French Reporter Visits Campus During 2008 Election

by University Relations

*In mid-October, French reporter Marie Lefebvre-Billiez from Réforme, the only Protestant newspaper in France, spent two days meeting faculty, staff, and students at Azusa Pacific University as part of a 10-day trip to Southern California and area churches. Her intent: to gain insight into United States evangelicals and their perspective on the issues and candidates of the 2008 Presidential Election. The goal was to provide her readers in France a more in-depth view of the diversity of opinions and thoughts among evangelical Christians. Below is the English translation of the first of two articles highlighting what she learned during her APU visit.

Barack Obama or John McCain?

This presidential race reveals an America that is changing. And questioning itself. Among these developments, that of the role of the evangelical churches. Described as "postmodern" by our journalist, these new evangelicals begin perhaps a change in the political majority in the United States. Analyses, investigations and reports in California.

by Marie Lefebvre-Billiez, special correspondent in Los Angeles

Monday, 9:30 a.m. A few hundred young people crowd into a huge gym for a worship service devoted to environmental protection. On the podium, two of their peers play the acoustic guitar, sing hymns and pray. "God, we give you our hearts, our friendships, our loves, our cars, our computers, our MP3. Do with them what you want.” Moments later, Peter Illyn, an environmentalist, preaches about the need for Christians to take care of creation, not exploit it as a single resource, but respect it as “a garden that sings the praises of God."

Welcome to Azusa Pacific University (APU), one of the 300 evangelical schools in the United States. Created in 1899 by a Quaker woman, this university welcomes today more than 8,000 students in the suburbs north of Los Angeles. It really is all evangelical: the professors must adhere to a confession of faith, affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the Bible is truth. Students are requested not to have a sex life, unless they are married. Alcohol is banned on campus, including in the rooms of the dormitories. To receive their diploma, students must attend a worship service at least three times a week!

APU draws professors and students from 56 different denominations, including Catholic, Orthodox and historical Protestant denominations. Warm in their welcome of the visitor, they care about ecology, peace in the Middle East, social justice and racial mix. At APU, "we want to put a face on the statistics," says Matt Visser, director of the Office of Ministry and Service which sends students on mission to the disadvantaged in surrounding areas. Meeting an illegal immigrant or an elderly person in distress makes it possible "to insert humanity into abstract topics. Behind racism, sexism or discrimination based on social class, there is a person."

Expressions of faith

Regarding racism, APU hosts 30% of its students from ethnic minorities. This is less than their average in the population of Southern California (which has 80 cultures and 120 languages), but more than the national average. "God loves diversity," says Jon Wallace, president of the university, adding that "white culture will soon be a minority here." Regarding sexism, this university affirms gender equality in an environment where many churches refuse to ordain women pastors and believe that mothers should stay at home. "Some students do not envision working once they are married and mothers. They come here to learn how to home school their children," said Jennifer Walsh, professor of political science. "And yet, a woman is a candidate for the vice-presidency, representing a branch of the evangelical churches.” “I am very enthusiastic about this election, where mothers are portrayed as leaders," says Kimberly Battle-Walters Denu, Ph.D., Associate Provost, and an African-American pastor of a Pentecostal Church.

Regarding social justice and the fight against poverty, APU imposes mandatory experience in food banks, retirement homes or tutoring programs. "This is a fundamental aspect of who we are, an expression of our faith," says Matt Visser. As a result, students, indeed adults, voting for the first time, are integrating increasingly with their vote reflections on poverty, some going so far as to desire a "universal" social welfare system like in Europe. This is the case, for example, of Andrea Gerali Vaudrey, a student in theology and already a pastor of a church near the campus: "Helping the poor is fundamentally Christian." Morgan Greer is also a student of theology and adds:"Poverty is the leading cause of abortions. If we reduce poverty, the abortion rate will decline." This is an original way for an evangelical to reconcile her “pro-life” beliefs with social justice.

Abortion: Do not judge

Poverty, Julie Pusztai confronts it every day. Teaching in APU’s School of Nursing, she also runs a small private clinic that the university has opened for disadvantaged populations. With Catherine Heinlein, a nutritionist and professor at APU, and some students, she fosters prevention and education among Hispanic immigrants. Diabetes, cholesterol, obesity, osteoporosis, breast or prostate cancer are the illnesses they encounter most often. They teach them to follow a balanced diet, read food labels in English, and practice regular physical exercise. They also send them to clinics that offer free medical care. Julie is in favor of a system of universal health care, but does not believe it will happen, whoever the elected candidate.

Regarding abortion, she is less reserved than many of her evangelical peers, "I do not judge a woman, but welcome and support her where she is. It is not for me to decide for her. It is a very difficult choice, and none of the options are perfect."

An attitude that the three pastors on campus to accompany the students also share. The young people come to see them with all sorts of questions and problems: questions of faith, of course, but also grief, depression, various addictions, sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, uncertain sexual identity. "We offer them a reassuring environment to talk about these things with total anonymity," said Chris Adams, one of the three pastors. "Some pregnant students wonder whether they will marry the father, or abort. We offer them a benevolent presence. This is not the time to lobby. Some have decided to abort. God is close to them, even in difficult times," says Jamie Noling, another pastor of the students. "We have sometimes intervened to ensure that other students react with love and not with judgment," adds Chris Adams.

Matt, Jon, Jennifer, Kim, Andrea, Morgan, Julie, Catherine, Chris and Jamie ... here then is the new generation of evangelicals that might be called "postmodern". As Woody Morwood, the third pastor of the students, said "some of these new believers feel liberal when they are with conservative evangelicals, but conservative when they are with liberal non-Christians." There are a thousand ways to be "evangelical" across the Atlantic.

