Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-20 NKJV)
NEWBERG — Students and campus leaders at George Fox University denounced the hanging of a life-size cardboard cutout of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama on campus, vowing to work together to fight racism and intolerance.
A custodial crew at the 3,355-student Christian university found the Obama likeness hanging by fishing wire from a tree at 7 a.m. Tuesday and tore it down before students arrived for classes.
A sign taped to the cutout said, “Act Six reject,” referring to a scholarship program for Portland students, many of whom are minorities.
President Robin Baker, standing with dozens of Act Six students and student leaders in front of a packed auditorium Wednesday morning, urged students to show the incident has no place in Christian ideals.
“We absolutely cannot hate those around us and say we love God,” he said. “It is not possible.
“Yesterday was not a good example of what it means to follow Jesus,” he said.
Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, Baker said the university has long had difficulties recruiting students of color, and his dream has been to help create a university that “more broadly represents the kingdom of God.”
Students said they were shocked and angry when they learned of the stunt in an e-mail Wednesday morning. They said the incident was isolated and did not reflect the beliefs of students on the predominantly white campus.
“Obviously, it’s not something you’d expect for a Christian campus,” said Jared Rogers, a 21-year-old senior. “To me, it’s completely inappropriate and ridiculous.”
Baker said the incident was a blow to efforts over the past several years to recruit more diverse students by developing relationships with minority groups in Portland. This fall, 25 percent of the 390 freshmen are students of color, up from 16 percent in 2005.
The Act Six program, which started last year, provides full scholarships each year to as many as 10 students chosen for their leadership potential from Portland high schools.
“The reason we hadn’t been successful at recruitment in the past is there wasn’t a relationship,” Baker said after his speech. “Those communities need to trust you, so this one incident could mess up our entire trust network.”
The Obama image at George Fox is the third publicized incident on Oregon college campuses in the past year involving racist images hanging from trees.
At Oregon State University in Corvallis last fall, a noose was left hanging from a tree after a fraternity Halloween party. And at Reed College in Portland, a Halloween display last year included dummies, supposed to represent ghosts, hanging by nooses from trees on campus. In both incidents, students said they didn’t intend the images to be racist.
At George Fox, Baker said he didn’t know how to interpret the political connection to Obama. “We just thought it was a student making a comment about our efforts to recruit.”
But the tone of the display brought underlying political and racial conflicts to the surface in a historic election involving the first African American presidential candidate from a major party. University leaders are planning a series of forums for students to discuss the issue.
The campus has a Republican student group but not an organized group of campus Democrats. John Archibald, chairman of the College Republicans, said in a statement that forming a Democratic group should be pursued “now more than ever.”
“What happened on campus this week is disheartening to American politics,” he said. “Regardless of your politics, this act of hate cannot be tolerated.”
Katlyn Search, a 21-year-old senior from Battle Ground, Wash., who works as a custodian to help pay for college, said she was on the crew that found the cutout.
They took it down immediately, wanting to remove it before classes started at 7:40 a.m.
“I was offended for the Act Six students and for ourselves,” she said.
A campus investigation is under way as part of the university’s judicial process, and Newberg police have been notified.
Mitchell Whitehurst, whose son Cole Whitehurst is an Act Six scholarship recipient, said he drove to George Fox from Portland to hear the college president speak because he wanted to support his son and the school’s other minority students.
Whitehurst, dean of students and athletic director at Jefferson High School, said students in the Act Six program have received a lot of leadership training since they arrived at school.
“This is an unbelievable early test for them,” he said.
Whitehurst, who was one of a few African American students at Linfield College in nearby McMinnville, said his 19-year-old son is up to the challenge of confronting racism.
— Noelle Crombie and Helen Jung of The Oregonian contributed to this story.
— Suzanne Pardington; firstname.lastname@example.org