Featuring Jeffrey Carr, Ben Cater, Anthony Cruz, Henrique Din, Jamie Gates, Elaine Giles, Kim Berry Jones, Lindsey Lupo, Arden Martinez, Jai’Lynn Parham, Iman Rashid, Sage Taber, Trevor Tillman, Jonathan Villafuerte, and Alesia Wright
Facilitated by Makayla Renner and Christine Spicer
Editor’s Note: In response to nation-wide conversations on race and justice, the Viewpoint heard from alumni and students that they wanted to know how we might begin to respond as individuals and as a community. So we asked 15 people for their answer to the question: What can we do about racial injustice? Their responses are woven together here into an initial conversation. Whether you are deeply committed to this work or are considering it for the first time, we invite you to continue having conversations about these issues. There is much more to discuss. As the PLNU community, let’s strive to listen respectfully to one another and to seek unity in Christ even when it is difficult and even when our experiences and opinions differ. Thank you for listening to these students, faculty, administrators, and alumni who were willing to lend their voices to begin this particular conversation.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:9
Racism is wrong for many reasons – it creates unequal power structures, devalues human lives, and enacts violence. We must stand against such evil and sin, but sometimes facing a deeply entrenched, multifaceted problem like racism can feel overwhelming. We may not know where to start. As Christians, we do know where we want to end up – as a unified body of Christ composed of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language. It won’t be easy. But it will be worthwhile.
“I really, truly believe that God’s full wonder and the glory of His creation can only be encountered in the context of diversity,” said sophomore international studies major Sage Taber. “If we are all made in the image of God, then the only way we can access the full wonder and power of God’s creation is when we are in a diverse context, when we are all included, because we all represent the image of God.”
Within the Church
Ben Cater, Ph.D., associate dean of foundational explorations, will be teaching a course on the history of race this spring.
“While modern race doesn’t exist until the 16th century,” he said, “ethnic, gender, and social differences are core subject matter in the Old Testament and Epistles. The church has a real opportunity to speak with prophetic accountability into this incredibly complicated and hurtful topic. My great concern is that we miss this opportunity.”
Jamie Gates, Ph.D., professor of sociology, said, “For Christians, the Gospel unequivocally calls us to justice for the oppressed, to be ambassadors of reconciliation and, as a start, to confess our complicity in the sinfulness of the world so that we may all be healed by grace.”
Cater noted that Scripture doesn’t give us “pat answers” to intractable problems like racism, but he still believes it is the first place we should turn as individual Christians and the church.
“The Bible is rich and complicated,” he said. “It is a well of wisdom, a living book that separates bone and marrow. I let it speak to me and hope the Spirit blesses it.”
Bible studies, reading groups, documentary viewings, and discussions can be a way to start conversations on difficult issues like racial and social inequality, discrimination, and injustice, Gates said. “Bible studies being co-led by leaders of different racial backgrounds, with a leading voice given to the persons of color, can be a good starting point.”
Senior Christian studies major Trevor Tillman led such a discussion as a life group leader at his church.
“I asked, ‘In what ways have you not been loving toward your neighbor?’” he said. “At the end of that conversation, one person repented for thinking that all Black people are criminals. Another said, ‘I’m sorry, Trevor, that I have this in my heart about you or Black people in general.’”
Tillman knows that these conversations are difficult; that’s why he believes a context of love, grace, and faith are so important.
“In Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbor and pray for those who persecute you,’” Tillman said. “Only God’s love can really fix this. It’s super hard, but as I dive deeper in my theology, I realize that when you love someone that doesn’t love you or someone who doesn’t deserve it, it should lead them to repentance like the way God loves us and gives us grace when we don’t deserve it. When we are at our worst is when we experience grace the most. I truly believe that is the kind of love we are called to.”
Gates grew up in South Africa during apartheid. Having seen the effects of deeply institutionalized racism, Gates was moved when Dr. Jerry Porter, general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, got down on his knees in South Africa.
“In front of the church, he apologized and confessed that the Church of Nazarene had been complicit and followed the politics of the day,” Gates recalled. “He said that the divisions of the country kept us from being truly Christian with one another.”
Today, Gates is inspired by the La Fuente congregation at Pasadena Church of the Nazarene, where an intentionally English and Spanish speaking congregation “put[s] language and culture right at the center to say that being uncomfortable and learning to cross those bridges and learning to have dinner with people who don’t speak your language or come from your cultural background is essential for learning what it means to be Christian in the world.”
