Memoir of a Diverse Faculty Member

Preface

The following is a true story. This is the truth of what happened to me. I have read much truth from those who stand as giants among us, who see and experience life in a deeper way than I ever thought I could or would. But as I have looked back over my time as a diverse faculty member at a private Christian institution, I realized that my experiences there mean something, and I have to tell the truth. I must tell the truth of what happened to me, because the beauty of truth is not in the eye of the beholder but in the reality of existence, whether we choose to see it or not. Maybe telling the truth is the first step for people to see it. Maybe this is the only way for me to start speaking this truth after being silenced for so long. Maybe it is not just the way we finally speak up and tell the truth of our stories, but that we actually do.

Memoir

I remember the rain on the morning of my interview with the faculty members of the School of Theology and Ministry. It is known that this university proclaims itself as a Christian institution for higher education, but after working as a full-time professor of Theology there, I had spent three long years sitting in meetings behind closed doors, and in doing so I discovered that none of those words used to define this university were even half true. Perhaps the falling rain was meant to be an omen as it hit the brown skin of my hands, reaching out to pull open the door to the building named after a white man. This place needed the rain, not because it was late summer and the nearby cornfields yearned for hydration, but because this university needed a complete and definite cleansing. This place had long been one of quiet corralling and determined sequestering, a place created with the intent purpose of keeping the minds and bodies of white children pure and untouched by the outside minds and bodies of others. Unfortunately for the faculty members in front of whom I now sat on this rainy day in August, decades had passed since the founding year of this school, and the majority of American culture was now expecting even the Christian schools to join the country in at least pretending to be desegregated. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that I was now discreetly wiping the rain off the back of my hands as I sat in an oversized leather chair across from a young, balding and pale man wearing black slacks and a light blue-gray button-down shirt that matched the current sky.

My interviewer was the Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry (STM), and therefore the “gatekeeper” as he called himself. It is ironic then, that he is the one in front of whom I am sitting, because I, a brown-skinned daughter of immigrants with a Master’s degree in Theology from the University of Edinburgh, am exactly the type of person from whom the department had always tried to protect their flock.

It is even more ironic then that he is the one to whom all glory and praise was given from the rest of the white faculty members for creating a new position in STM specifically to bring “scholars with diverse voices.” He said that when he was younger he was given the same chance that he was giving me. He said there was another white male with his same white name who gave him the opportunity to teach, and now he was trying to pay it forward by hiring someone like me. Was that a smile of pride being held back on his face as he took a seat across from me? But in what was he taking such pride? What was it about this moment, sitting in his office with a window, that caused him such hidden but apparent pleasure?

“How does it feel, that every time you’ve sat in a chair on that side of the desk, there has always been a white male sitting on this side?” he asked. Admittedly flustered and confused at such an odd beginning to an interview, I responded, “not good…?” He maintained the façade well, “I know,” he said with a forced disappointment in his tone, “It’s not right, and that is why I created this position. We need diverse voices here on campus. We need people like you to come and teach in a way only you can. We want to learn from people like you, and we want our students to learn from people like you too.”

Still confused but a little more intrigued at the possibility of being given such a role, I continued to listen as he talked about his desire for women to become leaders in the church and for diverse scholars to come and share their insights so that we could all be better teachers. He nearly cried when pointing out the verse in the Bible about wives submitting to their husbands, explaining that the word “submit” is not even in the original Greek. Finally, he asked me a few questions about heaven and hell, and after my answers, he encouraged me to be more confident with my responses. We stood, shook hands and I was told to wait for their call. If I had known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have picked up when they called to offer me the job a few days later.

(The following record of the events took place during my time as a professor of theology at a private Christian university. It is in the form of a list because I wrote them in the order in which I remembered them. Also, please note that I have so many absurd, heinous and painful memories that I did not record them all here, nor did I record the ones I included with great detail simply to save time and space on the page).

A white female faculty member confronted me after I participated in a community event in which we demonstrated a civil conversation between Christians and Muslims. She said I was too gracious in my speech with my Muslim friends because as Christians we must fervently proclaim that Christians and Muslims serve different gods, to which I wondered how a Christian Biblical scholar could be polytheist and still work at a Christian institution.

At the same Muslim Christian conversation, a white male colleague of mine, who is a scholar in the field of early Christian history and theology, discussed the fact that when Islam was first articulated as a new belief system, Christian leaders at the time defined it as a Christian heresy, a doctrine that was similar to Christian teaching but lacked recognition of the divinity of Christ. Moments after this colleague’s teaching, I explained that if God can have grace on Christian students who ignorantly cannot articulate the full divinity of Christ, God can have grace on our Muslim sisters and brothers. When the university heard of these happenings, they were outraged, wondering how we could let God be so compassionate toward people in a different religion. Within hours the uproar in response to these conversations became so great that the president of the university wrote a defense, however unwillingly, for the teaching of my white male colleague saying his research on the Christian response to early Islamic teachings was true. I on the other hand was still pulled into offices and reprimanded behind closed doors by my white superiors. When students questioned me on my words, I was told by my colleagues to recant what I said at the Muslim Christian conversations even though the president had already absolved my white male colleague for saying the same things.

