Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/21/19 – “Same God,” a documentary that explores the controversy over an ex-Wheaton College professor who wore a hijab to support Muslims, world premiere on PBS was on December 13, 2019, exactly 4 years after the display of embodied solidarity, and be followed by a theatrical release in February 2020. The film tells the story of Dr. Larycia Hawkins, an African-American political science professor at Wheaton College—a prestigious evangelical school outside of Chicago—who wanted to show support for Muslim women. This situation began in December 2015 when political rhetoric against Muslims was escalating. In response, she posted a photo of herself in a hijab on Facebook. “I love my Muslim neighbor,” she wrote, “because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity….we worship the Same God.- Dr. Larycia Hawkins
Within days, Wheaton’s Provost suspended Dr. Hawkins, eventually moving to terminate her tenure. Now, almost exactly 4 years later, “Same God,” which was directed by Wheaton alumna Linda Midgett, shares Dr. Hawkins’ story while exploring the motives of racism and Islamophobia in a politically charged nation under Donald Trump.
Share your upbringing.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: I grew up in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City until age 10 and Shawnee from 10 through High School), I went for my undergrad at Rice University and attended grad school at the University of Oklahoma. I am the oldest of three sisters. My parents met at the University of Oklahoma (my dad hails from Newark, NJ area not far from NYC) and my mom grew up in OK, so I always felt connected to the world beyond the Southwest. Oklahoma is a country of wide-open spaces—big skies, warm hearts, and fantastic dreams of life beyond the purple-hued horizons. The safety of that place gave me the wings to soar on my faith and to ruminate on my doubts.
Have you always been a champion for causes?
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: I propose that more important than being a champion for causes is being enamored with the humanity of the people at the heart of causes and with the sacredness of the planet that holds us all in this universe. Too often, in their devotion to “causes,” “issues” and “politics,” people lose sight of people. I cannot justify being “for” or “against” an issue without examining how my position will affect the wellbeing of the most vulnerable and of the universe. How does an issue affect the least advantaged people and groups in society? And how can we arrange policies, programs, and everyday life to the maximum benefit of the least advantaged? That’s justice. Justice means showing up and standing with and for others, over and against injustice. We know injustice instinctively when we see it. I believe that. Justice is my cause. Injustice is my enemy. #EmbodiedSolidarity is the movement that I launched to engender standing with others boldly, beyond PayPal deposits, social media posts, and t-shirt campaigns.
Why did you want to teach? Please share your experience with Wheaton College.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: When I started graduate school, I planned to work for the federal government—I wanted to affect policies around social welfare, and I thought that the best way to do that was through public policy and public administration. Graduate students often serve as teaching assistants, and eventually, I taught my own section of American Politics 101. I wasn’t immediately convinced that I should be a Professor, but by the end of my graduate career, the tug to apply for academic jobs became strong. Ultimately, I decided to teach students that governments have a critical role to play in coordinating and conducting justice in the public realm. If we want justice, which means everyone having ample primary goods like food, shelter, etc…, to pursue their life and livelihood, we must view government as one essential sphere in the accomplishment of that goal. Wheaton College was a place where I could teach public justice to folks who believe like I do that doing justice in the world is an imperative of Christianity.
What did you learn as Professor?
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: Being a Professor taught me how to adapt to my situation and live in the moment. I have outlines and plans for each lecture, but the best moments are sometimes those where, in response to the character of the class or a lack of time (because sometimes I prepare too much material), I leave some material on the cutting room floor and/or go in a completely different direction than my notes. Being a Professor has also taught me to be attuned to where people are—I view the classroom as a community so when one person, including me, feels ill, fails to prepare, seems somewhere other than the classroom, it affects us all. There’s a purity and an organicity to each class, even when I’ve taught the material in a previous setting. That’s exciting and scary at the same time. I never take a room for granted—whether I’m speaking outside or inside the walls of the university.
Was there a particular student who changed your way of thinking?
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: I have the good fortune of teaching brilliant and beautiful souls on a daily basis. Since the beginning of my teaching career, it always moved me when individual students and entire classes understood and appreciated my passion for teaching them at the intersection of theory and praxis. But theories about justice are meaningless unless we’re willing to accomplish justice in the world. It moves me that students are willing to entrust a small part of their educational journey, and life, with me in a setting where I WILL challenge them not only to think differently about the world but also to live differently in the world. I am as interested in what my students learn as I am in who they are becoming. I do not take for granted how vulnerable the educational journey is, so I am moved every day that I stand before a classroom of bright, shiny faces. My prayer is that I will never take that for granted.
What is your philosophy about life?
