To my Wesleyan family:
No one likes goodbyes, and I’m no different. But like most people, I do like closure, and it feels to me like I’ve done a vanishing act into thin air. I had wanted to come say my goodbyes in person, but I was asked to stay away so as not to be a distraction. Thus, this will have to suffice as my goodbye. In this open letter to all of you, I’d like to try to achieve some semblance of closure by sharing some of my reflections on my time at Wesleyan.
A few years ago, I read an “open letter” from a Catholic priest who was stepping down from his priesthood because he could no longer align himself with Catholic doctrines and ideals (read the letter from Bert Thelen here). As my own spiritual and professional journey has led me gradually away from Wesleyan, I have thought of his letter many times, admiring his boldness and vulnerability – his ability to challenge others but with a sense of kindness and concern more than anger or revenge. Through this letter, I hope I can encourage someone else to share his/her journey without embarrassment, as Thelen did for me.
I came to Wesleyan fresh out of college in 1998, my only real credential at the time being that I happened to know Zach and Brian. I was assigned to teach 6th grade English, and I’ve often said two things about that job: On the first day, I knew 2 things for sure: I wanted to teach AND I didn’t want to teach 6th grade any longer than I had to. I survived two years of the 6th-graders’ puppy-like energy, and then I headed off to graduate school, hoping to eventually teach at the college level. After 7 years of twists and turns, I found myself back at Wesleyan teaching in the high school, but still hoping to teach in college someday. When I began teaching AP English, I felt that I had found my special purpose (that’s a reference to Steve Martin’s The Jerk…it’s dirty, so you should be judging me at this point). My love for AP English kept me questioning whether I’d ever be able to find a college job that measured up to the joys of teaching such bright and motivated high school seniors. Then my own children arrived and the obligations of family life, the promise of a place to send my kids to school, and the inevitable inertia of life kept me at Wesleyan until I began to think I’d see my own kids graduate from the place.
Over the past few years, though, I have been on two painful journeys: one with depression and the other with my faith. My journey with depression began about 5 years ago. At first, I was ashamed to admit it, but as I did so more and more, I came to realize that people need others who are willing to take the first step when it comes to vulnerability. I never intended to be as public with my mental health struggles as I have become, but I am grateful to the Wesleyan community for offering me a haven where I felt more and more comfortable opening up to faculty and students alike about my inner realities. On this front, I found Wesleyan to be just the sort of place that one would hope a Christian community would be: encouraging, affirming, and supportive. Sadly, one of the triggers for my depression is exhaustion, and Wesleyan can be a hard place to stay rested and ready for each day. I continually marvel at the level of energy many of the faculty have. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have often measured my own need for rest and rejuvenation against the Energizer Bunny-like energy of virtually all of you. I tried and tried to become someone who could come to work at 7 and leave at 8:30 after a day of teaching, coaching, attending a school concert, etc. But when push came to shove, I simply had to admit that my wiring is what it is, and I ain’t cut out for the fast-paced life of a private school. So, I’m sad and, honestly, a bit unhappy with the Powers that run this universe that a job I loved turned out to be bad for me. But thank you for providing a safe place to struggle, falter, fall down, get back up, etc. I’m deeply grateful.
The second component of my departure is more complex. As the kid who was so zealous for his faith in high school that he earned the jeering senior superlative “Most likely to start a cult” (not a joke, and seriously, what adult allowed that to be printed?!), I never thought I would find myself in the position of the “town liberal.” But judging from some of the things that students I don’t even know say to me, I think it’s safe to say that my spiritual views had become decidedly progressive, at least by Wesleyan’s standards. Not surprisingly, this created plenty of inner tension for me since my identity had always been rooted in my conservative, evangelical, Christian faith. On this front, I have been profoundly grateful to my students who have engaged in many discussions with me (in class and in my office) about our doubts, questions, fears, etc. Students, you have (perhaps because you had no other choice!) listened to me, processed with me, debated with me, and my own growth has been nourished largely by your willingness to be my companions on a difficult journey. Thank you! Words cannot express how sad I am to not be in the classroom with you every day. If there was a natural cure for virtually anything that ailed me, it was being with you in class discussing literature, debating ideas, and allowing our questions to lead us to places inside ourselves we hadn’t dared to venture before.
As I wrap up, I’d like to be so bold as to offer a challenge to the Wesleyan community. (If you’re thinking “No, Tim, you may not!” then stop reading now.)
