Hundreds of Bethel alumni and community members took to social media to express their disapproval, and some their support, of a new scholarship for Black students in memory of George Floyd.
By Emma Harville
Bethel University received support, but mostly criticism, from alumni and community members on social media following its Monday announcement of a George Floyd Memorial Scholarship for incoming African-American and Black students.
Most comments criticized Floyd’s criminal history, claiming Floyd was a drug addict, felon and “not a man to look up to.” A couple even questioned why white students could not apply for the scholarship, too.
“Shame on you Bethel…The Lord is removing His hand from you!” Bethel alum Linda Koblish wrote under Bethel’s Facebook post announcing the scholarship.
Bethel junior S.I. Washington said he and a couple of his Black friends from Bethel met over FaceTime after they found out about the negative comments circulating Twitter and Facebook. To them, Floyd’s death was something that “brought all of us together.”
“They’re so focused on [Floyd’s] life,” Washington said. “But his death meant everything to us. Yes, his life wasn’t amazing. But his death was everything.”
Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, died in police custody May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes as Floyd repeatedly told him he couldn’t breathe.
North Central University, a private Christian college in Minneapolis, announced the creation of a scholarship at a memorial service for Floyd in June. NCU President Scott Hagan then challenged every university president in the U.S. to establish the scholarship as well.
A month before officially becoming Bethel’s new president, Ross Allen accepted Hagan’s challenge and vowed to establish the scholarship at Bethel.
“During the service, particularly the 7:46 minutes of silence, as I heard mothers weeping, I was struck how God’s heart must ache by the brokenness and sinfulness of mankind,” Allen said.
In a statement sent to the Bethel community Friday morning, Allen wrote that the scholarship serves to acknowledge the many similar injustices that have taken place throughout history, and to affirm Bethel’s commitment to stand against racism.
“Still, we recognize that there is more work to be done,” Allen wrote. “To our alumni, students, and employees of color: We will continue to do better.”
Some commenters praised Bethel, while adding they see the scholarship as only the first step toward a more equitable future for the school.
Institutional data shows the population of Black and African-American students at Bethel’s College of Arts and Sciences has steadily remained around 2 to 3 percent since 2008.
Allen said he was able to listen to the suggestions of 25 Black, Indigenous and People of Color alumni last week, and is assessing a list of actions developed by Chief Diversity Officer Ruben Rivera.
“My heart breaks for the hurt experienced within our community and I am committed to make meaningful improvements,” Allen said.
Trina White, a 1993 graduate and the original founder and president of the United Cultures of Bethel, was one of many disheartened to read comments under Bethel’s Facebook announcement.
To her, George Floyd represented the kid who “fell through the cracks” yet was on his way back to redemption. And if Bethel could give an opportunity for a kid like that to learn, White said, that student could really thrive.
“Bethel is becoming more like Jesus, not liberal,” said White, who also served on the National Alumni Board and Board of Trustees from 2009 to 2019. “To me, a direct attack on Bethel (for creating the scholarship) is like putting a nail on the cross. It’s a direct attack on our faith, not Bethel.”
White said she hasn’t spoken publicly about racism at Bethel since her last interview with The Clarion as a student in 1992, after a series of racial incidents, including swastikas appearing on campus and hate mail left anonymously in her P.O. Box.
White believes the racist behavior at Bethel did not reflect the majority of Bethel’s student body, but rather a “loud minority.”
These Facebook comments, she said, were “made out of fear.”
“We know that (Floyd) has a record of crime, and I get that,” White said. “But I also believe crime is in a direct correlation of lack of resources and lack of opportunity in the Black community. Bethel bridging that gap would also increase the probability of especially Black and Brown kids feeling that there is a hope for their future.”
Many commenters pointed to theft and drug charges against Floyd before his arrest in May as reason for their disapproval, as well as a 2007 charge against Floyd of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. According to the Associated Press, Floyd pleaded guilty to the charge in 2009 and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was paroled in January 2013 at nearly 40 years old.
“You are supporting terrorism and a drug addict,” Koblish wrote to Bethel in a Facebook comment.
