A window into the "Westmont White Jesus" controversy
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At the center of what Westmont calls its “only building on campus which clearly, in both form and function, indicates that we are a Christian college,” an image of Christ stands in a colorful stained glass window, his arms spread wide and palms upturned.
Dedicated 58 years ago as a memorial to the daughter of a former Westmont president after a fatal accident, the Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel has undergone remodel, additions of other memorials, and removal of its original pews.
The prayer chapel is already laden with meaning for many in the Westmont community, but in recent weeks, current students have called for a reexamination of the meaning behind a specific symbol in its midst: in the stained glass window, Christ is portrayed with light skin, European facial features, and stands with his feet planted on the North American continent.
The course of the controversy
Discontent with the window has been brewing for some time. During the fall semester, sporadic messages were left in the Prayer Chapel, mostly in the form of notes taped to the window (one read, “Jesus wasn’t white”).
This semester, “Westmont White Jesus” is a website, a hashtag, an online petition, and the phrase most frequently used to name the controversy that three students chose to bring to the attention of administration.
Tuesday, Feb. 5
Current students Emily Mata, Brendan Fong, and Olivia Stowell send a letter to several members of Westmont’s administration, outlining their concerns with the imagery in the window and including a “request that the Westmont administration and/or board enter into dialogue about this image, toward the end of removing it.” This letter can be found on the website, https://westmontwhitejesus.weebly.com/.
Tuesday, Feb. 12
An abridged version of the letter is published in the Horizon’s Opinion section.
Wednesday, Feb. 13
Professors Alex Jun and Chris Collins, who were scheduled last fall as the chapel speakers for February 13th, give their planned talk on “The Image and Imprint of White Jesus.”
Later, Campus Pastor Scott Lisea sends a campus-wide email outlining his “two cents” on the window, the letter, and the petition. “I was sad to see the letter published in the Horizon, and to now hear this morning there is an online petition. Those moves appear to me to be premature and shortcut good dialogue,” he wrote. His email also directed students to Westmont’s website describing the history of the chapel as a memorial to Nancy Voskuyl, and cited several resources recommended by David Moore, a pastor who spoke during chapel on February 6th.
Following up on their time in chapel, Jun and Collins speak in an evening event about the “systemic advantages” afforded to white people in private Christian universities. The attendance at the event was “impressive,” according to Intercultural Programs Director Jason Cha.
Thursday, Feb. 14
David Moore tweets the link to the Westmont White Jesus petition.
Friday, Feb. 15
Lisea apologizes during chapel to students who had been “discouraged” by his email, and extends an offer for those personally affected to speak with him afterward.
Tuesday, Feb. 19
An email containing the link to the student petition is sent (from various student addresses) to every Westmont student.
Monday, Mar. 4
Brendan Fong and and Emily Mata, two of the students who wrote the February 5th letter, discuss the window with members of Westmont’s administration.
“We met with representatives of student life and shared some of our concerns. We are continuing to communicate,” said Fong.
Separately, Cha’s weekly ICP email announces an open forum hosted by the Westmont Faculty Council, which will “discuss and share thoughts about the Voskuyl Prayer Chapel window” in addition to the “racial climate” on campus. The forum is scheduled for Wednesday, March 6th at 8pm in the Global Leadership Center.
Communications Professor Deborah Dunn announced via email a round-table discussion titled “How should we depict Christ on campus?” It is scheduled for Thursday, March 7th at 7pm in the Global Leadership Center.
The response to the window controversy on campus has been far from uniform.
In the fall, first-year student Elle Tortorici found a note taped to the window which declared “Jesus wasn’t white.” She was shocked. “I just sat there thinking about it, experiencing so many different emotions. I fwelt the pain in that.”
Now, many students don’t know what to think. “I am currently still trying to figure out where I stand on this conversation,” said junior Mallory Neithart.
Student Body President Sam Brakken encouraged both “those students in doubt” and “those who claim to have their minds made up” to listen to all perspectives, and advised against making this “an absolute issue” of polarized conclusions.
Sophomore Zoey Boisen, emphasized the importance of participation. “The reality is, we are all affected by this. Non-response is a response.”
Some see criticism of the window as disruptive to the unity of the campus, but others push back on that idea.
“The viewpoint right now is that the people who want the window to be removed are needlessly instigating an issue where there isn’t one,” said Sam Gee, who serves as WCSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Senator. “It would be great if that lens shifted.”
“We are not creating trouble,” said Olivia Stowell, an author of the letter to administration. “We are telling administration what we already see.”
When it comes to what should be done with the window, ideas range broadly. Stowell said that the request is not for the window to be “violently destroyed,” but “replaced with something more representative of the community we are claiming to be.”
But first-year Veronica Nguyen believes that such a removal “would be as if we are trying to simply erase history rather than learn from it.”
Nolan Anderson, a third year student, weighed in from a semester abroad in Jerusalem. “Being in Jerusalem these past two months has taught me that big, long-established problems do not have simple solutions,” Anderson said in an email.
Jason Cha believes this controversy is breaking a pattern at Westmont. This incident is “unique in the amount of movement it has created in terms of discussion,” he said. “It’s so much more than a piece of glass. This is the tip of the iceberg of the larger conversation around racial equity within our community.”
Fong agreed, “Westmont has a commitment to justice and equality and diversity in writing, but the embodied reality of students of color on campus is not the fulfillment of that promise. Dealing with the window is just one part of this reconciliation,” he stated.
Vice President for Student Life Edee Schulze and Campus Pastor Scott Lisea declined to comment for this article.