Very few of my assumptions about how God/the universe works remain what they were 5 or 10 years ago. But one conviction has never wavered for me: Jesus was a raging liberal. Now don’t go getting upset because you think I mean he’d have a “Hillary 2016” sticker on his Toyota Prius! What I mean is that he not only pushed but shattered the boundary lines that the conservative, religious crowd had drawn between the supposedly “in-with-God” and the supposedly “out-with-God.” I’ve been around the church for so long that it feels like a cliche to point out that Jesus loved prostitutes and tax collectors. But I think we’re all guilty of pretending that this love of his for outsiders was some sort of metaphorical, touchy-feely approval of us even when we succumb to a bit of gossip or a white lie. No, no, no! He literally hung out with people who were seen as despicable. In today’s terms, I’m quite sure he’d appeal to homosexuals, the transgendered, the drug dealers, and perhaps even the despicable people running sex-slavery trading rings, far more than he would appeal to those rooted in the church. Outsiders never have been and never will be appealing to the masses, yet when we fail to realize that this was precisely Jesus’s appeal, we become modern-day Pharisees – more concerned with our pet doctrines than with radical, progressive, dangerous love.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a Wesleyan parent in which I expressed my wish that Wesleyan did a better job with creating all kinds of diversity, not just racial and socio-economic diversity. I even suggested that Wesleyan would do its students a favor to intentionally pursue religious diversity within the student body. His response put into words what I suspect many in the Wesleyan community feel: “Well, we don’t want too much diversity or it will defeat the purpose of sending them to a Christian school.”
I don’t think anything could be further from the truth or from Jesus’s heart.
To be blunt, I’m scared for Wesleyan’s students that, by failing to intentionally dialogue about Jesus’s obvious affinity for people who would never feel comfortable in a church or at Wesleyan, we will create adults who will isolate themselves from the people who are most in need of love – the young woman who has gone through with an abortion, the classmate who is openly questioning his/her gender role, the promiscuous sorority sister whose behavior stems from childhood abuse, or even just the everyday question-asker who can’t fit God into the box that Christianity seems to require.
The most obvious example of our fear of outsiders is how many former students come out of the closet upon leaving Wesleyan. Not one has yet felt comfortable enough to do so within Wesleyan’s walls. I don’t even care to debate what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. What I’d like to see debated more openly is whether or not Jesus might actually appeal to the terrified kid who can’t admit to anyone who s/he’s got a crush on and doesn’t know what to do with those feelings. By failing to push our students toward radical love, we have enabled them to believe that fitting in with their teachers and peers is more important than practicing Jesus’s version of Christianity. Whatever the entrance exam to heaven includes, I feel quite certain that having affirmed the humanity and worthiness of a homosexual (or insert whatever modern trend you find most threatening) brother or sister will be more important to Peter (isn’t he the one who mans the gates?) than knowing the 6 or 8 verses from the Bible that make it okay for us to stand in judgment of our fellow human beings. But until more people intentionally bring up these type of subjects with an obvious agenda – the agenda of showing passionate love and care for the outsider even if he never becomes an insider – Wesleyan’s bubble will only grow less and less pliable, less and less comfortable for the very sorts of people Jesus seemed most fond of.
Author and speaker Tony Campolo has famously confronted church congregations with this line: “40,000 children starved to death today, and most of you don’t give a shit. The reason I know that is that you’re more concerned with the fact than I just said ‘shit’ than that I just said ‘40,000 children starved to death today.'” Perhaps, like Campolo, I’ve pushed the envelope here, and obviously, I have intended to rock the boat a bit. How else can you know if the boat will stay afloat?
But I don’t want my words of confrontation to overshadow my words of love for the Wesleyan community. While we have failed many of the outsiders who have walked through our halls, I’m also quite sure that we’ve been a genuinely life-saving/life-altering source of Good for at least as many outsiders. Wesleyan’s greatest strength, without question, is that it is a place where people genuinely care for one another in ways that aren’t evident very many other places. You, my friends and family, are indeed part of an effort that can and does soften souls and save lives. But please don’t allow secular society to outdo you when it comes to embracing those who don’t exactly fit our ideas of who we want as neighbors in heaven. It will take intentionality, but I’m quite sure God will be okay with any mistakes we might make in an effort to love our fellow man more radically.
I wish you the best, and I am deeply grateful that Wesleyan has been an indelible part of my life’s continuing journey.
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