Will We Engage?
Keith E. Hall
Eight minutes and 46 seconds. Those horrifying moments gripped this nation as people from around the world watched video footage that captured a violent knee crushing the neck of yet another unarmed Black man, draining George Floyd of life as he repeatedly uttered the same words desperately pleaded by Eric Garner in 2014: “I can’t breathe.” Again. Another Black life expunged, lost to violence and hate, not born of that moment alone, but representative of centuries of oppression and abuse.
The brutality and violence depicted in those frames recorded in Minnesota connect to other tragedies that have unfolded across the nation in small towns and big cities. In days prior to Mr. Floyd’s death, we recalled the names of other victims such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Although painful and deeply troubling for many, especially people of color, the recent tragedies were grossly familiar, pointing to historic racist acts of violence and abuse aimed at Black minds and bodies. This abuse dates back to this nation’s founding; the stain of slavery is woven into the pages of our history and into the systems that perpetuate an ideological premise of superiority. Across this nation, around the globe, and within our university communities, voices cried out, “Enough! This is not right!”
As we reflected on these events at Azusa Pacific University, it was heartbreaking to hear students of color, particularly Black men, explain how those lost lives triggered fear and trauma within them, as they have personally witnessed or been victimized by abuse of power. A few Black men recounted the informal supplemental education relayed by family, not to avoid a speeding ticket or reprimand, but to help them survive as a Black man in this world:
“If you are pulled over by an officer, be compliant, don’t make any rash moves, speak calmly, get the officer’s permission before going to grab your registration from the glove compartment, and always make sure your hands are visible.”
“As a Black man, you may be perceived as a threat by some; do everything within your power to comply because your life depends on it.”
As I listened, I recalled my father sharing the same instructions with me as a young man. I, too, have discreetly passed similar counsel on to my teenage son — not to evoke fear, but to relay wisdom that may facilitate his safety in light of the countless occurrences of unnecessary violence directed toward Black men. These lived experiences reveal both the depth of pain produced by racism and injustice and the dire need for meaningful engagement and change.
In this unprecedented time dominated by angst and social unrest, I am reminded of the parable that Jesus shares in Luke 10. He recounts the plight of the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked, stripped, and beaten by thieves and left to die. In the story, Jesus contrasts three approaches exhibited by two religious leaders and one Samaritan; these approaches are applicable for our consideration today. First, there is the priest who saw the battered man, but he kept his distance and passed by on the other side. Second, a Levite went over and looked at the man, but he walked by on the other side of the road. Last, a Samaritan came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. He bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He put him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
Some in this nation, like the priest, choose to look away and keep their distance when it comes to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For others, like the Levite, the curiosity is there, but it does not translate into action or change. However, the Samaritan’s heart and compassion for his neighbor compels him to engage and invest his time, energy, and resources to support the overall well-being of the battered man. As the higher education landscape grows more ethnically diverse, Christian colleges and universities have an incredible opportunity to amplify and operationalize the same compassion. They can model what it means to be culturally responsive and relevant by cultivating an ethnically diverse community, an inclusive cultural climate, and an equitable and just learning environment that reflects Christ-centered engagement and fosters holistic thriving for all faculty, staff, and students.
I am also struck by the partnership the Samaritan cultivates with the innkeeper to provide steady and ongoing care to the abused man. It presents the beauty of the collaboration of responsive people rallying around a common purpose. At APU, we saw some of this same collaboration in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. The shocking footage evoked anger, frustration, and grief in faculty, staff, and students within the APU community. Aware of the pain felt across the institution, President Paul Ferguson sent a message acknowledging the pain of the recent tragedies, denouncing racism and injustice, and emphasizing our unwavering commitment to love God and our neighbors who bear the image of God. This communication prompted collaborative efforts to provide immediate care to colleagues and students and to educate our community on racial and social complexities. Our University Counseling Center offered therapeutic services, while campus pastors rendered spiritual guidance and coaching for students. Our Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity provided focused support for our network of ethnic organizations and hosted VOICES, a safe space for students to engage in critical conversations weekly to process current and historical issues related to race, culture, equity, and justice and to promote community action, engagement, and solidarity. The offices of the provost and diversity and inclusion co-sponsored APU’s first Equity and Justice Forum, drawing more than 500 faculty and staff. The livestreamed forum featured a panel of faculty experts that provided comprehensive, multidisciplinary perspectives on current realities, disparities, and injustices evidenced across the nation and exacerbated during the pandemic season.
An intentional effort continues to further engage the community in meaningful, robust conversations to inform strategic efforts to advance racial equity and justice. The president and select members of his cabinet met with officers of the Black Faculty, Staff, and Administrators Association (BFSSA) to collaborate and consider added action items to further complement pronounced equity-based outcomes and priorities embedded in the recently constructed university strategic plan. Added conversations enabled leaders to glean more insight and perspective from ethnically diverse student groups and other constituents, providing qualitative remarks to assess areas of opportunity as we seek to enhance the Christ-centered impact of the institution.
I am convinced that Christian higher education is strategically positioned to employ a compassionate approach that translates into purposeful care for all students, faculty, and staff while also implementing systems that advance anti-racism, racial equity, reconciliation, and the holistic development of diverse learners and leaders who will leverage their knowledge, skills, and faith to effectively engage and inspire change in a complex world.
Dr. Keith E. Hall serves as vice president, chief diversity officer, and a member of the president’s cabinet at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.