Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Atheist Student Body President at a Christian College?

Kellems House Denizens -- NCC 1980
My alma mater Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Oregon is a tiny school tucked in between two massive institutions -- the University of Oregon on one side and Peace Health Sacred Heart Medical Center (it was just Sacred Heart Hospital in my day) on the other.  If you're not paying attention you won't know it's really there.  I know that the vast majority of University of Oregon students who walk by it or over its grounds don't know that it's a separate school with a history that goes back more than a century.   The school's cover of anonymity has been blown, at least for the moment.

I learned this afternoon from a long time friend and fellow NCC/NCU alum about a story that's gone viral and made it to the ABC News web site.  It seems that the student body president at this distinctly Christian school has revealed himself to be an atheist.  The student -- Erick Fromm -- went to NCU even though he knew it was an overtly Christian college.  It's not just church-related.  The school has regular chapel, requires students to take classes in the Bible, and professors are Christians.  I would even say  it's a bit conservative.  While it has historic links to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it has also maintained relationships with our more conservative siblings in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.  When I went there as a Freshman nearly forty years ago, I was a conservative Pentecostal Christian, but I found a home there.  In fact, my professors helped stretch my thinking in new ways.  Some were liberals and some a bit right of center.  I can vouch for the school that it's not a secular institution by any means.  So, it is intriguing that a young man who professes to be an atheist found the school a comfortable fit.  Not only that he became so involved in the life of the school that he  was elected by his peers as Student Body President.

Although he didn't come right out and proclaim himself to be an atheist, NCU is too small a school for his peers not to know that he might not share their faith convictions.  But, he kept this fairly close to the vest.  For the most part, it appears that those who knew, his closest friends, supported him.  Of course, there were those, who upon finding out treated him differently and not necessarily kindly.  Feeling the need to be up front about his views, he shared his story in the school news paper -- the Beacon Bolt, in an article entitled:  Lifting the Curtain.

A quote from the story makes this clear:

"Every day I'm burdened by the fact that my peers might reject me because I'm different from them. I won't be rejected because of my race or social class, but simply because of the fact that I don't believe in God -- because I am an atheist," wrote Fromm in his post.

Interestingly, after he opened up about his lack of faith in God, he found support from the school and his classmates, which came as a surprise to him.  My sense is that the school and his classmates already suspected and so weren't shocked.

The Director of University Relations, Jeannine Jones responded to questions about the revelation by noting first of all that the school wasn't surprised and that the school welcomes all kinds of people to the school.  It's not shy about its Christian ethos, but there is openness.  Jones notes:

   "All of our students are on a journey," Jones said. "While the majority of our students profess a Christian faith, not all do. We as an institution meet students were they are at and believe that our God is big enough." 

As an alum I'm heartened by this story.  I'm pleased that the college that helped form me as a person and as a Christian is a place of openness to those who don't necessarily share the faith professed by the school.

I do have some questions for Eric, were he to engage me in conversation.  I might ask him to share a bit more about his experiences at the school.  I would also ask him to share how his views of Christianity and of God might have changed as a result of his time at NCU.    I might ask him if the word agnostic is a better descriptor, at least now that he's nearing the end of his time at NCU.  I might also ask him whether he would have been more open earlier and whether he thinks this would have made a difference in his experience at the school.  

Ultimately the best news is that this distinctly Christian community has proven itself a relatively safe place to plant one's feet.  I say relatively safe, because it's clear that not everyone treated him with grace and love.   But in the end, most seem to have rallied to his side. 

As I think about this chain of events, I look back at my own life experiences.  I look back at a school that seemed liberal to me when I arrived, and now that I have moved well to the left of where I was back in the day, I do wonder whether I would fit there today.  Perhaps this is my answer!  

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