By Charles Hermesmann, Managing Editor
Almost a week after Latinx student leaders from Wheaton College’s Unidad club hosted their first-ever chapel service in Edman, students are still grappling with the fallout of a controversial social media post about the historic event.
Not long after students were dismissed from Unidad’s chapel on Monday, news quickly spread of an image posted on the “Wheaton College Chapel Memes” Instagram account. The post contained a picture of eight Unidad students and faculty advisor Nathan Cartagena onstage with the words “our suffering servants” typed in bold across the bottom. The caption read, “Obviously the most oppressed people at this school would get thunderous applause from half the school for saying their name” and included the hashtags “#wedontjustmowlawns” and “#dontspeakspanish.”
Both hashtags reference comments made by the Unidad students who spoke during chapel about experiences they’ve had as members of the Latinx community at Wheaton. Later that day, the “Wheaton College Chapel Memes” post and account were both deleted. “[The meme] was really shocking,” said junior Maya Cristian, Unidad’s administrator, “but we expected some kind of reaction from the campus because it was the first time we had been given that platform to speak.”
Unidad’s page on Wheaton’s website describes the group as “a community that empowers all students of [Latinx] backgrounds to explore, develop and express their ethnic identity in Christ.” While the group is primarily for Latinx students, it also hopes to foster a culture of appreciation and understanding on campus. The Unidad chapel included a time for worship in Spanish and English, testimonies from the cabinet members and a brief message from Cartagena.
In his talk, Cartagena said he hoped to “highlight that Latinos and Latinas are part of the church, they are part of the universal church and [we] want to let people know that we are aware that there are other experiences that other Christians have. We try to learn from those and we try to share our experiences.”
Many Wheaton students who attended chapel were impressed with the group’s message and how they chose to present it. Sammie Shields, a senior who attended Monday’s service, said, “I thought it was an amazing chapel [that] showed the potential that Wheaton College as a whole has to worship in different ways.”
For Unidad, Monday’s chapel service was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Cristian said the chapel was amazing to be a part of. Last year’s cabinet pushed for the group to lead a chapel and “so much work and fighting has gone into giving us this opportunity and this platform to speak,” she said.
However, many students in Unidad and other organizations in the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) remember Monday as both a sad and chaotic day at their office in Lower Beamer. Cristina Guevara, Unidad’s graduate advisor who graduated from Wheaton last spring, has been working to make the chapel happen for years and remembers first seeing the meme after happily walking from Edman chapel to the OMD after students had been dismissed: “It went from the highest joy that I have felt during [my time at] Wheaton to [the feeling of] all of that being taken away. Being in the OMD on Monday was just feeling the weight of everyone finding out separately. It was just really sad.”
Junior Giselle Gaytan, this year’s Unidad president, came into the OMD that morning at around the same time as Guevara. “Something that really stood out to me was the encouragement of being surrounded by people of God,” she said. “The first thing that we did was hold hands and pray. It was striking to me, it was beautiful to me. It was encouraging and it reminded me that nothing hateful can take away God’s purpose.”
OMD director David Cho views the meme as saddening because he believes it is rooted in a false view of what happened. “No one up there spoke of being suffering servants like they’re martyrs,” he said. “Nobody spoke about being the most oppressed people in the world.”
Before the post was deleted, dozens of comments condemning the image were added. One user replied, “We clap loud because we love Unidad, we appreciate these beautiful [people] and the heavenly ordained acts of reconciliation they are participating in.” Another added the phrase, “white fragility.”
One of the commenters, junior Rachel Rockholm, described the feeling of seeing the post as being “punched in the gut.” She remembers commenting and frequently refreshing the page to see other responses. “I was just so shocked and so hurt just because it went from such a high to such a low,” she said. “Unidad chapel was amazing. I loved everything about it. I loved the music, I loved all the people who spoke, the chaplains and Dr. Cartagena.”
Junior Diego Hernandez, vice president and event planner for Unidad, said before Monday’s chapel took place that he wanted the service to be “an opportunity to be able to say [that] this is who we are and this is what we’re here for. I think if they listen to our experiences and what it’s like for us to be here at Wheaton at this time [it] will bring a better understanding.”
While Hernandez appreciates how the Wheaton community has responded to the post, he is also worried that the meme has distracted attention away from his original goals. “Although I think it’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, I was nervous about the fact that we might be lamenting a meme more than celebrating the chapel itself.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, an email titled “Unidad Chapel Response” from the president’s office was sent out to Wheaton College faculty, staff, administration and students. The email was signed by President Philip Ryken, Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer Sheila Caldwell and Vice President for Student Development Paul Chelsen.
The email described the post as “a racist Instagram meme” and later asked the Wheaton community to “pause to understand that an entire group of our beloved community was made to feel unwelcome and devalued. Wheaton College stands with Unidad.”
Sophomore Ben Bertoni thinks the campus response, including the president’s office email, was warranted, but could have been worded differently. “Ryken’s email was a good response,” he said. “I’m glad the president’s office took up the challenge, [but] I think the issue of Ryken’s comment calling it ‘racist’ is reprehensible because he is assuming the intent of the poster, on top of accusing a Wheaton student of being actively racist.”
On Wednesday, Sept. 19, Chaplain Tim Blackmon addressed the incident before the morning’s chapel message by Ray Chang, Wheaton’s ministry associate for discipleship. He informed the student body of his anonymous contact with the original poster. “Although I don’t know who all is responsible for this post,” he said, “through some email and messaging back and forth, I know they regret posting it and are horrified at the unintended consequences of what they thought was just going to be some foolishness.”
Blackmon later spoke directly to the anonymous poster, saying “I invite you not only to meet with me anonymously, but to fully face the consequences of your actions and choices, so that you can see the painful things you have set in motion in the lives of others.”
Sophomore Carlson Chiles appreciated Blackmon’s concern not only for Unidad, but also for the individual who posted the meme. “Chaplain Blackmon’s word of ‘I [invite] you’ is important,” Chiles said. “Chaplain Blackmon made it very clear he’s not focused on only helping those who were injured by this meme, but also helping those that made this poor decision.”
Hernandez saw both the president’s office response and Chaplain Blackmon’s response as necessary: “It ensured that they don’t hold the same values as what that meme said.”
Chaplain Blackmon’s call for the anonymous individual to ask for forgiveness was answered in the form of an anonymous letter to Unidad, which has not been revealed publicly.
“[The anonymous apology] presented it as a lapse in judgment and a misunderstanding,” Cristian said. “That is not the case.” About the individual, she added, “You’ve seen the reaction, you’ve done nothing and you’ve mocked the people who are reacting.”
Sophomore Brianna Barbara, Unidad’s chaplain, was also on stage on Monday morning and described her experience wrestling with questions of forgiveness for the anonymous individual. “It’s really frustrating right now in a time where I’m trying to learn how to not harbor hate and how to forgive this person when I don’t know who this person is,” she said. “I want to have the freedom of forgiveness for this person, and I feel like I’m not being given that because I don’t even have a person to forgive.”
The Unidad students are hopeful that the meme will not overshadow the points they presented in chapel on Monday. “As terrible and as hurtful as those things were, as inappropriate and as sinful as they were, they don’t take away from how we blessed campus through the chapel, how historic it was and how amazing everyone did in worship, in testimony and in preaching,” Gaytan said.
Melissa Schill also contributed reporting.