In response to all of this, STM kept a close watch on me and many confronted me when I would give students further reading material to help them seek out answers to their deep theological questions. My colleagues would say, “Do not give them things to read when they ask you questions; our job is to give them short and simple answers so that they do not question things too much and lose their faith. We do not want them to think too much.”

When I told the new Dean that colleagues were pressuring me to lie to students in this way, he said, “Yes, I believe the same things you do. You are right about God being so gracious and loving, but we cannot say these things to students. If we say too much to students they might tell their parents and then the donors will find out and think we are being liberal and losing our faith. The donors will pull the money, and then we won’t have our jobs anymore. You understand, right? Don’t say these things to students anymore.”

But it did not matter what I said to students because they would still twist things I said in class, telling my colleagues lies about things I was teaching, simply because they had never been asked to truly think theologically before, at least not by a brown woman. On one such occasion, a white female colleague came to my office to confront me about something her male student told her I said. She did not ask if I said that and she did not try to offer advice. She simply assumed what that male student said was true about me, ignoring my credentials and the unlikelihood that I would be so ignorant as to teach in such a manner. She confronted me saying I should never teach that stuff in class, to which I replied saying, “I would obviously not teach those things, but it is good to know you actually know I exist even if it is only to correct me after taking the word of an eighteen-year-old, uneducated male student over me, your colleague in the field.” After working for two and a half years in the department, this white female colleague had never once talked to me even to say hello or ask how the job was going, even though she prides herself on being an advocate for women in leadership. She had not once even introduced herself to me in two and a half years, except on this one occasion in which she felt the need to correct me over an issue she heard from an eighteen-year-old male student.

Another one of the white female professors, who ironically was a professor of pastoral care and counseling, took it upon herself to ask me if the man I was dating at the time was “smart enough for me.” She then proceeded to talk to me about the local senior pastor’s marriage and how that was an example of not being “equally yoked,” when one of the partners is smarter than the other.

I was invited to preach in chapel to the entire community of faculty, staff and over 3,000 students. Sitting in the front row with me was the lead chaplain who, minutes before I was to begin preaching, asked me to remind him what my role was at the university. I told him I was teaching theology full time and then gave him the short version of my academic accomplishments including that I had earned my Master’s degree in Theology in History. He replied, “Oh, your master’s. Well, I guess for you it’s a mistress degree.”

When they started giving me a course load of general education classes instead of courses in my field of study, simply because they wanted me to fill the courses so they would not need to hire adjuncts, the new Dean of the School said the reason was because they had to give the theology courses to the white male they hired because, “He’s the real theology professor, that’s his actual job here.”

This white male they hired to be the “real theology professor” actually dedicated his PhD dissertation to his wife, calling her his “help meet,” which is not a correct translation of the original verse in Scripture by any scholarly standpoint and is certainly not the consensual translation held by the denomination of which this school is a part of. Yet somehow his undeniable ignorance does not require even a conversation from the leadership of the department. Instead they encourage his blatant incompetence to be so flippantly flaunted by giving him an outrageously higher pay and stronger support than me. What kind of New Testament and Theology scholar is this, that he cannot even know the basic correct translation of a well-known, consistently used verse of Scripture?

Ignorance abounds there, not just for one of the white male full-time professors but for all in that department. The full time professor who teaches world religions actually said that Hinduism says that women cannot receive salvation. He was totally ignorant of the reality of what Hinduism actually teaches, for in Hinduism God is so great and the Divine love is so deep that even demons can receive salvation.

After a white male student posted sexualized comments about my physical appearance on a wall for teacher appreciation at the local iHOP Restaurant, the same student applied to be in in our Christian Ministry major to prepare to become a pastor. As his application was passed around during a meeting of the faculty members, I spoke up about the iHOP incident, to which I was greeted with chuckles from several faculty members and then an opposing comment from the “real Theology professor” saying, “I’ve never had problems with him in MY classes. He has always been a good student for ME.” The meeting chuckled a bit more and then moved on to the next application, passing that male student’s paperwork to the “accepted” pile.

