February 28, 2016: Friday evening the vespers service at Southern Adventist University (SAU) was planned by the Black Student Union, a recognized campus club, in celebration of Black History Month. The speaker was Pastor Corey Johnson from Philadelphia and currently a seminary student at Andrews University sponsored by the Adventist denomination’s Allegheny East Conference.
As the service was underway racist comments were posted on Yik Yak, an app that works something like Twitter in a local area. It appears that the comments were posted by SAU students. Some of the information in the comments makes it clear that at least some of the people posting those comments were in the vespers service.
The comments used the N word and made complaints about the focus on African American culture and history, as well as the music and other aspects of the vespers service. When a response was posted that stated, “Didn’t you listen to vespers!! There’s no black or white in God’s eyes,” the original commenter responded, “Shut up and go eat bananas.”
The comments suffer from the recent phenomenon of irrational and irresponsible writing that people can distribute anonymously through the Internet. It is very difficult to understand the actual concerns or beliefs of the people behind the comments because there is so little context given.
Are these comments serious or just some kind of horrible attempt at a joke? Are they the ravings of a person with mental health problems? Or a temper tantrum by someone who is angry about something unrelated? It is almost impossible to know because of the short, unclear nature of the comments and the lack of identity of the writer or writers of the brief jabs.
Yesterday evening, Dr. Gordon Bietz, president of SAU, released a statement on social media and sent an Email to faculty and students; “Hate speech of any kind will not be tolerated. … Yik Yak will no longer be accessible using Southern’s internet service. … Yik Yak has been contacted about the hate speech that has occurred [and asked] to help Southern discover who shared this hateful speech. … Any student who knows the name of someone who is engaging in any form of racial insults or threats should alert administration immediately. … I will speak to the issues of racism, intolerance and prejudice at Convocation this Thursday, March 3.”
Bietz made it clear that the racists comments on Yik Yak violate the fundamental Christian faith of SAU as an Adventist institution. “I will continue to work to ensure that Southern remains a campus that is Christ-centered in belief and action. … in prayer for a campus that portrays the unity that is a demonstration of the love of God. (John 17:20-23)”
A number of faculty spoke out against the racist comments. Dr. Ruth Williams, director of the psychology program at SAU, pointed out that Yik Yak is often used for cyber bullying. She described the comments asn a “racist, ugly, hurtful, evil diatribe.” She urged that the incident be used as an opportunity for conversation on the topic of race relations on the campus.
Dr. Lisa Clark Diller, history professor at SAU, called the faculty to a higher standard as stewards of the campus culture. Kendra Lee, assistant professor of journalism, pointed out some of the related problems. “If we are now 49.9 percent white, why is almost every graduation [speaker] a white elder male? Why has every [Student Association] president been male in recent history?”
The actual comments transmitted on Yik Yak on Friday evening can be seen in a blog post by the Johnson here. Screen photos were sent to him by people in the congregation during the vespers.