Three days after Larycia Hawkins agreed to step down from her job at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., she joined her former colleagues and students for what was billed as a private service of reconciliation. It was a frigid Tuesday evening last February, and attendance was optional, but Wheaton’s largest chapel was nearly full by the time the event began. A large cross had been placed on the stage, surrounded by tea lights that snaked across the blond floorboards in glowing trails.
“We break, we hurt, we wound, we lament,” the school’s chaplain began. He led a prayer from the Book of Psalms, and the crowd sang a somber hymn to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:
God raised me from a miry pit,
from mud and sinking sand,
and set my feet upon a rock
where I can firmly stand.
Philip Ryken, the college’s president of six years, spoke next. His father had been an English professor at Wheaton for 44 years, and he grew up in town, receiving his undergraduate degree from the college. “I believe in our fundamental unity in Jesus Christ, even in a time of profound difficulty that is dividing us and threatening to destroy us,” he told the crowd. “These recent weeks have been, I think, the saddest days of my life.” It was the night before the first day of Lent, the 40-day season of repentance in the Christian calendar.
Wheaton had spent the previous two months embroiled in what was arguably the most public and contentious trial of its 156-year history. In December, Hawkins wrote a theologically complex Facebook postannouncing her intention to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims; the college placed her on leave within days and soon moved to fire her. Jesse Jackson had compared Hawkins with Rosa Parks, while Franklin Graham, an evangelist and Billy Graham’s son, declared, “Shame on her!” Students protested, fasted and tweeted. Donors, parents and alumni were in an uproar. On this winter evening, the first black female professor to achieve tenure at the country’s most prominent evangelical college was now unemployed and preparing to address the community to which she had devoted the past nine years of her life. As a Wheaton anthropology professor, Brian Howell, wrote in January, the episode had become “something of a Rorschach test for those wondering about the state of Wheaton College, evangelicalism and even U.S. Christianity.”