multicultural Activities Coordinators that these issues will continue to be discussed on a larger context, outside of one person’s experience, in order to challenge Calvin not only with one exception to the rule, but with reconsidering the rule altogether.

 
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