In the circles that I run in, the University of Missouri's School of Journalism is way better known than the school's football team. Many of the large state universities in the Midwest have important journalism programs (I have a master's from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), but when it comes to clout in the world of basic print journalism, Mizzou has long been a unique national and global force.
At the same time, the J-school has a reputation as a place where many of the journalists take religion very seriously (providing a home for the Religion Newswriters Association), while offering a cultural environment in which quite a few believers (including both liberal and conservative Christians) have learned to take journalism very seriously. At one point, I know, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship had a chapter just for students in the J-school.
In a way, think of Missouri has a bridge point between the cultures of the Midwest and the South, a location that offers many strengths and some weaknesses as well.
In recent days, the journalists I know -- especially in academia -- have been following the events on the University of Missouri campus with a combination of horror and fascination. A communications professor asking for "muscle" to prevent a student journalist from photographing protests in a public space? Really? For those fluent in academic politics, it has also become clear that President Tim Wolfe's fall had a lot to do with sins against powerful academic interest groups (think teaching assistants and adjuncts, in particular) as well as his slow, weak responses to growing campus concerns about acts of racism.
I have had several emails from people who know Missouri well asking me to comment on the "religion ghosts" in this story, meaning religious themes that are haunting these events but drawing little coverage. And there's the rub: In this case I haven't seen, in the mainstream coverage, enough material about religion to deserve comment.
Have there been meetings sponsored by religious believers to seek unity and healing? Were campus religious groups involved in the protests or responses to the protests? The president said he prayed about his decision to resign. And there was this, in a Missourian story about hunger striker Jonathan Butler:
As the week went on, passers-by visited with support in the form of food, tarps, even a dog to pet. Some students stopped by to learn about the movement. More and more supporters brought tents and joined the camp out.
They formed a community, gossiping about why Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk had been suspended and complaining about seeing drunk parents at bars downtown. They prayed.
A few days in, students dedicated an entire tent to storing food. The camp grew. The movement community swelled. Butler stopped by from time to time, but he spent the majority of his week in class, working or in meetings.
"Some people want to meet for just 15 minutes to talk and just pray," Butler said. "Some of them have been hour-long meetings because they’re really trying to clear up what got me to this point."
At this point, I do think GetReligion readers should dig into the following Missourian commentary written by Cynthia Frisby, associate professor in the J-school. There is much here to ponder and it is fascinating that she decided to make her faith a key element in her essay, in terms of reaching out to those who have struggled to see the climate of racism on campus. Here is the opening:
I have lived in Columbia and been at the university for almost 18 years. During this time, I have been called the n-word too many times to count.
My most recent experience was while jogging on Route K in May of 2015 when I was approached by a white man in a white truck with a Confederate flag very visible and proudly displayed. He leaned out his window (now, keep in mind I run against traffic, so his behavior was a blatant sign that something was about to happen). Not only did he spit at me, he called me the n-word and gave me the finger.
And what about in academic settings?
... Yes, I have had a few faculty call me the n-word and treat me with incredible disrespect. Yes, faculty.
I have had a student who said he couldn't call me Dr. Frisby because that would mean that he thinks I am smart, and he was told that blacks are not smart and do not earn degrees without affirmative action. Yes, true story. I have so many stories to share that it just doesn't make sense to put them all here.
So why stay? And why speak out now?
I endured because God allows me to see the good and cup half full. I endured because I know my life is in God's hands, and I do not walk alone. I endured because I find these to be teachable moments that I use in my classroom with my students. I endured (or better yet endure) because I have an amazing support system.
I endure because there are far too many of my white friends that have a heart of gold, love people of any color with a passion and who have a strong trust in and love for the Lord. I endure because I have friends who are white and daily show me that there are people who can hurt when I do and who sincerely want to make this culture a better place. I endure because I look to the Lord to help me grow and be the best person I can be.
I endure because I CHOSE AND CHOOSE to endure and overcome, and I choose to overlook ignorance. Choosing to overlook these idiots doesn't make me a "sell-out" or an Uncle Tom. I choose to endure because my mom and civil rights leaders taught me to never run but stand straight, tall and do not run.
Racism is alive, and it's everywhere. I endure because what I have gone through is nothing like what my mom went through in the '50s and '60s, nor is it even close to what my Lord and Savior had to endure while on the earth (he, too, was spat at, made fun of and even nailed to a cross simply because He loved us/me that much).
Yes, we are better off now than we were in the '50s, but to some extent, we are taking many steps backward by ignoring or not talking about the racial issues.
Read it all. More than once.
And journalists who are in Columbia, Mo., or headed there for follow-up feature stories, you may want to talk to some of the religious organizations on campus. You may want to visit a few of the churches -- black and white -- with close ties to the campus. I will be stunned if you don't find powerful voices and valid sources of information.
UPDATE: From a Los Angeles Times piece that hit my inbox a few moments after I posted this item:
Butler had continued to attend classes through his protests and his hunger strike, reading Bible verses -- particularly from 2 Corinthians -- for comfort.
But by this week, he was starting to feel sluggish, faint, exhausted, short of breath, sometimes suddenly feeling hot and then suddenly feeling cold. “By day seven, I was really starting to feel it,” Butler said.
OK, I am impressed. Does the LA Times team have reader-survey data showing that its audience is so Bible literate that most of them know the entire 13-chapter text of St. Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians by heart?
Seriously, did anyone ask Butler if there were specific verses that helped him during this test of endurance? Might that have been relevant information for readers? Or is quoting the Bible out of line, even when the subject of a story makes the reference?
Butler may have been talking about 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
Front page photo: From the University of Missouri School of Journalism website of Dr. Cynthia Frisby.