After two years of dormancy, the Students for Racial Peace and Justice announced on Instagram that the group is returning to Westmont College, ready to fight for works beyond the #westmontwhitejesus issue that surfaced three years ago.
What is #westmontwhitejesus?
Students entering the Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel view an intimate space. The chapel is small, comfortable and seen by many as a place to take a break from the hustle and bustle around campus. However, at the back of the chapel, behind a podium, lies an unembellished clear window that a student unfamiliar with Westmont’s past would not question, beyond perhaps a quick comment of “they should put something there!”
The blank plate of glass is a far cry from what was once there. Installed in 1961, the prayer chapel used to display a stained glass window depicting a white-washed Jesus standing on a globe, his feet in the North American continent. The window had long been seen as controversial, as the European misinterpretation of Jesus, a Galilean, seemed to promote the white-dominated hierarchy America has carried ever since the foundation of the country.
Westmont built the Nancy Voskuyl Chapel in memory of former president Roger Voskuyl’s daughter who died in a car accident two years prior. The reason for this controversy lies in more recent actions when our college’s current administration decided to keep the stained glass window amidst student backlash. Back in 2018, the window was correlated with the chapel itself, since both were simultaneously founded. At the time President Beebe stated, “It’s a memorial chapel, so I wanted it kept whole.” This may have been interpreted differently if this was the predominantly white school Westmont College was 63 years ago.
However, recent students refused to move past that explanation. How does the representation of a white Jesus apply to the current campus, which year-by-year increases in the number of people of color admitted? During the same year, Olivia Stowell, a recent Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan and a Westmont alum, was one of three co-leaders of the Racial Equality and Justice organization, now known as White Students for Racial Justice.
The three students planted their seed by beginning the #westmontwhitejesus movement to grow Westmont’s inclusivity. To begin, they created an online petition to remove the stained glass window with over 200 signatures. Additionally, the group constructed events such as panels featuring professors with disciplines in theology, art and history. The students hung up posters around campus to further educate the Westmont community on the racial injustice that lies not only on our campus buildings but in the student body and faculty.
Mpho Mthethwa, a fourth-year bio-chem major who is involved in the Black Student Union, remembers the rising racial tensions beyond the stained glass window. Talking to his peers, who are also students of color, the overlapping theme was the feeling of being “ostracized and alienated” by not only the symbolism of white Jesus, but by the lack of diversity in their mentors. For example, from 2018 until today, Mthethwa was one of two people of color who worked in the admissions office at Westmont. He explains how there were rarely any professors of color, commenting that “ … white students had the luxury, privilege and motivation where they can see the role models that look like them.”
Students of Racial Justice and Peace: background and revival
By the last chapel of 2018, President Beebe announced that there would be more images of Christ around campus to more accurately reflect the diversity in Westmont’s community. Despite the quick change of heart and the mass effort to place conference calls with various students of color, the physical removal of the window was a slow process. It wasn’t until June 18, 2020, when the white Jesus displayed in the Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel was taken out. Four years after President Beebe’s announcement, a transparent window remains in place of the once derogatory white Jesus.
So what happened during the stagnant two years? After students such as Olivia Powell left Westmont, removing the window unfortunately required more effort. During the heightened Black Lives Matter Movement in 2019 and 2020, the Students of Racial Justice and Peace (SPJ) urged Westmont, as an institution, to not only to remove the window but to spread awareness of the history of white Christianity and colonialism, combating the white heteronormative patriarchy. After hosting various campus-wide panels, an open space was created for people of color to share their experience through art and hosting protests. The window was removed, and as stated by President Beebe, replaced with “ … a series of images that will broaden our understanding of the universal reach of Christ, thereby providing us with a powerful educational moment.”
Two years later, SPJ posted on their Instagram platform, highlighting their victory of removing the white Jesus. However, “despite the victory, much work remains …” SPJ announced that their club will return, now extending their topics to not only the white Jesus obstacle but the continuing racial issues on campus, homophobia and other injustices affecting minority groups.
Removing the window was not enough to fix the core issue — racism – rather, it acted as a small band-aid to a gaping wound.
Is the revival of SPJ the right thing to do?
After the dormancy of SPJ, there has been an increase in the school’s effort to create a space where all students feel represented, mainly behind the scenes. Currently, Mthethwa works closely with the admissions team and believes that Westmont College is in the “neonatal” stage, where there has been a small, yet noticeable change in the increase of faculty and students of color, an improvement of his previously mentioned statement on the lack of racial diversity within Westmont’s pool of mentors.
Mthethwa believes his hope revolves around what he sees behind the curtain, something many students tend to overlook. As there is an increase of people of color employed by Westmont, faculty such as Dr. Kim Denu — the new provost — mentions how she has been putting effort “into a more representative faculty.” However, overall, further change relies on where Westmont uses its resources. Nevertheless, when you put time and resources into places, things will happen.
But what about SPJ’s comeback? It takes courage and faith to revamp a group formulated during a turbulent time in Westmont history, and SPJ’s comeback will aid in solidifying the goal of justice. The group has garnered 103 likes on their Instagram post and affirmation from alum Olivia Stowell who “ … strongly supports any effort by students to attempt to make Westmont a more just, equitable and inclusive place.” All we can do right now as supporters of a safer campus is get involved, talk to our peers to spread awareness of the group, sign petitions and reach out to implement our knowledge of injustice.
Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.