Sophia Hopper walked into Edman Chapel on Oct. 24 expecting a typical Wheaton chapel: a song or two, a Scripture reading and an easygoing message about that week’s theme, rest. She walked out shaken and distressed, the speaker’s words about losing weight as a spiritual discipline leaving her unable to go to her next class.
The message that morning was delivered by Mart Green, son of the founder of Hobby Lobby and producer of “End of the Spear,” a 2005 film about Wheaton alumni who were martyred in Ecuador in 1956. In his talk, Green focused on the importance of fasting, but his emphasis on the spiritual benefits of the practice was clouded, for some in the audience, by his comments about weight-loss.
Hopper, a freshman English major who opened up to the Record about her past struggle with eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder, was one of many students who said they were surprised and concerned by the Oct. 24 chapel.
“Green did not know the contexts, struggles, health histories or spiritual lives of his audience,” Hopper said, “thus, telling such a broad audience of students to fast is very irresponsible.”
Most of the disagreement arose not from Green’s comments about fasting as a spiritual discipline, but from how Green tied fasting to weight-loss. In the message, he explained his personal struggle with sin, and said that he turned to fasting in the late 1990s as a desperate cry to God for help.
“I told the Lord,” Green told the chapel audience, “‘Here’s the deal: I’m gonna fast [for] one meal a day until you send me somebody or an idea to help me with what I was just challenged with yesterday morning.”
After four months of fasting and waiting, he said he flew to Hong Kong for work, but before his flights he made another deal with God, resigning to not eat until he felt hungry. He said his appetite did not return.
After the ten-day business trip he returned to his wife and said, “I haven’t eaten since the last time I saw you.” In the days that followed, he sat with his family during meals but still felt no hunger. This continued for forty days, with Green consuming nothing but juice until Thanksgiving morning.
Green then explained the “less of me” theme that he had already mentioned, which was both a spiritual and physical aspiration for him during his fasts.
“Yes, there was less of me,” he said in his talk. “I started this thing at 177 pounds [and] by the time I got done, I’d lost 47 pounds.”
Green said he believes God has called him to continue this practice. Each year since then, Green said, he stops getting hungry 40 days before Thanksgiving and only drinks juice until his hunger returns. “I learned that God doesn’t speak any louder when I’m fasting,” he said. “I just rest and listen better when I’m not eating.”
Though Green acknowledged that his particular experience was unique, he went on to call students to take up fasting.
“I’d like to challenge you in the discipline of fasting in your life,” he said. “How about one meal a day? How could you start to do that? Skip a meal, rest and reflect with the Lord.”
After the talk, some students took to the Forum Wall Instagram page to express their concerns.
“You may recognize fasting isn’t a spiritual discipline for you, but [even just] hearing the numbers and the food restriction talked about carries weight for someone vulnerable to relapse [into disordered eating],” wrote junior psychology major Elizabeth Roesner in a reply to a comment on the Forum Wall post about Green’s chapel. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well that was his experience and it doesn’t affect me!’ But for someone in a disordered frame of mind, it is difficult to disregard.”
Other students, including junior English literature major Carmen Covington, left Green’s talk feeling mixed about how to interpret it.
“Some of his story [about how God worked through his fasting] was inspiring, and I doubt it was intended to come off as a blanket prescription, but sharing specifics on weight can be triggering for those who struggle with eating disorders,” said Covington, also in the Instagram comments.
Still, others, such as junior Liv Issakainen, pointed to the positive side of Green speaking about a spiritual discipline.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with fasting,” commented Issakainen on the Instagram post. “Fasting does not equate [to] starving yourself, nor is that the narrative that a chapel service would push. There are actually plenty of physical and spiritual health benefits surrounding fasting; people need to chill and stop taking everything as a personal attack. If fasting is not for you, then don’t do it. Simple as that.”
This wasn’t the first time this school year that a chapel message generated chatter around campus and on the Forum Wall Instagram accounts, which are not affiliated with the college and whose moderators are anonymous.
A chapel on Sept. 19 led by Trudy Cathy White, daughter of Chick-fil-A’s founders, Jeannette and S. Truett Cathy, also received pushback from some students. According to them, White placed too much emphasis on her family’s success as a direct result of their Christian faith. After the talk, volunteers outside distributed free Chick-fil-A gift cards to every student leaving Edman.
In response to White’s chapel, seniors Laura Mund and Avyi Hill began a petition to raise concerns about how the talk reflected what they called the “prosperity gospel,” the idea that God’s favor is made known through material and financial success. The petition now has 101 signatures.