Later, I talked to the new Dean about this iHOP incident and how it was received in that meeting in which he was present, imploring him to at least have a conversation with this white male student before just passing him on into the major to become a pastor. The Dean instructed the student’s advisor to have a conversation with him. The advisor then followed up with me after his meeting with the student saying, “the boy is sorry and feels apologetic about the incident. Are you satisfied?” So, was this whole thing about satisfying me, or about guiding this young male down a better path?

When I told the Dean about the advisor’s follow up, he simply looked down and shrugged. I started to wonder if the ignorance of these professors is on accident or on purpose.

It makes sense then that when I asked the new Dean to speak up about issues of sexism and racism in the church, he replied in hushed tones saying, “I know you are right, and I agree with you, but I can’t say any of this stuff yet. Wait until my kids get in and finish college, then I can start saying these things. I have to get my kids through school first.” I learned their ignorance is on purpose.

In response to my travel plans in the Middle East, the original Dean who interviewed me responded with fear and a warning saying, “Be careful over there in that part of the world. We live in a scary world, and that place can be dangerous. Those kinds of people can be really scary.”

When I told the department I was going to resign at the end of the semester, we still had several weeks of classes remaining. No one responded to my email either in person or in writing. Not a single person asked why or what happened to make me want to resign. No one was concerned or cared at all about checking in with me or even to say goodbye. I only overheard one of the older white women speculating that the reasons for my leaving were because my personality did not fit with the other faculty members, and probably because I was not a “mission fit.”

Within days of my resignation, a first-year white male student was able to create and perpetuate a lie saying that I had been fired. To this day I am not sure how this student crafted this falsehood, but I have no doubts about why it was so easily believed by the majority. Lies become the truth in these institutions; when a white male speaks no matter how uneducated, ignorant, unchristlike and still in their adolescence, their word is more readily and heartily believed over that of an educated, experienced, adult, brown woman.

On the day of the very last class I ever taught at the school, I arrived early to print out some handouts in the STM copy room, steps away from the original Dean’s office where I had my first interview three years before. The copy machine completed the task, and I gathered my things to walk over to another building where my class was held. The Dean who had hired me startled me as he abruptly appeared after turning a corner at the other end of the hall. Facing me, and with his eyes fixed on mine, the Dean walked with purpose toward me. I immediately walked out the door leading to the back stairwell, hoping I could escape his ominous intent. He quickly but quietly caught the door before it shut behind me and caught up with me as I walked down the stairs. He walked too close to me, closer than is professionally acceptable, but still said nothing. We rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs and exited the building together. Only when we were outside of the STM building did the Dean begin verbally assaulting me, saying, “This is not my fault, and don’t you dare try to pin this on me. I know you think you can blame me for inviting you here and hiring you, but I was doing you a favor! You should be grateful for all I’ve done for you. If it wasn’t for me, you’d have nothing.” He continued, though almost out of breath, with his face red and his eyes enraged, saying, “This is your fault, the way things ended. No one will believe anything you say about me. Who do you think they’ll believe, me or you?” He dogged me this way until we got to the outside door of the building where my last class was waiting for me. Still silent, I reached for the door like I was reaching for safety. The Dean barred me from entering. He got in my face so I could feel his hot breath on my skin, and with his finger centimeters from my eyes, he gave me one last threat to keep me quiet. Pulling my head back from his as far as my neck could stretch, I strained my peripheral vision to see if there was anyone I could call for help. There was no one. I pulled my stack of freshly printed handouts closer to my chest as my only defense at the moment, and as nausea flooded my stomach, I waited for the final blow. Finally, he softened, put his arm down at his side and made just enough room for me to squeeze past through the doors he was blocking. I ran up the stairs to the classroom full of students who would have no idea what just happened, took a deep breath and walked in the door to teach my final class.

I wrote about this last event in my exit interview, even marking the box that said this event was harassment if not something worse. I never heard a word from anyone who must have received it in HR.

Postscript

I remember the rain on the afternoon I resigned. It was dark and somber, not like a spring rain that carries with it a beautiful fragrance of joy and new life, but a cold and disheartening rain that falls in late winter when the air is too frigid to allow it to touch your skin. As I pushed the door open from the building named after a white man, I hurried away from my place of work where I had just given three years of my young life. I hid my brown skin from the freezing rain, wrapping my whole body, including my hands, in a heavy coat and closing my mind away from all my white students and every white faculty member. I got into my truck and started the ignition. Through the tears flooding my eyes, I watched the rain falling consistently and determinedly on the windshield.

The rain would continue to fall off and on for the next several months, though the cleansing the school needed was not something months of rain could accomplish. However, I do believe the falling rain had some effect in cleansing me, healing me, putting me down in the grave of disillusionment and despair, so that I could lay quietly under the pounding of the water, forcing me underground, burying me under the weight of the earth for a season. Of course, eventually, the rain of winter became the rain of spring, and that familiar proverb used by so many around the world, beaten down and buried by the desires and dominance of the white Christian, came to be true for me: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” When the sun of springtime began to shine and the cleansing rain subsided to reveal the sky of bright blue, a new life broke through the soil under which I was buried, and I was able to see the truth of what really happened during those long years. This time, three years older and decades wiser, I recognized the message in the rain.

