catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 20 :: 2008.11.07 — 2008.11.21


What I’ve learned from planning UnLearn Week

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a chapel talk at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at October 7, 2008.

Indeed, this is a day that the Lord has made-yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift and I will be glad in it.  Today is also the second day of UnLearn Week, a week packed full of events and opportunities for Calvin as a community to begin a dialogue around racism and what it means to be anti-racist. 

Certainly there is plenty of evidence that racism is alive and well, even among students your age.  The Jena Six situation bears witness.  You may also have heard of so-called “ghetto parties” or students dressing in “black-face” at public colleges and universities across the country.  But do not be fooled into believing that Christian colleges are immune.  Just a few days ago at George Fox University, a Christian college in Oregon, an effigy of Barack Obama was found hanging from a tree and on the front of the picture was written “reject Acts Six.”  People may have quickly dismissed the action as something political, but the Acts Six program, like our Entrada Scholars program, is GFU’s  summer bridge program for academically gifted students who are also ethnic minorities. That makes the stunt clearly racially motivated. 

But you don’t have to go all the way to Oregon for examples of racism; just listen to the stories of student right here on this campus.  As part of UnLearn Week, we have several opportunities for you to hear those stories.  Look for the events titled “This Is My Story” to put a Calvin College face on racism.  It is only fitting that UnLearn Week would include student stories because the idea for this week came directly from the painful experience of Leticia Espinoza, a Calvin student, now alumna. 

Letty made her way to my office one day and plopped down in the chair next to my desk.  With tears streaming down her cheeks, she explained a negative verbal exchange in class over immigration.  Her fellow classmates made some hurtful comments, but she was equally frustrated by the professor’s inability to facilitate the conversation. And she blurted out-half in anger and half in anguish-“Why can’t we just spend a whole week talking about this stuff?!”  I said, “We can!”  That was seven years ago. 

I am grateful to Calvin College for being a place where we can have an UnLearn Week.  Calvin is not a perfect place; we don’t have it all right.  But many of my colleagues at other Christian campuses can’t even say the word " racism" let alone have a WEEK of events around the topic!  So, here wee are seven years later!  While students provide key planning and leadership for these events, I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve learned from UnLearn Week. 

I could have easily called the week, “Love Thy Neighbor Week,” because in my mind, if I reduce this effort to its simplest form, that is my prayer.   But the Multi-cultural Student Activities Board watched a Spike Lee movie together at a retreat called Higher Learning.  The movie was about racial tensions on a college campus.  At the end of the movie, one of the characters yells “Unlearn!”   Eric Flores, said, “That’s it! Let’s call the week UnLearn Week.” And everyone loved the idea.  But that passage of scripture-love the Lord God with all of your mind, body and soul, and love thy neighbor as thyself-that is the wind beneath my wings. 

The first word that jumps out at me is LOVE.  It’s an action word.  It’s calling us to do something, to give something. The same concept applies to UnLearn Week.  I’m asking you to do something.  Un-packing the suitcase, un-dressing for bed, un-loading the dryer-each action requires you to put forth some energy.  

Think back for a minute to that toy-that cell phone, that iPod, that laptop, that new car-that new thing that you wanted so badly and finally got.  I remember my Christmas doll.  I would rush in from school to play with it.  Remember that thing you loved so much: how you spent time with it, studied it, kept it safe, made sure it was taken care of, showed it off to friends.  You wanted to make sure you understood every single little detail about the way it worked.  It was so important to you.  At least until you got bored with it and wanted the new and improved version-we are a fickle lot-but stay with me for the sake of discussion.  Remember how you LOVED that thing?  Well, what I have learned from Unlearn Week is that we are much better at loving things than we are at loving people.  Imagine if we put forth the same amount of energy loving our neighbors as we did loving the “thing.”  Imagine rushing home to spend time together, to care for and to keep safe your neighbor.  Imagine wanting to understand how your neighbor works, what makes her tick.  I am afraid we are far better at loving things. 

Perhaps it is because we do not know who our neighbor is.  The Service Learning Center used that idea as a theme a few years back.  “Who is my neighbor?”  I thought it was an important question because we like to think about people in far away lands as our neighbors.  And that is very important.  We want you to be global citizens, concerned with people all around the world. But you romanticize serving in exotic places. What about serving the person sitting next to you right now?  What about your roommate and your suitemate and your classmate?  A student told me that she hates working in small groups because the other students completely ignore her.  They make her feel invisible.  SHE is your neighbor. 

Another thing I’ve learned from Unlearn Week is that we-especially students-operate in a bizarre time warp.  We don’t like to connect to our past.  We don’t want to acknowledge our history-the privilege it affords some people and the oppression it has left others.  We focus all our energy on the “when I…”.  You, know: When I graduate…  When I grow up…  When I find a spouse… When I do this or that or the other… But what about right now?  You are a part of this strange culture that exists today pining away for tomorrow.  What about today? Carpe diem, young people.  Seize this moment.    The scripture didn’t say that when you achieve a certain measure of success, or reach a particular goal, THEN you should apply the teachings of Jesus to your life.  Start now. Love thy neighbor now

You can challenge the culture you’ve inherited that sustains a system of injustice if you act now, instead of postponing life for later.  I want to encourage each of you to check out a book by Andy Crouch called Culture Making.  He says we make sense out of the world by making something out of the world.  I hope that the events and conversations of UnLearn Week urge you to make something of the world that looks like a just world, a racism-free world, and a love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself world.

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