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Wheaton prof’s departure spurs fast for solidarity

CHICAGO (BP) — A group including students and alumni of evangelical Wheaton College will fast for solidarity and peace until Easter in response to Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins and the school announcing the two were amicably ending her employment.

The group of about 50 Hawkins supporters told Chicago Public Radio WBEZ they are fasting to promote a national dialogue on racism, gender discrimination and “Islamaphobia,” issues that emerged after Wheaton moved to fire Hawkins for stating on Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She made the statement, she said, and began wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women suffering the backlash of Islamic extremism. But Wheaton administrators said the affirmation was contrary to the school’s theological statement of faith which employees must uphold.

In a Feb. 9 press conference, Wheaton administrators said the school and Hawkins have reached a “mutual place of resolution and reconciliation” to end her employment at the school where she had been the first female African American tenured professor.

As part of the resolution, described as confidential, Wheaton announced the establishment of a scholarship in Hawkins’ honor to benefit summer interns of a certificate program in peace and conflict studies she developed.

Hawkins noted the press conference at Chicago Temple First United Methodist Church was held on the first day of Lent, which she described as “the beginning of a season of fasting, a season to reflect on where we are on our spiritual journeys, who we are, and what we are becoming.”

“May we, as people, stand with all of our neighbors, and not ever categorize or demonize our neighbors. And call upon our politicians and elites in society to do the same,” Hawkins said, “from their religious pulpits, to their presidential pulpits — to call us as one, to call humans humans, and not categories of people.”

At the same time as the off-campus press conference, the group initiating what they called a national Fast of Embodied Solidarity sang Christian songs outside the chapel on Wheaton’s campus. And, in addition to Wheaton students and alumni, the group included a diversity of ministers and students from other Christian institutions, WBEZ reported. Sophomore Esther Kao said the fast is an effort to continue what Hawkins had started on campus.

“We’re not going to allow ourselves to be a homogenous community that just agrees with the administration without questioning it,” Kao told WBEZ. “And I feel like this protest is … a hopeful protest, and we hope for changes to happen on campus.”

Wheaton president Philip Graham Ryken spoke of Hawkins with grace.

“In saying that Wheaton College is reconciled to Larycia Hawkins, we are not saying that everyone on every side of this conflict is totally satisfied, nor or we saying that we simply move on without addressing the issues that brought us to this place,” Ryken said. “But we are saying we are moving forward in genuine friendship, wishing each other well and wanting to bless each other in our work.”

He spoke highly of Hawkins and her contributions to Wheaton, and said both she and the school “share a commitment to care for the oppressed and the marginalized, including those who are marginalized because of their religious beliefs, and to respectful dialogue with people of other faiths or no faith…. We are grateful for her passionate teaching, scholarship, community service and mentorship of our students.”

Hawkins returned the praise.

“I appreciate and have great respect for the Christian liberal arts and the ways that Wheaton College exudes that in its mission, programs and in the caliber of its employees and students,” she said. Neither she nor school administrators entertained questions at the press conference, and said no further details of their joint decision would be revealed.

Hawkins had been on paid administrative leave since the Facebook post she made in December, which read, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

In subsequent correspondence with school administrators, she defended her statement and affirmed her Christianity.

“Let me begin by stating that my intent has always been to stand with my Muslim neighbors out of my love for Jesus and the love I believe He has for the rest of the world,” she said in a letter to Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones. “It is because of my love for Jesus that I have affirmed wholeheartedly the Wheaton College statement of faith all nine years I have been at the College, and I continue to do so.”

As the conflict continued, Jones in a campus-wide email obtained by The Washington Post apologized to Hawkins for his handling of proceedings to terminate her.

“I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College,” Jones said, expressing regret for discussing his concerns with another colleague, rather than with Hawkins directly.

The press conference averted a termination hearing that had been scheduled for Feb. 11. Hawkins had held tenure since 2013.