On September 20, 2000, as part of my annual State of the University Address, I stood before the Seattle Pacific University community and called us to intensify our commitment to racial reconciliation. I had no idea at the time where this call might lead us. But I felt a deep conviction that if we are serious about our mission to engage the culture and change the world, we must step up to the challenge of race and dividedness and exclusion that has plagued our world far too long.
Most of all, I felt we had to try to craft a vision of hope that is rooted in the gospel of Jesus. Of course, I knew there were many on our campus who cared deeply about this issue and that much had been accomplished over time at SPU. But I was convinced we had to take huge new steps toward articulating a coherent purpose for what we were trying to bring about. Might it be possible, I thought, right here at Seattle Pacific University, to discover some of the keys to tearing down walls that divide?
Might it be possible, to use the language of Miroslav Volf, to get at the conditions of exclusion and find our way forward to become a community of embrace?
Might we bear witness to the hope we find in Jesus Christ, the hope of grace and love, forgiveness, and unity? Might we claim for our community the radical notion that God wants all of his children to flourish together?
Might we actually make a real difference through the very gifts we have been given as a Christian university — through the radical call of a gospel view of the world, through the gifts of learning and scholarship, through our clear commitment to grace-filled community, through our distinctive mission to engage the culture? Could it be that we might actually model reconciliation? Could it be that reconciliation might become part of the very fabric of our institution?
How presumptuous of us, how naïve, our critics might say, just another gesture of political correctness. Others might claim our campus is too “white” to think we have anything to say. Others might accuse us of indulging in “white guilt,” a motivation that is almost never healthy.
I understand these notes of caution and suspicion, and I understand we have a lot to learn and we have trust to earn. But we are moving forward. Sometimes groping our way, we are determined to take one step at a time on the long road toward reconciliation and embrace.
I stand at this moment quite simply amazed at what is going on across our campus. Something pretty profound is happening. We have begun to talk more openly about race and reconciliation. We have recruited ethnically diverse students more intentionally, and our numbers are changing quite dramatically. Faculty reading groups are discussing works such as Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Our friends Gary and Barbara Ames contributed $1 million toward a strong scholarship program, and we now celebrate 15 Ames Scholars, ethnic minority student leaders who are making a huge impact on our campus. We hosted 13 CCCU colleges and universities for a three-day conference on our campus to discuss reconciliation, a project supported by Deborah Wilds of the Gates Foundation.
We are building relationships and forming partnerships in the urban community, and we are adding ethnic minority members to our Board of Trustees. We hired two key leaders in Tali Hairston and Joe Snell to give leadership to our efforts, and we brought in Pastor Alex Gee as a wonderful coach and encourager. We held a President’s Symposium on Reconciliation and, under the guidance of Vice President Les Steele, conducted a Day of Common Learning on the topic. We also welcomed 400 multicultural student leaders to Seattle Pacific for a national conference.
Two years ago, a group of students invited me to go with them to Jackson, Mississippi. They were headed to Jackson, as part of our SPRINT program, to work with the great civil rights leader John Perkins, and they insisted that their president come along.
Well, after nudging my calendar in many different ways, I went to Jackson that December, and I had the privilege to see the work of Dr. Perkins and to sit with our students and listen to him deliver some of the most moving and penetrating Bible teaching I have ever heard. The theme was reconciliation. Tali Hairston and I then gathered with John and his team and began to think together how SPU might partner with this great leader. How could we extend the teachings, the hopeful vision, and something of the legacy of Dr. Perkins into our own efforts for reconciliation?
Out of those conversations and many more came the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development that we inaugurated on October 20, 2004.
Through the work of the Center, we will build bridges into our urban community, create partnerships with urban churches and organizations, launch scholarship and reflection, and change the shape and face of our own campus community. We are thrilled to open this new chapter in our work and are grateful to Dr. Perkins for partnering with us.
So, something is happening indeed. We feel blessed, and we are thankful. As we move into the future, my hope is that reconciliation becomes part of the fabric of our institution, the natural way we go about our work. This strong commitment to reconciliation will be a clear part of our 2014 Blueprint for Excellence. We will continue to focus on dismantling those walls that divide, but our great desire is to craft a vision of hope, not just through words but through our actions. We actually seek to model reconciliation. As I have said from the very beginning, we are serious about this work, and we will stay with this for the long haul.