From what I have heard, the faculty members of the School of Theology and Ministry are still doing everything in their power to postpone that inevitable cleansing that will come for them, and for everyone, even if only in the form of decay by the slow passing of time. For me, I am living each day in the newness of my life post-STM. And as it turns out, perhaps I am at least a little thankful that I picked up that phone call and accepted that job offer from the Dean. If it was not for that job, I may still be ignorant of what goes on behind those closed doors of STM and what can be heard from those loose lips when the doors are closed. I would not have the same ability to discern the reasons for the Dean’s uncontrollable glee at having the career options of a young, brown-skinned woman under his control and manipulation. I would not know first-hand the realities of the heinous, racist, sexist, criminal business structure that masks itself behind the title “Christian institution for higher education.”

Still, I cannot help thinking that perhaps the rain on the day of my interview was not meant as an omen for only me, but for the Dean and the rest of the white faculty members of STM as well. Did you really think you could hire a brown-skinned daughter of immigrants with a Master’s degree in Theology and she would not speak the truth? After all these years and all these injustices and inequities you heaped upon me and my sisters and brothers forced into your blatant segregation, did you really think we would just submit and stay silent? After all, like you said, that word “submit” is not even in there. I guess that is the price of power and privilege; you cannot see when your time is coming to an end, you cannot experience the cleansing that comes from being buried by the rain. Only those who are subjugated and rejected can be born again out of that. We are the only ones who have nothing to lose. We do not have to worry about our words dismantling our power and prestige, because you would never allow persons with bodies and minds such as ours to have that place. You watch the rain falling from inside your office with a window, but you do not allow it to fall on you.

These seemingly harsh realities are not my discoveries alone but have been recounted as such from hundreds and thousands of intelligent and wise people who have worked under the white Christian gaze and expectations for centuries. Pick up any book on racism and sexism in the Church and you will find statistics and figures proving my experiences to be true. The white Christian has been dominating and asserting their control over black and brown bodies and minds since the early fourth century CE if not before, and as the current white faculty at STM was always quick to remind, “it takes a long time to bring change,” or as the slightly more clever would say, “you have to be patient for a tiny rudder to turn a huge ship.” They must have coined that parroted phrase generations ago when their ancestors were piloting the slave ships hauling black and brown bodies from the shores of Asia and Africa.

It is for these realities, these histories both recent and recorded long ago (but not as long as they would like you to believe), that the rain must have been a message for us all. The Christian institution for higher education has not taken the time to repent and ask forgiveness from their fellow human beings on whose backs their schools were built and maintained. The reason the Dean could have that office with a window is because mine did not. But just because one has a window does not mean they can really see through it. Although STM thought they could get away with ignoring the history, their own personal history, by hiring a brown-skinned daughter of immigrants with a degree in Theology to perpetuate their deeply unChristlike way of life, it will never be possible. People like me will always discover the truth behind the lies, especially after we see behind the closed doors.

For those “gatekeepers” who see themselves in these memories, remember this as well: you are right, we are very different from you. We are not scared of losing our place, the place you so graciously bestowed upon us from on high. We are not given the luxury of ignoring our conscience because our hearts have not been calloused by centuries of dominance and power. We take the words of Christ seriously because Christ is like us, brown, poor, ignored, rejected, dominated, his body broken, his mind killed. Eventually, even those who have picked up your phone calls and accepted your job offers will discover that they are not an exception to your rules because no one with black and brown bodies and minds can be. And when we realize, we will resign. The rain will fall, and we will be buried for a time, but after a season, we will rise. When we rise, we will rise wiser and stronger, more aware of the deeply rooted sins which have grown up now into the institutions you label “Christian.” We will know that we must save ourselves, that we must never again cast our lot in with you, for your building is not a safe haven from the rain but a sepulcher that covers all inside from its cleansing. The truth of our stories will be told and remembered, and the beauty of truth will not be in the eye of the beholder but in the reality of existence. You may call and offer a small space at your table, bestowing upon us the “gift” of your privilege, but we will listen to one another’s stories, we will share the truth of our experiences and we will know what is truly being offered in your job opportunity. The next time you call to extend your offer, we will recognize the warning in the rain, and we will deliberately and determinedly not pick up.

With her MTh from the Univ of Edinburgh & BA in Biblical Lit & BS in Intercultural Studies, Kayla teaches courses on Human Relations at the Univ of Oklahoma.