“We will accept your presence but you will accept our perspective.”
NOTE: This is the third part in our 8-part Black to School series which highlights African-American voices and experiences at Christian colleges. Please read Part 1 for context. Today's post comes from Rashad Groves who attended Geneva College in PA. Rashad is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Wayne, PA. When he's not pastoring, he's working on a graduate degree in African-American Studies at SUNY - Empire State College and hanging out with his wife Brandi, daughter Camille and dog Oscar.
Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story- African Proverb
I must begin by stating that I did not have the traditional undergraduate experience. High school was a nomadic period for me primarily because of my inclination to the sociological landscape of my immediate environmental surroundings. (That was my intellectual attempt to try say that I loved and was very infatuated with life on streets). I barley graduated and I had no plans, vision, or hope of how my life would or could manifest as an active participant in society. Juxtapose that reality with the fact that I grew up in a family where the life of the church was the focal point of our existence.
But by the time I was a teenager, church, auxiliaries, denominational affiliations, and anything related to my conceptual reality of “religious” activity held no interest for me. I wasn’t until I was 19 years old that the trajectory of my life shifted dramatically. Without any divine beckoning, I decided to stop in a local thriving Black church where the grapevine alerted everyone who would listen that the finest young ladies were members there. (This turned out to be true because I am still happily married to one of those ladies.) I did not anticipate that on day that I would transition from being a life long “church member” to becoming a “Christ follower.”
Even though I hated being forced to go to church as a child, I always knew that eventually I would enter the ministry. My family members have been Baptist ministers for five generations. With that kind of lineage and expectation, my calling to ministry seemed inevitable. Geneva College (A Christian college in Beaver Falls, PA) had already developed a partnership with the Center for Urban Theological Studies to confer degrees upon students/ministers who wanted to pursue Bachelor’s degrees in Urban Ministry in the Philadelphia area. Through the grace of God, at the age of 20 I began my college career as an adult learner in an accelerated degree program.
A Curious Pattern
When I reminisce on that period I can see some problematic areas for Black students at Christian colleges. First of all, I was never assigned to read any material written by any African-American thinkers. I never read any Latino or Asian thinkers either and even though I had female professors, I was never assigned any works by women. All I read was the Eurocentric theological perspective of White men. This is amazing because I only had two white professors during this time.
As a student, I never challenged this reality. I must admit that I didn’t have the lexicon at the time to engage in this type of dialogue. Now I can see that the fundamental premise of the school was, “We will accept your presence but you will accept our perspective.”
Looking back on this time I can clearly identify the power of privilege and how it operates with brutal clarity and succinct nuance in the Christian college setting. Privilege is so powerful that it can transform a particular environment into being absorbed in itself even when that particular context has nothing to do with it. In other words, Christian colleges audaciously assume that White male writers have such a monopoly on all there is to say and think about God that even Black students who plan to go on to serve Black congregations in Black communities need their (White) insight alone and must deny our own Black creative agency, experience, history, and culture because of its inadequacy.
20/20 hindsight also allows me to now see the invisibility of privilege and how it often navigates on Christian college campuses unchecked. I was oblivious to this then. It’s what I would describe as “theological ventriloquism” where the same concepts, themes, rhetoric and attempts at color blindness may come out of the mouths of Black men and women but the thoughts and ideas were framed for them by White thinkers. The sad reality is that they can be vessels for the continuation of privilege in Christianity without ever realizing it. Privilege in its many formations can go unnoticed because on Christian college campuses it can cloak and veil itself in the name Jesus Christ.
In Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, the unnamed protagonist comes away with his own truth after relating to various people in his journey. He says, “They were much the same, each attempting to force their picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me.” Though in an entirely different context, I totally understand the sentiments from the Invisible Man. Whether it was intentionally or unintentionally, discreetly or directly, a reality was waiting for me in class every Monday night and all day Saturday. Very rarely was I asked or was it even expected for me to articulate my own.