Michael Nixon, Andrews U., and Race

Michael Nixon, Andrews U, and Race

Historically, I’ve never been a big Andrews University fan. I graduated from Andrews, but in the same way you graduate from reform school or drivers school – I had to go.  I was fresh out of Oakwood, and newly sponsored to pursue my call to ministry.  The last thing that I wanted to see was snow in early October. But there I was in Michigan, teeth chattering, body shivering, and wondering why my ears wouldn’t stop itching. Welcome to frostbite. Welcome to Andrews.

In short order Andrews reaffirmed many of my past perceptions of conservative Anglos in general and Adventist Anglos in particular. It was a place where, despite the diversity, white was “normal” and everything else was “ethnic.” I’m convinced that if they had asked the campus community to paint a picture of Jesus, the prevailing portrait would have been a blue eyed, English speaking, white man…. who loved 3 ABN.

So, in light of all that, what has happened on Andrew’s campus since February is nothing short of an act of God to me. As you can see, I’m not shy about sharing my view of Andrew’s stumbles, so I’ll be equally as willing to share my kudos.

You probably know the story by now.

  • On February 9-11 of this year, Pastor Jaime Kowlessar lit a fire under the campus when he spoke for Black History Weekend. He was accused by some of partisan, divisive speech. He touched on issues of social justice and the impact of a Trump presidency.
  • His messages caused such a stir on campus and in the community, that the University issued an apology. Bad idea. That apology from the University insulted and enflamed many Black students on campus.
  • On Feb. 18, Chaplain Mike Polite and other students released the, “It’s Time AU”, video. The video demanded an apology from the University for systemic racism and called for plans to address the long- standing problem.
  • On February 23, President Andrea Luxton addressed the volatile issue at a University chapel service. The video she showed and remarks she made shook the University and stirred the church.

Before I continue with the story let me note this.  The leadership that President Dr. Luxton provided is not just proof of unusual gifts but it underscores our desperate need for female leadership at every level of the Adventist church. My hunch is that Andrews would still be searching for a solution if a gentleman had been at the helm.  We’re attempting to provide leadership in a complex world with one hand- a female hand- tied behind our backs. But that’s for another day.

I want to look at 3 powerful things that have taken place on that campus since that racial explosion. 3 positive developments that I didn’t see coming. 3 things that are a lesson to anyone interested in genuine racial reconciliation.

The Apology

The apology that Dr. Luxton extended to the protestors and the Andrews community was a study in effective reconciliation. Two things stood out to me.

It was swift – Dr. Luxton’s response was quick.  Even before she spoke to the campus community on February 23 at the University chapel, she had already sent out an email apologizing for Andrew’s racism.  The “It’s Time AU” demand for a swift response certainly aided this, but you get the sense that the president didn’t need to be prodded. She moved and she moved fast.

It was sincere – Now, it’s impossible to read a person’s heart, but you can read their words and later review their actions. This is what Dr. Luxton said:

  • “We have not listened well…”
  • “We have not been sensitive and taken action when action should have been taken.”
  • “We never have an excuse to devalue, make assumptions, of another because of their race.”
  • “We are profoundly sorry!”

There it is. None of this, “if I’ve hurt you,” or “if you think I’ve done anything wrong” language. She was clear about the problem and direct in her apology. No hedging. No dodging. No excuses. That’s an apology.

The Action Plans

At the University chapel, Dr. Luxton continued to address the problem of historical and systemic racism by listing important steps to correct the problem. In brief:

  1. Diversity training for each group on campus; faculty, staff, and students.
  2. A priority on diversity in hiring with regular progress reports.
  3. A strengthened grievance process for reporting and resolving injustice and mistreatment.
  4. A commitment to honor, celebrate, and support different worship expressions.
  5. An immediate search for a full-time, senior level administrator of diversity who reports directly to the President.

Now, here is where most great ideas and reformations stall. It’s a lot easier to talk about change than it is to execute change. The road from vision to action is littered with casualties. Talk is cheap. So, it was here that I was most skeptical, but it was here that I was most surprised and most gratified.

The Appointment

On July 6, 2016, President Luxton announced the University’s first Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Attorney Michael Timothy Nixon. He began his duties on August 1. It’s not often that organizations hit a home run, but this is nothing short of that.

Nixon wasn’t a safe pick. Raised in Berrien Springs and a graduate of Andrews Academy, he has experienced first- hand the challenges of racial ignorance and insensitivity in that college town. He tells of the fall-out at Andrews Academy from a presentation his father did on race and the Bible. But in reality, he’s a perfect choice.

  • He is under 30 and has the sensibility of a generation the church sorely needs.
  • He is uniquely prepared as an attorney and former legal coordinator for the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York City. He founded the Office of Service and Social Action at the University of Saint Francis.
  • He has the confidence of the community. He has for years been one of them.
  • He is the product of amazing parents, Dr. Timothy and Dr. Sandria Nixon. His ability to support and challenge the university at the same time is a direct reflection of his parents.
  • He loves the gospel, he loves people and he has a great sense of humor-and he’ll need it!
  • He has the courage to speak truth to power.

When I see Michael Nixon, I’m hopeful for the future of race relations at Andrews and the church. Over the course of his work at Andrews, I’m sure we’ll disagree on certain ideas and approaches. I reflect my generations skepticism- read cynicism- of the prospect of meaningful racial reconciliation. But he listens well and his judgment is sound.

Andrews University is still not one of my destination spots. Location alone will always work against that. But my respect for the institution has grown immensely. They have demonstrated amazing vision, decisive action, and Christian courage in the wake of a race crisis. Good example. Great job.