Echoing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gates said, “The 11 o’clock hour on a Sunday morning, the time that people gather across the United States [for worship] is the most segregated hour of American social life.”
He explained that because many churches are divided by race and language “we are absent from one another’s lives and we can’t listen to each other’s hardships.” He feels that needs to change so “the church can intentionally be a place where people gather at one communion table with radically different ways of seeing the world and being in the world, including around racial and ethnic issues and justice.”
As Voters and Citizens
Political science professor Lindsey Lupo, Ph.D., emphasized that voting is one of the most powerful ways citizens can voice their opinions and pursue the changes they want to see.
“One of the things that I do as a voter is apply a racial equity lens to the candidates and to the policies that I am voting on, which in the state of California, come in the form of propositions,” she explained. “I look at the candidates and issues from a variety of perspectives, but one of the perspectives that I try to assess their platform on is how they will advance racial equity.”
It’s also important, she noted, to invest time in understanding and supporting local candidates rather than focusing only on the highest offices.
“Local politics is where you have the most contact. It’s where you have the best chance of actually effecting change,” she said. “Beyond voting, we can engage in demonstrating, working on a campaign, donating money, canvassing, phone banking, attending a political meeting — all those are really great ways to get involved.”
Recent political science graduate Arden Martinez (20) has participated in these kinds of activities. As a student, she did an internship with the City Council during a local campaign. She also worked on a Congressional campaign. These experiences helped her not only go deeper with her own political action but also to learn more about the communities she visited while doing outreach.
“As someone who does political science, I was able to open my eyes and see my life in other lenses,” she said.
Henrique Din, vice president of PLNU’s UNITE Club, points out that being able to express our viewpoints is a privilege. Din is an international student from Thailand.
“One great thing I would say in America is at least we are able to voice our opinions without a lot of repercussions,” he said. “Whereas back home, speaking up is a little bit of a crime. They might come in and try to tell you or threaten you to stop.”
One place people express their views is social media, and Lupo believes this can play a role in promoting racial justice when it is not used in isolation.
“I am totally a fan of some of the social media activism that we see because I think it’s great for raising awareness and for educating people,” she said. “But … there are two pitfalls here. One is that you end up in a silo, and you are in this echo chamber where you are only hearing the people who agree with you, which is not healthy for you or for the country because it will just further polarization. And it can also feel very rewarding, like you’ve done something, when it won’t actually tackle the problem at hand.”
That’s why Lupo suggests using social media for raising awareness but not stopping our political actions there.
“Social media can be good for changing the narrative, introducing us to new ideas, and shifting the rhetoric in a way that causes the candidates to shift the rhetoric,” she explained.
In our Conversations and Relationships
One thing Lupo does with her students each semester is to ask them to have coffee or a meal with someone who doesn’t share their political views to practice listening, asking questions, and trying to have empathy with the other person.
Sociology graduate Elaine Giles (20) resonates with the benefits of face-to-face conversation and hopes that despite the pandemic, we can find ways to connect off social media
“How do we talk with one another when we can’t really talk with one another?” she asked. “How do we have grace with each other in figuring this all out, many for the first time? Everyone I am interacting with is a child of God. There is a lot of love that needs to go into it on all sides. I feel like that’s a radical thing to say right now, but I wish it wasn’t. God calls us into this radical love.”
Senior international studies major Anthony Cruz, who spent six years in the military before beginning college, believes we can also further improve our dialog by shifting the way we think and talk about our national values.
“We can do a better job of talking about the values our country is founded upon as promises rather than things that have actually been realized,” he said. “Me, personally, I have never found myself not having access to resources, education, political or legal representation,” he said. “I have access to all those things, so for most of my life, I neglected the fact that a lot of people didn’t have those things.”
In addition to his military service in West Africa, Cruz was able to gain empathy for others through an internship with the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that takes on cases of people who believe they were wrongfully convicted of a crime.
“What [the California Innocence Project] do[es] might not be specifically focused on race, but the criminal justice system and some of the issues within it do have racial implications,” he said.
Another vital part of using conversations in pursuit of racial reconciliation is learning to listen well. Tillman said, “I think one thing is not to be afraid of the conversation … With that is also learning how to listen. A good way is to just ask questions. You don’t have to dominate the conversation or give a monologue. You can ask, ‘Why do you feel what you feel? Tell me more.’ You don’t have to live someone’s life to give them peace or hold space for them.”
