Roughly 100 Wheaton College students filled the steps of Edman Memorial Chapel Monday to call on administrators to reconcile with political science professor Larycia Hawkins, who was placed on administrative leave last month and could be fired for saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
The rally was designed to coincide with the evangelical school's regular chapel service on the first day of classes of the spring semester. The protesters later were joined by some faculty members and moved inside the chapel.
The students are calling for the school to immediately reinstate Hawkins, put a halt to efforts to fire her and issue a public apology.
College officials could not be reached for comment.
Hawkins, who is a Christian, was placed on administrative leave Dec. 15. Her Facebook posts days earlier included written support for Muslims, such as, "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," and, "As Pope Francis stated ... (Christians and Muslims) worship the same God."
Hawkins also posted photos of herself on Facebook and Twitter wearing a hijab during Advent to show solidarity with Muslims. She said her decision to wear a hijab was not a political statement or social experiment, but instead an effort to "walk a mile in my Muslim sisters' shoes."
College officials said last week that Hawkins was put on leave to "give more time to explore significant questions regarding the theological implications of her recent statements."
Hawkins received a notice from the school on Jan. 4 indicating it was initiating termination proceedings.
"While there is obvious division among the student body, faculty and staff regarding the statements of Dr. Hawkins and the college's response, we are protesting out of a desire for love, hope and reconciliation to pervade the entire situation rather than a spirit of discord," protesters said in a written statement. "We hope you recognize that our protest will be in the same spirit of worship as will be in the main chapel."
Students are required to attend chapel services three times a week. While the student body gathered in Edman, protesters chose not to participate in the traditional service and instead knelt in the foyer and prayed.
"We used this as our worship instead of going into chapel today," said organizer Alicia Artis, a senior.
Students also were continuing a "sit-in" outside the offices of Provost Stan Jones and President Philip Ryken that is expected to last throughout the week. In addition, several faculty members are expected to hold "teach-ins," in which they will lecture and present information relevant to the actions by the administration.
Junior Joshua Mangis said students began participating in sit-ins in the president and provost's office suite before they left for winter break.
"The sit-in is set up so we're not disrupting workers in the office," he said, adding that students are signed up for shifts between about 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for the rest of the week.
Some student leaders met with the president and provost before break, but Joshua Mangis said they would still like to improve communication between the administration and students.
"While we think that the actions that have been taken are not just, we are still very much hopeful and committed to praying for reconciliation," he said. "We are still hopeful that Dr. Hawkins will be reinstated."
Joshua Mangis said he hasn't experienced a lot of negative feedback to the protests from classmates, although there were "many more students in chapel than out of it" Monday.
"There's definitely an atmosphere on campus just that this is an important thing and we need to be seeking God in prayer," he said. "A lot of professors are opening class with a statement about it and encouraging students to read up on it."
Some students were holding signs calling for Hawkins' reinstatement, and one read, "Academic Rigor = Academic Freedom."
"I don't think there's been enough transparency and I don't think that she (Hawkins) deserves termination or leave," senior Annikka Bouwsma said.
Before the service, they chanted "reinstate Doc Hawk" and "This is what theology looks like." The protest ended with students singing the hymn "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love," while worshippers filed out of the chapel.
"We want to act out of love and we think everything we're doing is out of love," Artis said.
Faculty members, meanwhile, met in a nearby chapel to pray because of what psychology professor Michael Mangis, Joshua's father, termed a "special time because of this situation and how it's divided the campus."
"We as a faculty still love this place and believe this is not what Wheaton really is," Michael Mangis said. "We want to show what our community believes."
He said many faculty members were wearing caps and gowns as a symbol of solidarity with Hawkins.
"She (Hawkins) really has inspired students with her spirit and heart for justice," he said.