3 Words That Could Cripple The Race Crisis

3 Words That Could Cripple The Race Crisis

It was a year ago tomorrow that I wrote this blog about Charlottesville, race, and the church. Any change? Yes. Thing have gotten worse!

There is something strange about the Charlottesville incident. It’s not as if any of this caught us by surprise. The alt right has been growing. The Klan has been moving from behind the masks and into the mainstream. Donald Trump has never made a mistake that he’d admit. But something about the Charlottesville incident just seems different.

  • Perhaps it’s because it shattered our stereotypes about the face of extreme racism. They were younger, wealthier, and more educated than many realized.
  • Perhaps it’s because the hatred was so aggressive and transparent. So unwilling to hide.
  • Certainly, it’s because a young life was lost.

To me it feels a bit like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. Every day that the alarm clock rings on race in this country, we seem to jump out of the same side of the bed, relive the same old scripts, and fight the same old battles.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. This is a blog, not a Bible. But I am convinced that there are 3 words that could cripple the race problem.  What are the 3 Words?

Christians With Courage

I didn’t say cure the race problem, I said cripple it. In other words, there are some problems that defy easy answers and quick fixes. At times, we forget how recent our sordid slave history in America actually is. The Emancipation Proclamation was just 154 years ago and it took an additional 2 years before Texas got the message and freed the last slaves…and it seems like they’ve been trying to get them back ever since.

But I’m the eternal optimist and I think Christians can do what no statehouse can ever do. But it will take courage. A particular kind of courage.

Courage to admit you’re living in a glass house

The church can ill afford to throw stones about race. The only group that came close to the Klan’s support for Trump and his “make America great again” campaign were White evangelical Christians. They supported him at the rate of 81%. Given the racial divide on both sides of the Trump campaign and presidency, the church walked headlong into a racial buzz saw.

As Adventists, we need to clean our own house. We are a remnant with a race problem.  We have never addressed racism on an appropriate scale or in the appropriate forum. It’s negatively impacting our structure, it’s the elephant in the room in Christian education, and it’s hindering our mission.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about E.E. Cleveland and his amazing contributions to the Adventist church. I didn’t write about his lifelong struggle with the church to address its unfairness to minorities. Even the meeting he did in Trinidad, which stands today as the first Adventist campaign to baptize 1000, was marred by racism.

I was reminded me that Dr. Cleveland was actually sent to the island as punishment. The brethren switched his assignment from Jamaica to Trinidad, an island that was heavily Catholic. The idea was that he could have no real success there, but God had another idea. He always does. Have things improved? Certainly. But we have a way to go. And God can’t fix a problem that we won’t face.

Courage to confront the man in the mirror

Peter was a courageous disciple of Christ, but Acts 10 revealed that he had a race problem. That’s not surprising. We are all works in progress and dealing with racism is hard work. But it starts with the man in the mirror. What are your feelings about “others?” Better yet, what are your actions toward “others?”

At times a clearer referendum on your racial attitudes is who you listen to, agree with, and disagree with. When I lived in Southern California, a friend of mine sounded more like Rush Limbaugh than Rush Limbaugh, because that’s all he listened to. Whether you are a Limbaugh devotee or not, you must admit that he’s an extremely polarizing figure in the area of race. So, what does your fascination with Limbaugh or any other flame thrower say about you and the race issue?

Courage to say something if you see something

The reason the Klan and Neo-Nazis are so comfortable in public is because they are not being challenged in private. What do you say to the racism you hear in private?  Nothing throws cold water on a racist joke quicker than dead silence. How many of those tiki- torch bearing young men in Virginia could have been diverted if a courageous Christian friend had confronted them in private.

I cringe at the thought of how many times I’ve been silent in the face of evil and I’m not alone. Racism has to be confronted and corrected in the context of relationships for it to be effective.

Courage to stop blaming the victim

Perhaps Donald Trump’s greatest mistake in speaking to the Virginia tragedy was his “many sides” remark. “There were good and bad people on both sides”, he said.  It’s a false equivalence- describing a situation as if there is a logical equivalence on both sides of an issue, when there is none.

Even if you accept Trump’s statement that there was “bad” on both sides, the sheer numbers and degree of evil on the right was far greater.  Not to mention the fact that they were “bad” enough to take an innocent girls life. It allows the President to criticize the alt right and avoids alienating some in his base -but it blames the victim.

Racism in the United States has been a blight on the soul and psyche of this nation. It has infected blacks and whites alike- but not to the same degree.  By any objective and reasonable measure, the negative impact of racism has been far greater on people of color, particularly black people. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining in housing, discrimination in college admission, and a list of other evils have unequally impacted black people.

And the negative impact of racism continues to this day. Recently the Corporation for Enterprise Development released a study that showed it would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth that white families have today.  The argument that racism is an equal opportunity offender is a lie that stalls honest discussion.

Even in the church there are those who never miss an opportunity to remind black people that they must deal with racism in their own ranks. I accept that. But it you lead with that, or if you don’t accept the reality that one side has been damaged more and is in greater need of resources, the discussion is dishonest.

Courage to vote

I didn’t plan to but I’ll throw this in.

I woke up this morning to Donald Trump twitter bombing his critics and doubling down on his earlier statements about the Virginia tragedy.  Now he’s arguing that the,” culture of our great country is being ripped apart by the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Confederate monuments. Whether you agree with him or not, you must agree that statements like these and others are terrible for race relations.

Listen, I believe in the sovereignty of God. He has worked out his will in seasons far worse than this. The tweets of Trump are nothing like the madness of Nero and others and we’re instructed to pray for them all. But you don’t just get the government you pray for; you get the government you vote for.

I’m done.