I am often reluctant to talk about my college experience, preferring superficial reminiscences to sincere explorations of those “best years of my life” (a sentiment I encourage young people to avoid: life is what you make of it, and mine has only gotten better!).
You see, my time at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, was difficult; educational and challenging, yet tiring and stifling.
Don’t get me wrong: I made a number of lasting friendships that sustained and uplifted me while I was there, and that I continue to cherish today. Some of my professors were some of the wisest, kindest souls I have ever known. A certain poetry class (or four poetry classes, as it were), gave me space where I could stretch and grow as a writer. It is a place where I learned to take risks, albeit slowly, and sometimes behind closed doors. The Hope College English department and faculty were (and are), in my humble and narrow opinion, among the finest in the world.
Yet from almost the very beginning, I felt like an outsider because I did not share a conservative brand of the Christian faith as many others on campus did. I grew up in a home where faith was incredibly important, yet it was a faith that was not showy, not overly expressive, and above all, tolerant.
This word, “tolerance,” is not my favorite word. It carries with it shades of blind acceptance, whitewashing, and lenience. So I turn to the dictionary definition: “1. acceptance of different views; 2. tolerating of somebody or something.” This scratches the surface, but it feels incomplete to me… so I move to some synonyms opened up by my trusty MacBook: broadmindedness… open-mindedness… acceptance… patience… charity. There is so much in there, that the word begins to open up for me.
An anecdote: Every freshman at Hope College is enrolled in a First Year Seminar. The title of mine was “The Integration of Faith and Learning.” I honestly am not sure how I was put in this class. Maybe because it was taught by a German professor, who would be my first advisor, and I had (moronically) signed up to take German (what I was thinking, I’m still not sure! I got a D+ and quickly turned back to Spanish!).
Anyway, it started off fine enough. We would be doing some readings of C.S. Lewis and other standards of the Christian college sacred. We would have class discussions of said readings. We would have a paper or two. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t too tough. But I was a freshman in college, the world was my oyster, and I wanted to stretch!
It was still early in the days of using online message boards to extend class discussion and spark conversation. We were given an assignment to respond to a reading on the message board, and perhaps reply to fellow students. I don’t remember what the reading was; I believe it had something to do with the afterlife.
I made what I thought was an innocent enough comment: “what if Christianity isn’t the only way?”
The responses from my classmates were (in my memory, mind you) biting and hostile. One girl asked if I believed there was a Hell (interesting question: does a Christian need to buy into the idea of “Hell”?). I was unprepared for the backlash, but I tried to respond as best I could.
What I did not receive was support from my advisor, who was moderating the page. He did not make any calls for civility and open-mindedness. In a one-on-one meeting soon after this, he, in fact, challenged me on my theology. What I needed was support, space to ask probing questions, to challenge and be challenged in a safe, respective atmosphere. What my professor did was simply tell me I was wrong, implying I was a bad Christian for the beliefs I held. In short, that I was a bad Christian because of my tolerance.
I know there were others at Hope like me, but the college fostered an atmosphere that kept us separated and in the dark from each other. We were afraid to voice our concerns and differences too loudly. There was one student group that encouraged these conversations in a respectful way, and many faculty members did foster spaces where differences of opinion could be aired, but overall, the campus was trapped in a fog of intolerance.
Particularly around issues of sexuality. The former chaplain (whose last semester was my first semester, thankfully), actively preached against homosexuality, even asserting from the pulpit that God is “for sure” a man. I think I went to one chapel service, maybe half of one.
The former president did nothing to support an environment of inclusivity, but rather sided with those who held an exclusive view of the Christian faith, shutting out anyone who might differ slightly.
The board of trustees, mostly male and mostly white, said they valued diversity, but did very little to encourage it. In the mind of the administration, having a few students of color from foreign and “exotic” places like Kenya or Taiwan counted as “diversity.”
I have not maintained a close connection to Hope College since my graduation. While it was hard to leave, it was very good to get away. By that time, I had very little fight left in me, and very little hope that anything on that campus would change anytime soon.
And then the former president left. And a presidential search went on. And in 2013, Dr. John Knapp became the president. He was white, and he was a male, so I shrugged a bit, ambivalent at the least, pessimistic at the worst.
Yet I started to hear murmurs of change. I have not been back to visit in a few years, but I have heard that “Knapp has moved in significant ways- especially on issues of sexuality- in ways that students and faculty members see as crucial to a spirit of tolerance” (Jaschik). I have seen social media posts from current and recent students that Knapp has been engaging, present, and more than anything, accessible to students. This is something completely foreign from my college experience, but I am thrilled to hear this is happening.
On Twitter, a current Hope student stated: “Being open to new views does not mean sacrificing one’s own values, it means caring enough about others to listen/learn/love” (@micahgargala). I am blown away at the level of student interaction, humility, and care; in short, the campus has seen a springtime of tolerance, and I am overjoyed.
Over the past couple of days, rumors have been swirling around social media that, in the wake of the resignation of the college’s Provost, a man who represents the old guard of the college. Some fear the board will take action against Dr. Knapp and remove him as president. Some professors have referred to this as a “hostile takeover.”
Whether the board is within their rights to do this or not doesn’t really matter. How they act will set the tone for what kind of college Hope wants to be, simply: tolerant or intolerant.
Tolerance is the way of grace. Tolerance is the way of mercy. Tolerance is the way of peace. Tolerance leads us, ultimately, to love.
This message is needed now more than ever in our nation and our world. As certain presidential candidates take swings at each other to see who can make the more disgusting claim about “the other,” we are in desperate need of leaders who will model and display empathy and kindness, a willingness to listen and love.
Hope College students have organized a silent protest for the Pine Grove at noon today (Friday, April 15th). I cannot physically be with them, but I will be lifting my arms in prayer and in solidarity at 12 o’clock.
Because this world needs tolerance. And tolerance leads us to love.
For more, check out Scott Jaschik’s article on insidehighered.com, from which I have quoted. Great piece.
Also, there is a social media movement going on in support of Dr. Knapp. If you feel moved to share this, tag with #alumni4Knapp #students4Knapp #parents4Knapp and so on. Thanks. ~k