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Who’s Speaking?

In the 2016 spring semester, there were forty-four chapels. The schedule, provided by the chaplain’s office, named thirty-three speakers. Only five were women.

I was not surprised. After attending chapel for five semesters, I knew this as the norm. But during my sixth semester, I started to pay closer attention. I was taking the Ethnographic Theory and Method course in the Anthropology department, and had been asked to study a particular space. I wanted to research chapel for the following reasons:

  1. To optimize the use of my time. Ethnographic research demands time in the field and Wheaton College requires my presence in chapel for over two hours each week.  
  2. Mandatory attendance makes chapel a unique space. Every other space is self-selective.
  3. The limited diversity of humans onstage increasingly concerned me.

This concern grew as I became more deeply involved in our community. During my first semesters I was in a state of overwhelmed awe at professors, peers, SAGA, and chapel. As I wrote papers, read articles, struggled with printers and procrastination, attended tea times, survived winter, and made friends I slowly became a member of Wheaton College. While working at Phonathon I enjoyed hearing alumni and parents share favorite memories and their gratefulness for Wheaton College; however, some shared frustrations, disappointments, and anger instead. As callers we were taught that these more difficult conversations came from people who love Wheaton College enough to want it to grow. These members of the Wheaton College community were hurting for their community. As I took classes, attended lectures, listened to campus conversations, and grew increasingly committed to our community through participation in HoneyRock, Residence Life, and Human Needs and Global Resources and through friendships, my gratefulness and concern both grew.

So I began more attentively attending chapel and jotted down notes of what was happening onstage: who did what, what did they say, how did people make use of space, how did people talk.

According to social theorist Michel Foucault, when analyzing discourse the text is not at the core; rather, “the central issue… [is] the fact that [the topic] is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said” (Foucault, 1990, p.199). For this reason, I focused more on representation onstage than on the specifics of what speakers said.

After observing twenty-three chapels and conducting three formal interviews, I wrote my paper and presented. In addition to the onstage evidence and interviews, numerous conversations and my six semesters as an undergraduate student all pointed towards an unfortunate reality.

Wheaton College chapel is a performance of white, straight, male hegemony which perpetuates inequality through discourse.

Chapel is a white space. I knew this from conversations with nonwhite peers and my observations affirmed their assertions. The music, the audiences’ non-responsive listening, and the ratio of white bodies to nonwhite bodies both on and offstage revealed this. Thankfully, Wheaton College has chosen to work towards improving racial and ethnic diversity in chapel by hiring  Chaplain Blackmon and scheduling three chapels which celebrate diversity – the “African American Church Series” chapel, the biannual “Rhythm and Praise” chapel, and a chapel remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it remains a white space.

In spring 2016, Chaplain Blackmon spoke in three chapels. Only eight other speakers were nonwhite. Having nonwhite speakers and worshipping through a variety of musical traditions should be the norm. We are members of a global church where nonwhite bodies far outnumber white ones. Wheaton College should celebrate this. Tragically, churches continue to be hypersegregated. Given that the majority of our student body is white, teaching us to listen to nonwhite bodies could be a step towards greater integration.          

Chapel is a straight space. President Ryken’s year-long chapel series on Song of Songs emphasized this reality. In conversations with queer friends, they shared how unsafe chapel felt and told me of queer friends who saved their chapel skips for the series. One friend noted that she understands it is important to be challenged, but questioned the reality of only certain students being challenged. During the spring, chapel messages explicitly talking about sexuality were taught only by men, married to women, who affirmed Wheaton College’s positions on marriage, sexuality, and gender identities. Sexuality was celebrated by two persons, President Ryken and Chaplain Blackmon, who hold the most power in this conversation about marriage and sex.

Making chapel a less discouraging space for queer students does not require that Wheaton College either affirm non-cis sexualities and identities or just avoid messages on sexuality. One possible step is inviting an openly queer speaker to share on sexuality, in affirmation of Wheaton College’s position, or to simply have them speak on anything. Unlike faculty members, chapel speakers are not required to affirm the Statement of Faith or Community Covenant – indeed we’ve had speakers that are ineligible for hire on account of their religious views. Inviting a queer speaker (and not a “formerly” queer speaker like Rosaria Butterfield) would legitimize the presence of queer students in chapel and in our community. The campus community and the Chaplain’s Office should ask for and listen to suggestions from queer students on how to make chapel a more inclusive community.

Chapel is a male space. As a white, straight female, this was the area to which I came in most sensitive. Counting scheduled speakers’ names demonstrated the inequality. Furthermore, given that both the president and chaplain are male, and the chapel band was predominately male, the only times when more females were onstage was when choirs sang or groups like Honduras Project, Wheaton in Chicago, and HNGR led chapel. All five female speakers spoke on social justice or shared testimonies. Men spoke less frequently about issues of social justice, and on a much larger array of topics overall, due in part to their frequent presence at the podium.

