Wheaton College students to begin fast of 'embodied solidarity'

For centuries, Christians have participated in fasts to mark the Lenten season, or 40 days leading up to Easter.

Wheaton College students, alumni and supporters are doing the same this year, but with an emphasis on embodied solidarity.

Hundreds are expected to gather outside Edman Memorial Chapel on Wheaton College's campus at 9:40 a.m. Wednesday to announce the launch of a nationwide fast that calls upon the Wheaton community and other evangelical Christian institutions to “confess and repent of the sins of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, and recognize that all humans have dignity and are created equal in the eyes of God,” organizers said Tuesday.

After a short news conference, attendees will attend an Ash Wednesday service in the chapel.

The fast is, in part, a response to the treatment of Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor put on leave in December for saying Muslims and Christians worship the same God. A statement released Saturday announced the college and Hawkins “found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation” and “have reached a confidential agreement under which they will part ways.”

While the campus gathering is under way, Hawkins and Wheaton College President Philip Ryken will be at the Chicago Temple First Methodist Church in Chicago Wednesday to announce that resolution and reconciliation during a news conference beginning at 10 a.m.

A media advisory issued Tuesday by Arise Chicago, the interfaith workplace group hosting the event, said both parties share a commitment to care for the oppressed and marginalized.

“While parting ways, both Wheaton College and Dr. Hawkins wish the best for each other in their ongoing work,” the statement said.

Interfaith religious leaders, faculty and alumni also will be present at the news conference. Both Hawkins — the school's first tenured African-American female professor — and Wheaton College officials declined to speak about their relationship or reconciliation before the news conference.

A Facebook group created for Wednesday's on-campus demonstration says the college's failure to seek “true reconciliation” with Hawkins reveals the realities of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, especially within Christian theology and practice. The fast, organizers said, will “lament injustice and demand justice.”

“During Lent, we will ask ourselves before our Living God: ‘how are we complicit in the systems of oppression in our society, including financial institutions, the government, the church, and Christian colleges?'” according to the Facebook page. “During and following Lent, we commit ourselves to follow Christ, taking up our own cross, and proclaiming and embodying the Kingdom, God's righteous reign of nonviolent love and shalom justice.”

Wheaton College officials could not be reached for comment on the fast.

But organizers say several other Christian colleges and congregations across the nation have agreed to participate in the fast of embodied solidarity.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel, a 1994 Wheaton College alum and theology professor at New York Theological Seminary, said the fast of embodied solidarity is “a fast against systemic injustice, while traditionally fasts are often seen as an act of personal piety.”

“Jesus put his body on the line for you and me, tomorrow we will put our bodies on the line for African-Americans, women, Muslims and oppressed people everywhere,” he said.

Andrew Shadid, who graduated in 2015, said he hopes the campus community will use the fast as “an act of unity” and an opportunity to “really experience true reconciliation.”

“All we're saying is this doesn't quite yet feel like reconciliation,” he said.

Cathleen Falsani, a 1992 graduate of the school, flew to Chicago from California Tuesday so she could stand with the students Wednesday. She is planning to only consume liquids for the next 40 days, while others are abstaining from eating from sunrise to sunset, much like Muslims do during Ramadan, or just fasting from specific foods or bad habits.

Falsani said she feels the situation that unfolded at her alma mater is “only a tiny part of a much larger problem in the nation, world and church at large.”

“I'm just incredibly heartened by the students who are there today who aren't willing to just roll over and let the status quo continue, the terror of silence and secrecy to continue,” she said.

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