I live less than three miles from the campus of George Fox University, a hundred-year old Christian school nestled in the quaint town of Newberg, in the heart of Oregon’s Yamhill-Carlton wine region. I often take my morning run near the campus, and have gotten to know and like the place and the people. So I was very caught off guard when I heard about the “Obama on a string” incident.
I didn’t want to believe that any of the students who I’m often surrounded by in the local coffee shop could be responsible for such a terrible and cowardly act. In the aftermath, I decided I would hit the ground, talk to students, campus personnel, anyone, to see for myself what’s really going on at George Fox.
To the casual observer, the cardboard image of Obama bearing a sign that read “Act Six Reject” and hanging from fish string outside Minthorn Hall on September 23rd was simply another hate-filled incident directed at the Presidential candidate. But the knife cuts much deeper.
It turns out all the symbolic bloodshed is less about Obama and more about producing future versions of him. The angry message was directed at George Fox’s Act 6 Scholarship and Leadership Initiative, which provides full scholarships for economically qualifying entrants and helped the school achieve its most diverse freshman class at 25% students of color.
Ironically enough, the program gets its name from the sixth chapter of the New Testament’s Book of Acts, which speaks of helping those in need.
Though very embarrassed that the incident occurred on its campus, the university feels that initial media coverage-and subsequent lack of it-gave them a bad rap. So does Julian Johnson-Weiss, the Portland Area Director of Act 6. She feels that news outlets haven’t been duly covering George Fox’s efforts in dealing with the incident as much as they covered the incident itself.
She’s right. While the media jumped all over the story, little to no reporting has been done about George Fox’s response beyond coverage of the school’s public statement. For those seeking more information, the university’s webpage includes a link that answers questions about the incident.
It documents the events from September 23rd to the present, including the Public statement by university President Robin Baker and the apology letter to Senator Obama, as well as upcoming events.
But what’s not being said by anyone is that the situation mirrors the right wing’s “white-lash” against affirmative action and diversity progress in America. Not only is it a microcosm of a larger, uglier problem, it also contradicts what our country is supposed to stand for, as well as George Fox’s stated mission.
“We will not let something like this-that brought $1.7 million to George Fox to bring 10 students each year for 5 years-be destroyed,” says Johnson-Weiss.
Indeed, George Fox and its community are standing their ground. The scholars in the program, who endure 9 months of workshops with community leaders and training in reconciliation and dialogue prior to enrolling, have seized the moment to turn this incident into a catalyst for change.
Jael Chambers, an Act 6 sophomore from Los Angeles majoring in Youth Ministry, says he’s happy with what the university is doing and professes his affinity for the Newberg community at large. The actions of the president and faculty, as well as his white peers, convinced him that Act 6 students are not only welcomed, they’re also loved.
The incident sparked conversations that have evolved into many “Talk Back” sessions. “The Talk Back programs have occurred with administrators, professors, and the student body to discuss different views of racism,” says Jael. “They’ve helped us to understand different cultures.”
Beyond talking, George Fox student body president Joey Bianco has organized people-students and others-to wear dark blue shirts and gather to pray outside Bellman Chapel. To date, there have been many prayer sessions and a huge demonstration is forthcoming.
To demonstrate solidarity in a long-term, visible way, the students have been compiling “I Am” posters. “The goal,” Jael explains, “is to show we are all one body. The ‘I Am’ poster will hang outside the windows of [student activities center] Bruins Den for everyone to see.”
While he can’t speak for everyone, Jael remains confident that the university’s response signals a change for the better. He’s adamant that what happened last week does not represent the George Fox he knows.
“The university’s current actions make clear that George Fox really wants people of color in the school and wants whites to understand that,” he says.
Let’s hope he’s correct that the uncomfortable conversations taking place and symbolic acts of solidarity can foster better understanding for George Fox students, as individuals and as representatives of different ethnicities and cultures and future leaders of our communities.
Let’s also hope these positive efforts of many can outweigh the hateful and regressive acts of a few.
Unfortunately, as has happened countless times when sensationalism wins out over good reporting, the mainstream media will not cover these acts of strength and unity against racial terror as much as they covered the cowardly act that sparked it all in the first place.