Pleas welcome today’s guest writer, Anna E. Lindner. Anna has lived in Grand Rapids, New York City, and now Detroit since graduating from Calvin in 2016. She has a personal trainer certification and is working on her doctorate in communication studies with a cognate in history at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her research interests include slavery in Afro-Caribbean countries, intersectional feminisims, critical whiteness studies, and decolonization theory.
It’s 2010, and Anna wasn’t sold on attending college.
Since the age of seven, I had been entranced by stories of ordinary people who became missionaries in impoverished, far-flung countries, giving up everything to live on modest diets of local fare and God’s word. I wanted to denounce American materialism and escape to some humid jungle to preach the Gospel to the natives and live by example.
So when my parents brought up college during my junior year of high school, I delivered this zinger: “What’s more important, college or God?” My parents looked exasperatedly at each other, aware that I was too stubborn to hear anything to the contrary.
However, my interest in history, literature, and other humanities-based fields soon drove me toward higher education. I chose Calvin College primarily because of its strong history program and the Grassroots floor. Grassroots is a living-learning community emphasizing multiculturalism, anti-racism, and justice. Our demographics starkly contrast those of Calvin at large: in 2012, just over eleven percent of Calvin students were AHANA (African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native-American), and ten percent were international—the rest were white. Our floor was about a third white, just under a third international, and the rest, Americans of color.
The two years I spent on Grassroots were intense and formative. As a floor, we learned history, sociology, and other academic disciplines most relevant to diversity studies, resulting in a poignant combination of intellectual knowledge and practical experiences which arched my academic interests toward critical race theory. More importantly, through sharing our lives with each other, I was able to see the devastation racism, sexism, and other ills cause. In response to the “We Are Calvin” video presented during our orientation in 2012, Calvin students of color created the “We Are Calvin [Too]” movement to remind the Calvin community of the often disparate experiences of black and brown students who share the campus with their white peers. We hoped to reveal the ways in which white culture on campus is assumed to be the “normal” or “correct” way of life, marginalizing others by default. Spaces like Grassroots represent havens for students of color exhausted from having to operate within white culture every day.
Woven into our Grassroots experience was Calvin’s mantra: to discern. And we did—we considered the ways in which racism has become deeply embedded in our society and institutions, including Calvin. To address such brokenness, we need more than “diversity,” which had become a mere buzzword. We need reconciliation, restoration—to use Calvinist terminology, “shalom,” the righting of all wrongs—for justice to come. Shalom could only be achieved, of course, through the Christian God.
But in the face of blatant inequality, this wasn’t enough for me or several of my Calvin peers. From 2013-2014, Grassroots became home to several members of the LGBTQ+ community. Together with the Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) club, they taught me about entrenched ideas about sex and gender identity that harm those who deviate from societal norms. I became aware of those dealing with intersectional questions of race and gender/sex identity. Sadly, Calvin proved too hostile a place for many of the LGBTQ+ students, and they left the school en mass at the end of my sophomore year.
The departure of many of the LGBTQ+ students as well as Calvin’s abysmal retention rate of students of color added to my concerns about the harm perpetrated by religion. Even if Christians acknowledge the similarities with and value of other religions, they believe that their version of a higher power represents ultimate truth. Just because I happened to be born into a white, North American Christian family, I became a Christian. If I was born to a comparable family in India and was raised Hindu, I’d be automatically wrong and destined for hell? I was dissatisfied with this explanation, which lead to more questions about religion, race, identity, and oppression.
During my years at Calvin, my knowledge of social realities grew, and the reasons I had for clinging for faith slowly fell away. Doubt shifted into suspicion, disillusionment, and then disbelief. Not only did faith fail to answer my questions or assuage my personal pain or save the world from sin or make Christians more kind, loving, and justice-oriented (as I had been taught it would)—religion, from what I had seen, actively perpetrated harm against anyone who wasn’t white, cis-gendered, straight, Christian, well-off financially, able-bodied, attractive, and male.
In recent years, my parents sometimes slip into bitter nostalgia and remind me of my “college or God” dichotomy. While the two are not mutually exclusive, my 2010 self would be shocked to learn that I’d one day decide to earn my PhD, cementing my dedication to the former path.