On Thursday, Dec. 4., Solidarity Cabinet and Student Leadership Forum hosted “Reflecting on Ferguson,” a time of commemoration and contemplation for how to understand the widely discussed subject on Wheaton College’s campus.
The event was hosted in Barrows Auditorium, where student panelists and assistant professor of communication, Theon Hill, spoke to a room packed with students, alumni and faculty on how the church ought to address the issue of racism, following the ongoing conflict in Ferguson, MO.
A video of Eric Garner’s death in New York started the evening. Garner, a black citizen, was put in an apparent chokehold by a police officer and repeated, “I can’t breathe” six times before he died. This story is one that has fueled the protests going on in Ferguson and around the country.
President Ryken followed up the video with an interactive prayer, inviting the audience to add, “hear our prayer” to the petitions for peace he offered.
Juniors Joshua Fort, Alicia Artis and Andrea Artis spoke as a panel about their experience visiting the town of Ferguson in October. The students specifically addressed why they decided to attend the protests in Ferguson, memorable moments and the purpose they hoped the protests would accomplish.
Hill spoke on the position of the church pertaining to the discussion of race.
“Ferguson represents the end of a period where America can deny that race still matters,” Hill said near the opening of his message. He held the position that public policy is insufficient for transforming peoples’ hearts, and that the church itself is uniquely equipped to bring social transformation. “We, the church, have avoided the topic for far too long,” he stated.
Hill began by arguing and supporting the nature and reality of systematic racism present in the United States, went on to address the role personal responsibility plays and how the community is also responsible as a whole, and then concluded by speaking about things that the church and the Wheaton College population can do to react to the issue.
“I would like to see the institution (of Wheaton) heading in a place where (we) reflect the diversity of the body of Christ,” said Hill. “To an extent, we still look like our separate, divided selves. To the extent that we can embrace and appreciate difference, we magnify our savior.”
He also addressed the importance of the topic of conversation in the church. “I see how the church’s inability to deal with race drives people away from Christ. When the church allows incorrect perceptions of race to persist, it takes away from the world’s perception of Jesus.” Hill emphasized what a vital role Christians have in breaking down barriers that divide races and other areas of differentiation, pointing to Jesus, who listened to others fully.
“Jesus on the cross conquered all sin, both individual and societal,” Alicia Artis stated during the panel. “So we can have the victory here.” Artis commented that any protest stems from the hope of change, and is a sign that people are refusing to accept defeat and praying that circumstances can change.
He concluded his message with a question and answer time, evidencing the fact that there are many questions among the faculty and students who attended.
The night ended as a remaining small group of students climbed onto the stage to pray in “one voice” prayer for Ferguson and racial reconciliation.
This event was part of a beginning effort from the Student Leadership Forum to address how Christians can be leaders in the racial reconciliation conversation and bringing shalom to Earth. According to senior Student Body Vice President Wyatt Harms, the group of student leaders will begin tagging events with their logo to reinforce the importance of combatting these issues on campus.
“Systematic oppression is something that affects our school very deeply,” said Harms. He asked the question, “How can we grow closer and look more like the body of Christ?” Hill concluded that, “If you only interact with people who look like you and think like you, you’re going to be limited in understanding what other Christians experience on a daily basis.”
In an email with the Record staff, President Ryken commented, “The sad events in Ferguson, Missouri invite all of us to grieve the tragic loss of a young life and to take personal concern for the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, including our own community.”