University of Northwestern alum John Byrne, a Converge pastor in Colorado, also expressed disappointment with Bethel’s decision. Bethel is affiliated with the Converge church, a baptist denomination formerly called the Baptist General Conference.
“I can’t in good conscience recommend a school that is going to do this,” Byrne commented. “I could support a scholarship, but it should not be named after a career criminal who was high, passing counterfeit money, and resisting arrest when he died.”
Neither Koblish nor Byrne responded to a request for further comment.
Andrew Baker, a Bethel alum, described the scholarship as “pandering” in his comment on the original post.
“I think many in the media, and in turn many in the public, have ignored Floyd’s violent criminal background,” Baker told The Clarion. “No one is without sin, but this is about a scholarship in someone’s name. It has been my understanding that a lifelong commitment to public service and bettering (not harming) the lives of others is often the criteria for in-name legacy scholarships.”
The responses were even more harsh on Twitter, where many users hide their identities and only one commenter was verified.
One anonymous account tweeted, “Why not make it available to incoming students of any race as long as they have 9 or more arrests?” Another tweeted, “All applicants must pass a drug test proving they actually have fentanyl in their system.”
Allen addressed the critical comments in his statement, explaining that Bethel chose to name the scholarship after Floyd to acknowledge the value of Floyd’s life to God, and that racism “should have no place” on Bethel’s campus or in society.
“George Floyd is not being immortalized; he is simply being remembered and interpreted,” Allen wrote. “Scholarships keep the interpretation and learning process alive. George Floyd is a new generational symbol for long overdue social and spiritual change in America. Simply put, his story is educationally and systemically critical.”
Washington, who is a football player studying biokinetics, said it was especially hurtful to him that people who are not Black, especially Christians, diminish the importance of this scholarship to Black students. Why, he asked, can’t God use Floyd’s death as a way for people like him to receive a scholarship for an expensive school? He wanted to know how it hurts the commenters. How it disrespects them. How it even affects them.
“They’re trying to use Jesus to justify that this (scholarship) shouldn’t be a thing,” Washington said.
Some commenters have suggested the name “Social Justice Scholarship” instead, but Gus Broman, an adjunct communication professor at Bethel, didn’t like that idea, either.
“The reason I went to Bethel and I teach at Bethel is because I think it should be Bible-based,” Broman said. “So instead of social justice, Bethel should be looking at biblical justice – what did Jesus teach?”
Gary Long, a professor of biblical and theological studies, was sobered but not surprised to see the backlash across social media once the scholarship was announced. Growing up in the 1960s with an evangelical background, Long is familiar with similar kinds of rhetoric toward civil rights, he said.
“As evangelicals, part of our existence, our shaping, is that we hold onto convictions,” Long said. “When something isn’t in line with my think-tank on what is right and good – what is wholesome behavior – we evangelicals become very quick to say, ‘you’re wrong, God’s anointing isn’t on you.”
Like Washington, Long said he believes the focus needs to shift from the details of Floyd’s life to the way that he died, which has become a powerful symbol of the need for change.
Long compares Floyd to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Biblical book of John.
“In Jesus’ day, there was a really strong antipathy for Samaritans,” Long said.
Because of the ways they challenged the cultural and systemic norms of that day, Jesus’ interactions with Samaritans were “shocking and electrifying,” Long said.
To Long, there are parallels between those challenging the modern-day “system” and the Samaritans of the Bible.
“For some, it would be the person of color immigrant coming in and taking jobs, or the Colin Kaepernick taking the knee,” Long said. “The Christ message is that you reach out to find the good.”
Long thinks the focus on the details of George Floyd’s flawed life is a distraction.
“It’s his death that is that captivating moment where it becomes justice not just for George Floyd, but justice across the board for the systems that are in place,” Long said.
Allen encourages those who would like to speak with him personally about the scholarship to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We recognize that not everyone agrees with the use of George Floyd’s name in our scholarship,” Allen wrote. “When disagreements arise among Christ-followers, we are above all committed to representing Jesus well – and part of that commitment includes engaging with people who hold different viewpoints.”
(Additional reporting by Jaimee Hood.)