Senior Iman Rashid is a political science major who is planning to pursue law school after she graduates. She is also the president of PLNU’s UNITE Club and a Diversity Leadership Scholar. Rashid believes cross-cultural friendships have intrinsic value and are one way we can combat racism. She offers UNITE as an example.
“UNITE is about uniting nationals and internationals through education,” she explained. “I love being able to be in this environment where you get to be with people from all over the world, learn about new cultures, and I can talk about my own culture [as a first-generation Pakistani-American].”
Rashid also believes families play a very important role in shaping the ways we think about people who are different from us.
“Parents, when they are raising their kids, can teach them the basics: treat everyone fairly and kindly and equally,” she said. “Whatever you learn at home, you apply it to the real world.”
Rashid believes that families can also make a difference by having a diverse group of friends and letting their children see that. As they are able, they can also travel or even watch movies from other cultures to help broaden their children’s worldview.
Like Rashid, Martinez emphasized the difference relationships made in her life and believes treating others with respect is an important part of improving race relations. Martinez was born in the United States, but her family moved to Tijuana where she grew up. She said it was difficult for her to adapt and connect with people due to cultural differences. When she arrived at PLNU, she felt lost. She found solace in supportive relationships with mentors like Liliana Reza, associate director of international ministries.
“When I was trying to understand who I am culturally and trying to fit into the Point Loma vibe, I remember crying one time in [Reza’s] office, and she just told me the right words,” Martinez recalled. “She told me God [placed] me at Point Loma for people to be able to see the world how it is.”
Through Education and the Arts
Like Martinez, Jonathan Villafuerte (09) benefited from supportive relationships during his time at PLNU.
“Going from the inner-city to a private school like Point Loma was a huge transition because I felt like I was out of place,” he said. “I was blessed to have a support system early on … where I was able to tap into this idea of hope and gain this confidence that I could do and accomplish my goals. That is kind of the field where I find myself now, providing spaces for youth to have those similar experiences, for them to identify their strengths and move forward with whatever their goals may be.”
As an educational coach currently working with the CARPE College Access Network, Villafuerte believes education has the opportunity to be a great equalizer — with the caveat that it must also be accessible and equitable for everyone. Villafuerte regularly speaks on this topic.
“I’d like to give appreciation to PLNU professors like Jimiliz Valiente-Neighbors (Dr. V) who invite guest speakers [like] myself to discuss equity issues in education as part of their curriculum,” he said.
Villafuerte also strives to encourage individuals who are fighting against systems and attitudes which can make them feel out of place. He says there needs to be a greater focus on their “cultural capital and aspirational capital” and a promotion of the strengths each person has. “These students need to know they’ve already been crowned, just that nobody has told them that.”
His current role focuses on “making sure that families and their students’ voices are included through that process [of decision and policy making] whether it’s during meetings or empathy interviews or just general feedback to ensure that all the needs are being met.”
The empathy interviews he spoke about are one way administrators can begin to shift their interactions with and perception of the students they are working for. “They are genuine conversations between school faculty and their families that ask ‘What is it like to be you at the moment? What are some of the things we can do to support you? What are some of your needs? How can we be better as a school? How can we work together and how would you like to be included going forward?’ Those types of questions inform the schools about how to make a more inclusive, welcoming space for families to feel like they belong and are a part of the decision making process.”
In addition to actively supporting all students, educators can work to mitigate both conscious and unconscious biases in the classroom. Senior Alesia Wright is the president of Black Student Union (BSU) and an education major. In her education courses, she has learned that teachers can positively or negatively impact the learning atmosphere. Biases, microaggressions, and unequal punishments can negatively impact all of the students present. She noted that in the United States “African American students are expelled at higher rates, punished more frequently, and sent home more often than other students with similar behaviors.” Research shows that unfair treatment makes students more likely to act out again, even increasing the future likelihood of criminal behavior. To begin to change this, Wright says teachers can “actively think about how they are treating a student in comparison to other students and take a step back” if needed.
On the other hand, presenting diverse literature and curriculum in classrooms can positively impact all students, fostering understanding and appreciation of others. “Diverse literature helps students who don’t look like the majority; they see themselves in these books,” Wright said. “But it also helps the majority.” In her fieldwork, Wright has seen schools doing this and highlighting different cultures in the classroom, both positive steps that she believes can make a difference, especially when introduced to students from a young age.
