A Sermon, an Apology, and a Rallying Cry at Andrews University

As part of its Black History Month celebration, Andrews University invited Jaime Kowlessar, senior pastor at Dallas City Temple Adventist Church, to be guest speaker for Black History Weekend (Feb. 9-11, 2017). Kowlessar’s first sermon was during Andrews’ mandatory Thursday chapel on February 9. Shortly after chapel, complaints began to filter in to administration concerning the topic.

In response to request for comment for this article, Kowlessar said, “A few hours later I was informed that some students on the campus were offended by my sermon, and they sent complaints to the provost and president. They referred to the sermon as partisan speech, and I was accused of calling them bad people because they voted for Trump.”

In a meeting with Andrews University’s Chaplain Michael Polite and Dean for Student Life Deborah Weithers, Kowlessar was informed that administration wanted him to stay away from partisan speech in his upcoming sermons. He let Polite and Weithers know that the remainder of his sermons dealt with injustice, and he would not be mentioning Trump’s name again.

Later that evening, however, Kowlessar received an anonymous e-mail from someone accusing him of being divisive. The e-mail bothered Kowlessar, and he decided to publicly respond to it on Friday evening during the vespers service before preaching his sermon. Kowlessar also publicly posted his sermon and response to the e-mail on Facebook so others could read them.

One week later, unbeknownst to Kowlessar, Provost Christon Arthur apologized to the student body for Kowlessar's sermon. This apology occurred during the mandatory Thursday chapel on February 16.

Following chapel, students took to social media to express hurt and anger about the apology which many felt was unnecessary. Students urged each other to send the provost and president their stories and statements about why Kowlessar’s sermon had been important for them and what it means and feels like to be a black student at Andrews.

Esther Battle, President of the Andrews University Black Student Christian Forum (BSCF), wrote in a letter to President Luxton,

“Black History Month, and particularly Black History Month chapel…are rare and important occasions for black students at Andrews. It is our one and only opportunity to use university-wide platforms to speak to Black students and celebrate black culture with the entire student body. We are allowed one chapel and one vespers to incorporate our culture and experience into the service. We take these programs very seriously, and each year the experience is so affirming. Last week was an especially appreciated experience because Pastor Jaime Kowlessar’s words were so straightforward, so unapologetic, and rang so true." 

Battle  also expressed her hope for ongoing conversation with the university about its need to apologize to a few for a sermon that resonated with so many. Her letter can be read in its entirety here.

On February 17, Andrews released a statement from Provost Arthur which read in part:

“The February 9 chapel service on the Andrews campus was part of Black History Month. Many in the Andrews community agreed with and were inspired by the message delivered at that service while others felt offended by some of the things shared during that presentation.

I chose to respond to those comments through my talk directly to our students yesterday, February 16. At that time, I also affirmed the importance of encouraging important campus conversations about social issues and standing against social injustices that we face as a diverse campus community and in society at large.

I thought it was important to remind ourselves that as a Seventh-day Adventist educational community that seeks to encourage those sorts of conversations, we should always seek to avoid doing that through the use of large campus meetings to focus on the promotion of the specific viewpoints and agendas of any particular political party."

On Saturday afternoon, February 18, Chaplain Polite, Esther Battle, and other members of the Andrews University student body released a video titled #ItIsTimeAU, described as a “PSA expressing the concerns and experiences of black students at Andrews University." The video was posted publicly to Facebook by Garrison Hayes, Student Chaplain at Andrews University.
WATCH: "It's Time, AU"

As of this writing, the video has gone viral on social media and has been viewed nearly 150,000 times with over 2,000 shares.

In the video, students called on Andrews to “apologize for the systemic racism it has perpetuated on its campus” and gave the university one week to respond. One week, they stated, is all it takes, referring to the week that passed between Kowlessar’s sermon and Provost Arthur’s apology.

The video received over 600 comments, most of them supportive. However, some commenters expressed confusion because the incidents that elicited the video response went unmentioned. Several commenters responded with combative and racist language.

Stephen Payne, Vice President for Integrated Marketing & Communication at Andrews University, posted a comment on the video, addressing many of its concerns:

“This video expresses really great, honest, and powerful points—and I’ve just had a chance to talk over the last couple of hours or so with our President (currently participating in alumni meetings in California) and Provost about the questions, issues, and absolutely valid concerns raised in this video. Of course, they would also appreciate that those who want to do so would also speak to them personally rather than through a social media post, so they can address and respond to specific items directly. Ultimately, the campus seeks to listen directly to the voices of all individuals within our community, and I invite you to connect directly with our administration with further concerns. The administration has an open-door policy on all issues."

President Luxton followed up with an official e-mail to the Andrews community on Monday, February 20, in which she reiterated Payne's comments. She reminded the community of the October 1, 2016, "Journey to Healing and Understanding" event held in Berrien Springs in conjunction with the Lake Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, where she reflected on some of the issues of systemic racism at Andrews and issued an apology for past prejudices and a challenge to do better in the future. She wrote,

“The #ItIsTimeAU video has struck a chord with many on this campus and beyond and inspired a variety of passionate reactions from all corners, both on this campus and far beyond. . . . I, Dr. Arthur and the entire Andrews University community seeks to take and respond seriously to concerns like these at a school and within a community where God’s kingdom and His children are present, and the injustices of the past and present must continue to be understood and addressed."

On February 21, the Oakwood University NAACP Chapter released its own video, expressing solidarity with the students of Andrews University. 

WATCH: "It's Time AU, We Stand With You"

Andrews University has announced that the February 23, 2017, chapel service will continue this conversation and has invited community members to join either in person at Pioneer Memorial Church or online at andrews.edu/livestream.

 

Alisa Williams is Spirituality Editor at SpectrumMagazine.org

 

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