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: Since I have to sum it up succinctly, which is difficult for us academics and for folks raised in the black church of long sermons like me, my philosophy of life is about the oneness of being, the essential nature of the universe and its inhabitants. If we continue to refuse to see ourselves in our neighbors near and far and continue to act as though we are not one with the clay of the earth and the dust of the celestial, we and our planet are doomed. Is that dark? Yes. But the wonderful part of being a social scientist is that our theories are disprovable—humans can change the trajectories set about by our actions. We can right wrongs, begin to see others with the eyes of our hearts and act out of radical embrace of the other, the other who like us, lives, suffers, and dies. Life is death and death is life. That is the message that I take most from Christianity—that the radical Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount saw the most vulnerable—women without rights and stature, lepers without homes or healthcare, the differently-abled, the prisoner, the immigrant—and moved toward them to esteem their human dignity, to walk with them, to provide healing, and to upset the social, political, and religious status quo.
Tell us about your controversy at Wheaton College. Why will it forever change your life?
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: In 2013, I earned tenure. Plenty of professors in the world get tenure. What is and was more remarkable is that I was the first black woman to receive tenure in the history of the University, a documented stop on the Underground Railroad. In the spirit of abolitionism, a student approached me about wearing a hijab on the airplane home for Christmas in 2015 in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment after a mass shooting in San Bernardino. I told her that we should consult with friends in the Muslim community to receive their blessing. And I added something else—that in addition to wearing it on the airplane, I would wear the hijab throughout the duration of Advent (five to six weeks) as an act of my own Christian devotion. Wheaton College is a Christian liberal arts university. So, this made perfect sense to me. I posted my intention to wear this hijab as a Christian in “embodied solidarity” with my Muslim sisters and brothers who worship the same God (the God of Abraham) and who were being persecuted for their religion in a land of supposed religious freedom. True religious liberty rests on the ability of all humans to worship, or not, in purity and peace. All hell broke loose! The rest is history. Folks in the public and some at my own university turned against me. What was baffling was that so many Christians saw this as an unholy act, when my main motivation was Jesus. And in reality, my primary impetus in the Facebook post on December 10, 2015 was human solidarity. We are one human family—full stop.
Tell us about the film, “Same God.”
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: I was approached by Film Director, Linda Midgett while in the midst of fighting for my job and literally for my life! Linda read about the controversy and my leave from the college and thought that it spoke to current issues. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump had just called for a Muslim ban 3 days before I made my now viral Facebook post—and he followed through on that promise. While at that point, she had no idea how my quest to keep my job would end, she was interested in the intersection of race, gender, religion, and politics at the heart of the clash. Linda filmed me off and on for two and a half years. I had no part in the construction of the narrative or the editing of the film, but I grew to trust her instincts. My hope is that the film will reach as many people as possible and that they would open themselves up to the message of embodied solidarity. Art opens people up in important ways. The potentialities are endless for peacemaking in multiple venues here in the U.S. Plans are underway for me to take the film and myself to two different maximum-security prisons, and I’m ecstatic. My hope and prayer is that the film will be shared beyond the U.S. in some areas close to my heart where ethnic conflict, religious conflict, migration issues, and general global growing pains are at a fever-pitch.
We say that hindsight is 20-20. Share your thoughts.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: I am asked frequently whether I would do things differently, knowing what I know now—that I am now an untenured Professor in a non-tenure track job. My answer remains the same today as it was four years ago. I would do it again and again and again. I always say this three times—a trinity of affirmation that I have no regrets for embodying solidarity with my Muslim sisters. Embodied solidarity was not a moment, it is a movement. It is who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to go out of this world. I want to live my life radically on behalf of our humanity.
Share some of your research.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: One research project I’m working on looks at the politics of Black Catholic parishes in the United States. They are incubators of civic life and innovators as well given that many meld the cultural elements of the Black Diaspora with the religious elements of Catholicism. Beyond worship, I’m interested in how these parishes, which are primarily led by white priests, participate in politics locally. Another research project I’m working on looks at the cultural logics of evangelical Tea Party women as they informed the political ascendancy of Donald Trump. Make American Great Again was not Trump’s invention. It was the cry of white women afraid of the loss of a white Christian nation. The effects on policy and on the public are chilling. As I said at the time of wearing the hijab, all this writing was on the wall during the beginning of Obama’s presidency. My research aims to unpack these dynamics so we can make our way out of this moment with our humanity intact.
What have you learned about yourself over this course of time?
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: I have learned that the old adages are all true. What comes out of you during a time of acute crisis is who you are. I won’t crumble when entire systems, institutions, even nations, come against me because I come from people who have survived slavery, segregation, and more. I was made for this shit, but epigenetic realities are real. It takes a toll on your mental and physical health. That fire in my bones is real. I have nothing to lose. I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And the universe has surrounded me with beauty. I am one blessed lady.