Calvin College's board has denied the request of an African American professor to worship at a Baptist church. If Denise Isom continues to attend her primarily African American congregation, Messiah Missionary Baptist, she will be taken off tenure track and given a one-year term to end after the 2008-2009 school year.
Faculty members at Calvin are required to be members of a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) or a church in "ecclesiastical fellowship" with the denomination. Isom, an assistant professor of education, was aware of the rule when she joined Calvin in 2003, but believed she could apply for an exception. Calvin, which has a student body that is 94 percent white, has previously granted exceptions, usually to faculty members whose spouses are ordained in another denomination.
Isom spent several years visiting some of the more than 100 CRC congregations in the Grand Rapids area. While several CRC churches are beginning to reach out to the African American community, none are "there" yet, Isom wrote in her request. "I need a place of worship that is already consistent with my culture and able to grapple with issues of race in ways which make it a respite, a re-charging and growing place for me, as opposed to another location where I must 'work' and where I am 'other.'"
Calvin's board decided that upholding the school's denominational requirement was necessary for Calvin to remain a Reformed institution. "Nearly all Christian colleges and universities that distanced themselves from their founding denominations and theological traditions eventually also drifted away from being Christian in any meaningful way," Bastian Knoppers, chair of the Calvin College board of trustees, wrote in a statement.
Shirley Hoogstra, vice president for student life at Calvin, which has 4,200 students, said the college's leadership is discussing a solution to the problem. No decisions have been made yet, however. Provost Claudia Beversluis also said the board would move up its scheduled 2009 review of faculty requirements, but she didn't know if any change would come soon enough to help Isom.
The Isom decision sparked heated discussions and a staff and student prayer vigil at Calvin, with many wondering how the school can reach out to diverse communities while remaining rooted in the historically Dutch CRC.
"Diversity is still relatively new to Christian universities," said Pete Menjares, associate provost of diversity leadership at Biola University. "We are still figuring out how to do this."
On predominantly white campuses, Menjares said, support structures such as home, family, and church become even more important to minority faculty and students. "Our colleges still very much reflect our churches, which are monocultural," he said.
While diversity is a worthy goal, universities should keep it in perspective, said John Bowling, president of Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois.
"Any Christian college or university has an obligation to remain loyal to its core values and constituencies and to maintain theological coherence," Bowling said. "To override those commitments could be a disservice to the university in the long run."
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Calvin's Chimes and the Grand Rapids Press have reported on the trustees' decision on Isom and its effects.
The Grand Rapids Press published Isom's letter to Calvin's president and the school's response to inquiries into its decision.
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