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"Creation care" for an environmental ethic

There was very strong resistance among evangelicals to take seriously the protection of the environment, remembers Leslie Wickman, a former NASA astronaut and now a professor at APU, an evangelical herself. "Nine years ago, students asked me why we had to worry when Jesus would return! Today, they seem to have found the reason: they come to college by bike or on foot, recycle their waste and empty plastic water bottles for reusable glass bottles. More professors also carpool." Leslie, who attended two weeks ago a conference on the subject organized by Al Gore, appeals to the moral conscience and faith of her students to see the emergence of an "environmental ethics".

As Peter Illyn , an evangelical environmentalist, summarized well, "we do not worship the Earth, but we love what God has created and we take care of it. The Earth is not just a resource that we exploit in a domineering way. I'm tired of the debate about when and how God created the world, let’s protect what He has created!" Therefore, exit debates on creationism. The mobilization for environmental protection has been baptized "Creation care" (take care of creation) in evangelical circles finally "converted".

Leslie would like to see renewable energy development, "If you could recover a part of the desert in the south-west of the country (New Mexico, Arizona) with solar collectors, we would provide the electricity needs of all people!” She regrets that the United States has not joined the Kyoto Protocol, but hopes that it will sign soon in 2009 in Copenhagen. "Both political camps speak about the environment which is encouraging. It has become an issue that transcends political divisions." For her, whoever wins the elections, “more money will be invested in renewable energy."

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Sons of immigrants, Christians and pro-Obama

The weight of minorities is considerable in the presidential campaign.

by Marie-Lefebvre-Billiez, special correspondent in Los Angeles

Ethnic diversity on the campus of APU.

Around a table on the shaded walkway by a cafe on campus, some students and administrators from ethnic minorities hold a lively discussion. They are all very enthusiastic about the candidacy of Barack Obama. But Kimberly Battle-Walters Denu, Ph.D., Associate Provost, an African-American, immediately warned: "It is an insult to ask an African-American if he or she votes for Obama because he or she is black. If Michael Jackson were a candidate, I would not be very enthusiastic. Let us not forget that Obama graduated from Harvard." The discussion questions the legacy of the senator from Illinois. Born in the Hawaiian islands of a white mother and a Kenyan father, he did not come from slaves. Some consider him not really to be "African-American." On the other hand, his personal history allows him to build bridges between the two groups. Some even speak of "nations". "African-Americans are a community of people with their own language, history and music. During the era of segregation, there were two nations, and the two do not always merge today," says Joe Snell, director of the multi-ethnic program and an African-American. For Brittany Barron, president of the association of black students at APU, "there is always a double consciousness. Black and American, both are not always reconciled." She confesses "praying every day for Obama," but shows at the same time a concern: "If he is elected, people will no longer talk about racism. They will say that there is no racism, because we have a black president, and that’s false."

There remains the issue of Obama’s relationships with other ethnic minorities, Asians and Latinos. They are ambiguous, these students note. The diverse communities agree on a tenser job market. The Hispanics do not forgive the Afro-Americans for not supporting the regularization of illegal immigrants a few years ago. An argument that does not trouble Jonathan Garcia, a Latino, and a strong supporter of Obama (after having supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries). He trusts Obama to regularize the situation of illegal immigrants. Joining action to words, he decided to fast until election day and to consume only water for 21 days in support of illegal immigrants. One hundred students joined in this action. "This is a Christian issue, which concerns human rights. Jesus came for the poor and the oppressed. We try to get out of modern-day slavery and we hope that God will deliver us from it.” That is one way to reconcile the biblical heritage of African-Americans and Latinos ...

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Debate: God and Caesar

Monday, 1:05 p.m. One of the university’s political science courses begins in the Ronald Building, room 137. Jennifer Walsh teaches on the American presidency, and asks her students: "Do you think that the president of the United States should have a role of spiritual leader?” The answer is unanimous: "No". "If he said that God told him to do something and it goes wrong, it causes shame to fall on the entire religious community. This may prejudice the ministry of others." Clearly, Bush Jr. passed by here ...

His record is little appreciated among the younger evangelicals whose vote is not as clear-cut as that of their elders. "There are good and bad things on both sides,” said Adam Kemper, a theology student. “I do not like abortion, especially at the end of pregnancy, it resembles infanticide. But, as a Quaker, I do not want war. And besides, to legislate morality, doesn’t go." Adam is not clear for whom he will vote. Morgan Greer, also a student of theology, will vote for Obama. "I'm almost a pacifist. I hate war, I hate losing lives, especially Iraqi lives. What Jesus did on the cross indicates renouncing force. He told Peter to put away his sword. This is a good example to follow.” Her peers in the School of Theology at APU were largely opposed to the war from the beginning.

Because of this conflict, among others, "we have enormous public debts,” regrets Kent Walkemeyer, director of the Quaker center in the School of Theology. “It is a moral issue too.” He who is indeed a Republican affirms, referring to abuses of public spending, that “Bush was a wonderful Democratic president!" Unlike the students, he is not enthusiastic about the elections. "I'm not sure that the candidates are interested in anyone other than themselves. The Democrats are not interested in the poor, and the Republicans do not care about life[pro-life]. They just want to be elected and have the power." Kent is not sure at this time about going to vote.

Jennifer Walsh also had reservations and shares them with her students at the end of her course: "We are looking for a candidate who is like God. He knows how to predict the future, cure our diseases, take care of us financially. It's a bit dangerous, right? "

- Marie Lefebvre-Billiez, Réforme