The focus on stories and social justice is unsurprising since women are socialized to empathize and share emotionally, especially in communities which affirm traditional gender roles such as the Evangelical community of which Wheaton College is a part. Historically, females have not been given authority to speak on Scripture, so giving testimonies and talking about caring for the marginalized are safe ways for females to speak onstage in chapel. Although our Bible and Theology department has five female professors including the department chair, evidencing Wheaton College’s affirmation that females have the ability to think critically and exegete Scripture, onstage females only speak in a narrow field. Perhaps this is because chapel is an environment more closely linked to the church than to the classroom.

Despite the fact that the need for more diversity on chapel’s stage was generally acknowledged, there were two weak arguments offered to defend the current inequality. The first argument is the reality of a broader imbalance of male to female speakers. Most churches are led by male pastors. Leadership in most fields, including the academy, is male dominated. The chaplain’s office receives many suggestions for speakers each semester. Most suggestions are male. A second argument was that the audience would not respond as well to female speakers because some students believe the Bible requires women to be silent in church or because female speakers are less experienced speaking to this audience. Yet, these reasons are faulty. Wheaton College emphasizes that neither the college nor chapel are churches, so a theological argument against females speaking in chapel seems ungrounded. There are plenty of females who speak, perform, pastor, and teach. If females are not fulfilling the expectations Wheaton College has for chapel speakers, their checklist must change.

The current system prohibits chapel from fulfilling its goals. According to Wheaton College’s webpage:

The primary purpose of chapel is worship. In chapel, we come together three times a week as a community of Christians to affirm our faith, to be encouraged in the Christian life, to focus our attention on God’s agendaSince it is the only time that the entire student body gathers in one place, chapel becomes an opportunity to build community (Chapel, emphasis added).

While I believe God works through chapel, I cannot ignore that humans are creating the agenda and experience. Unfortunately, the current agenda and experience is creating an exclusive community. If you doubt this, google Wheaton College with “chapel tweets” and “apple throwing” for two chapel incidents from the last four years which evidenced the dangerous exclusivity of chapel. These patterns are not limited to just chapel – they are part of the same culture and community that led to the infamous apple throwing and “dear enemy” incidents, the numerous incidences of sexual assault (that happen even here), the thoughtless KKK skit at last year’s football banquet, and the departures of Dr. Larycia Hawkins and Julie Rodgers, to name a few of the more obvious examples.

In order to create a more inclusive community, I hope that Chaplain Blackmon and the administration take steps to change these power dynamics onstage in chapel and throughout campus. Unfortunately, thus far progress remains limited or nonexistent. The fall 2016 chapel schedule only names four female speakers. A diverse group of speakers is needed to encourage and challenge our whole campus to grow to be more like our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ exemplified a life of listening to those who are systematically silenced. He listened to men with leprosy, to a blind beggar, to the criminal hanging beside him on the cross, to the Samaritan woman, to Mary and Martha, and many others (Luke 17:13-14, 18:38-43, 23:39-43, John 4:4-16, 11:1-35). While the settings and topics may differ, he valued voices others suppressed. We should also listen.

As I conducted this research, I was also challenged by other voices asking from whom I am learning and who is leading me. Who wrote the books I read? Who teaches the classes I take? Who preaches in the church of which I am a part? Who do I work for? Whose lectures do I attend?

If everyone who influences me looks like me, there is a problem. I can make individual choices to better learn and listen, but structural changes are necessary.

Wheaton College chapel has the potential to lead our campus towards better dialogue. It is the only space where all students congregate. Every other space is self-selective. We choose our majors, which professors to take, what extracurricular activities to join, which lectures and events to attend, and our friends. While not inherently wrong, our choices can surround us with like-minded people. Part of learning is being meaningfully challenged. Our community needs to grow. Those who lead chapel should actively challenge existing power dynamics. The current perpetuation of inequalities through discourse is wrong.

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About the Author

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I'm a senior studying Cultural Anthropology at Wheaton College. Currently, I'm living and learning in Zambia through the Human Needs and Global Resources program. I want to learn to follow Jesus Christ in pursuing shalom through social justice, mercy, and living simply in community. Windowsill gardens, listening to stories, and Netflix bringing Gilmore Girls back are a few things that make me happy.

8 Comments

  1. Brian H.

    This semester we have 4 women speakers. 4. We’re moving in the wrong direction. And I have also heard the rationale that there aren’t enough women who are “accustomed” to speaking to Wheaton-type audiences. (Maybe we need people who aren’t so “accustomed.”)

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