“[White’s] message made the Gospel about the success of Christians in the marketplace rather than about [the] confession of Christ as Lord, cruciform love through self-sacrifice and communal orientation to the least of these,” wrote the petition authors.
However, other students were content with their free Chick-fil-A sandwich.
Both Green and White could not be reached for comment.
In an email from Sept. 27 announcing changes to the fall semester chapel lineup, the chaplain’s office sent out a link where students could submit the names of speakers for future chapels, but the message contained no official response to the controversy surrounding White’s message.
After Green’s October chapel, student buzz online and emails to the chaplain’s office resulted in an email to students from Chaplain Angulus Wilson the next day. In the email, Wilson apologized for any hurt caused by Green’s message and thanked students who came forward about it.
“I was humbled and honored by those who reached out, and I thank you so much for your grace and patience. It was certainly not our intent to cause you or others discomfort or difficulty,” Wilson wrote in the email.
Student reaction to Green and White’s messages has raised questions about how speakers are chosen for the Edman pulpit.
Wilson said that it’s the chaplain’s job to select an overall theme for the chapels in a semester or an academic year. Last fall’s theme was spiritual disciplines, keeping with the overall framework of “Life with God Together,” which has been the official “vision” for programming in the chaplain’s office since 2019. Since the college returned to mandatory in-person gatherings in the fall 2021 semester, a variety of high-profile speakers have been invited to campus, including singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, Chicago pastor Charlie Dates and author Joni Eareckson Tada.
To plan individual chapels, Wilson confers with Associate Chaplain Donté Ford and Worship Arts Coordinator Jessie Taetz.
Taetz said that after Wilson decided on the fall semester’s theme and got the go-ahead from President Philip Ryken, she was tasked with looking into speaker recommendations and researching prominent voices for each week’s topic to plan the lineup of chapels for the semester.
In selecting chapel speakers, Taetz said that she considers their previous public talks, particularly those given to undergraduate audiences.
“Is their message going to translate to our students not just in the age range but in its thematic elements?” Taetz said she asks. “Is this something our students want to hear about? Is it something [students] want to dive deeper into? Is this going to serve [students] in their own spiritual formation?”
After Taetz confers with staff in the chaplain’s office, Wilson has the final say in approving each speaker.
There is no precedent for proofreading messages in advance, but speakers do go through a vetting and briefing process and are trusted to take seriously the task of speaking in chapel. Ford said that the chaplain’s office presents potential speakers with the college’s Community Covenant and Kingdom Diversity Statement, and asks them to affirm the Statement of Faith, although they are not asked to sign it.
Ford added that chapel speakers must review a “guest speaker guide,” which reminds them of the college’s evangelical Protestant theology and worship. This guide originated in the 1940s, when chapel speakers were given a card reminding them of the basic guidelines for a speaker, which included “avoiding controversial subjects” and pointing students to “deeper truths of the Word.”
“We have no real control over where [a speaker’s] message will end up,” Taetz said. “We try to veer our speakers to stay on message but everyone is different and they all plan their own ways.”
This fall was not the first time that a chapel speaker has caused controversy.
When Juli Slattery, creator of the ministry Authentic Intimacy, spoke in chapel in 2021, her messages on sex led some students to ask the chaplain’s office to issue advanced warnings for when sensitive topics would be addressed in chapel. In 2014, students staged a demonstration on the steps of Edman Chapel after hearing from Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian whose conversion to Christianity led her to embrace heterosexuality.
Taetz acknowledged that White’s message on Sept. 19 was not what she had expected.
“Could [White’s talk] have worked in prayer a little bit more? Absolutely,” she said. “But that’s another example: we don’t always know where the speaker is going to go with what we give them. But I think everything worked out for the best and students got to walk away with a treat from Chick-fil-A.”
This semester’s theme is “A Call to Action: Gather, Grow, and Go!” Upcoming chapel speakers include author Aubrey Sampson, who writes about her testimony in the wake of chronic illness and personal loss; Manny Mill, a pastor who focuses on prison ministries; and Alex Wilson, a pastor whose “Amen Podcast” emerged from online church services he gave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ford noted the importance of discernment in listening to chapel messages.
“People are moved by completely different things,” said Ford, “So with anyone I always encourage students to be open, hear what the Spirit is saying and see what God has for you. More often than not, there are always things that we can glean from a message.”
Wilson said he recognizes that hard conversations will be had in chapel throughout the winter and spring, but encourages students to be open to dialogue rather than immediately turning to venting on social media.
“It’s very important that we show hospitality and that we are willing to listen to each other,” he said. “We can agree to disagree and still love each other. If you don’t do that well, it can create toxicity and hurt people and things go uncared for and people can be wounded for a long time.”