When it comes to higher education, a diverse curriculum and the campus community itself can foster relationships and understanding between people from different backgrounds. Rashid noted, “When we go to school, we encounter people from everywhere, connecting with people from different cultures, countries, backgrounds. [College] is the perfect opportunity to … build more of an understanding.”
Jeffrey Carr, Ed.D., PLNU’s chief diversity officer and associate vice president for student development, has seen firsthand how campus life can be affected by a lack of consideration or compassion for others within the student body. That’s why he calls on everyone within a university to “both engage in and embrace diversity in a way that makes every member of our campus feel as if they can not only sustain themselves but that they can be successful and flourish as a part of our campus.”
Whether throughout course projects or outside traditional educational settings, sophomore international studies major Sage Taber believes people can also engage issues of diversity through arts and film.
“It’s such a tool for advocacy, telling stories,” she said.
For example, Taber and a classmate recently made a short film about refugees’ rights in Europe that placed third runner-up in a film competition. In high school, Taber did her AP studio art portfolio on women activists in the Middle East.
“I had all my art up on the wall and under each piece, I told the story of the woman who I was portraying whether it was an activist in Iran or an athlete in Syria,” she said. “I had a lot of students and teachers come up to me and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was a thing or an issue in Iran or in Syria. I had two girls who were of Middle Eastern descent come up to me in tears and say ‘We’ve never seen our story represented at school like this,’ which was so beautiful for me. Art is a way of advocating and telling stories that people would not be exposed to otherwise. And it allows people to feel seen and known when you do advocate for them.”
As Allies and Advocates
Acknowledging what is wrong and taking actionable steps to promote racial justice is integral to creating real, lasting change.
“Most people say, ‘Well I’m not a racist,’ but saying you’re not a racist doesn’t do anything to eliminate racism,” pointed out Carr.
Jai’Lynn Parham, a junior psychology major and co-vice president of BSU, said, “We should be speaking up if someone says something that they know is wrong, saying ‘hey, maybe you shouldn’t say that and here’s why.”
She is hopeful that change can happen, saying “I feel like our generation is very open minded and willing to take on different perspectives.” Though she knows there is still progress to be made, she believes embracing diversity and standing up for others is a good start.
“We all know racism is wrong,” said Kim Berry Jones, director of PLNU’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation. “But being against racism is different than living into being anti-racist. Being anti-racist is being actively for dismantling my own part of the system that oppresses and using my privilege to advocate for others.”
Carr also noted the important differentiation of being allies versus bystanders.
“When you see someone who is being assaulted, do you sit there and just watch it happen, or do you do something about it?” he asked. “We as a campus want to elevate these issues so we have no bystanders at Point Loma.”
In July 2020, President Brower established the PLNU Collective on Anti-racism. The collective’s leadership has since been drawing on research from around campus to create a statement on anti-racism and proposals for implementable changes at PLNU. Some of their focus areas include: developing a common language around racism, diversity, and inclusion; creating an academic hub focused on anti-racism and ethnic studies; adding assessment of anti-racism in the classroom to faculty evaluations; creating a zero tolerance policy on racist behavior on campus; and providing anti-racism training for all faculty and staff.
In addition to existing courses pertaining to race, class, and gender, new classes are being made available to students, including “Sociology of Whiteness” taught by Gates and “History of Race” taught by Cater.
“It is significant that the university has taken a stand, and is working to have this stand be more than words but concrete actions to move us toward being an anti-racist community,” said Jones, who is on the collective’s leadership team.
Jones and the CJR are partnering with MOSAIC to sponsor a yearlong collaborative effort called Cup of Culture. The forum is “centered around opening a dialogue space for PLNU students to engage in meaningful, challenging, and urgent conversations about diversity, inclusion, justice, and reconciliation and all that it entails.”
In addition to his work on campus, Jeffrey Carr, Ed.D., PLNU’s chief diversity officer and associate vice president for student development, is serving as the vice chair of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU)’s Commission on Diversity. Carr became the first chief diversity officer in the CCCU when President Brower appointed him to that position in 2009. Carr is also serving as a member of the board of directors for the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. Learn more at pointloma.edu/diversity.
Cover image by Taylor Turtle