WENHAM — The chapel is the one place at this small, liberal arts Christian college along the North Shore where 40 faith traditions converge, the one place where Gordon College’s 1,700 students come together to worship and praise.
But it became the place where the college community splintered last semester. Some students balked at how the new worship leader ushered in a spirit of praise, incorporating gospel-tinged songs and hymns. Their displeasure aired on social media and in a survey. The fissure exposed simmering racial tensions and brought forth stories of intentional and unintentional acts of exclusion, discrimination, and misunderstanding.
“I tend to lead in a way that is typical in the black church: demonstrative, leading the congregation, not just singing the songs,” Bil Mooney-McCoy said after a recent chapel service. “For a lot of our students, this was wonderful and they loved it. But others felt like this was just crazy stuff they never heard before.”
Campuswide conversations on race, culture, and privilege ensued. And now, with the passage of time, students seem to have become acclimated to the new style of worship. A new student survey indicates opposition has dwindled to negligible levels.
“How can I explain the mood on campus? It’s better than last semester. Last semester, it was just way out of hand,” said Shakia Arston, a junior and vice president of the student multicultural association. “There are people who are being touched and being changed. But you have those people who are like, ‘I could care less about white privilege and the racial divide and how you feel.’ ”
Mooney-McCoy arrived at Gordon College at the beginning of the school year as the director of Christian life and worship, a job that entails creating an atmosphere in which people can encounter God through music. He leads mandatory chapel services twice a week, with students swiping their ID cards as the service ends to make sure they receive their chapel credits.
Soon after Mooney-McCoy arrived, some students began tweeting their dislike of the worship director’s style during chapel services, which the college says are supposed to familiarize students with a variety of worship practices. From the pews of the brick building at the center of campus, there were, and continue to be, the occasional snarky missives on Twitter.
“5 bucks says this guy won’t be leading music on prospective student days,” one student tweeted on Sept. 4.
The same day another student tweeted: “Didn’t know Marvin Gay [sic] was leading chapel worship.”
And then there was an article by The Tartan, the student newspaper, which exposed the tensions by reporting the October results of the monthly student survey, which said about one-third of students found the changes during chapel services off-putting.
“Survey comments said the chapel ‘should not feel like a performance;’ that a leader should not ‘take the spotlight’ or sing in a ‘ridiculous manner,’ ” the student paper reported in its Nov. 8 issue.
The whole situation — the survey and the story — felt like a personal attack, said Mooney-McCoy and his supervisor, Jennifer Jukanovich, associate vice president for student development.
Mooney-McCoy holds a master’s degree in jazz piano from the New England Conservatory of Music and regularly joins the eight-student chapel band, playing the guitar and bass, but mostly the keyboard. The keyboard is the most important instrument in black church music, but, he said, it is the most dispensable in white contemporary music.
That students would not warm to the change, or that they would flat out reject it, had not occurred to Mooney-McCoy.
“I had never experienced that anywhere else,” said Mooney-McCoy, who leads the worship team at Life Church Boston with his wife and is familiar with multicultural ministries. “I’ve done a lot of things in a lot of contexts, but this, I guess, was a little bit more monocultural than I expected. So that was a surprise.”
But from the controversy came compassion, and the next issue of The Tartan helped foster a campuswide conversation about racial and ethnic diversity.
“I came to a Christian school because I wanted to be in an environment where people would hold me accountable and love me as Christ teaches us to love,” Arston, who is an African-American Baptist student from Brooklyn, wrote in an op-ed. “We dance and shout when we worship, but to some that isn’t ‘authentic worship,’ but a ‘performance.’ . . . When you demean someone’s worship to be a performance, you’re saying their faith is fake!”
There were also students urging their classmates to listen and be more inclusive, and to avoid polarizing language and proceed instead as a unified body.
“It's not the responsibility of our minority brothers and sisters to shout loud enough to make us hear them,” senior Sam Stockwell wrote in another op-ed. “It’s our responsibility to listen. It’s our responsibility to be changed.”
And now, only about 5 percent of students surveyed are dissatisfied with the music during chapel, a number Jukanovich calls “negligible.”
Gordon College has been trying to become more diverse over the years.
Jukanovich said similar conversations about the need to be more reflective of the community were being conducted when she was a Gordon student 20 years ago. “But when only 5 percent of the student body [was] nonwhite back then, it was a little harder to have a real honest conversation,” she said.
Now, about 23 percent of students are people of color. There are students from Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Haiti. “There are those who have been persecuted for their faith. To even be in a space where they can worship freely is a whole other experience,” Jukanovich said.
There are students from urban locales such as Brooklyn and Portland, Ore., and students from the suburbs of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Diversity is an essential part of being a Christian, Jukanovich said. “We’re not who we’re fully created to be unless we know other members of God’s kingdom,” she said.
Both she and Mooney-McCoy say it is important for students in a multicultural environment to have moments of shared discomfort in which experiences stretch students beyond their comfort zones.
“If you’re in a multicultural environment, there will be a moment when you feel at home, and then there will be a moment where you feel like, ‘Where am I?’ ” he said. “It can’t be that one group always feels not at home and one group feels completely at home.”
There has been a series of “Real Talk” forums on campus, with up to 200 students gathering for conversations about racial profiling and the disproportionate incarceration of blacks and Hispanics. Students are promised confidentiality to ensure candid discussions. And recently, the multicultural student group cosponsored an event with the women’s ministry about navigating the world as a woman of color.
But Arston, the Gordon junior, said some of the uncomfortable conversations have caused some students to tune out.
“Because it’s a Christian campus, people like to hide under the cloak of Jesus — ‘we all suffer and love,’ ” she said. “They use that as a scapegoat to not have to deal with an issue. As soon as the conversation starts to get uncomfortable, it’s like ‘Jesus.’ ”
During a recent chapel service described as scaled-back, Mooney-McCoy stood among the students playing bass guitar before guest preacher Dave Ripper, who is pastor of young adult ministries at Grace Chapel in Lexington, spoke to students about being their authentic selves. “We are created by God, in the image of God, made fearfully and wonderfully by the very hands of God,” Ripper told the room.
Sophomore Aaron Hicks strummed his guitar next to Mooney-McCoy, later calling this year’s experience with the worship team “a gift.” Mooney-McCoy, Hicks said, challenges students to try new chords and new styles that are more in line with gospel music.
“I love it,” he said. “The songs I have done have been more repetitive. It’s more reflective. You spend more time in worship than worrying about the music.”
And, school administrators said, because Mooney-McCoy pushes students, their overall musicianship has grown.
Jesse Brooks, a junior from Long Island , stood nearby after the service, still enraptured by the music and the message.
This, he said, is the reason he applied to Gordon — and only Gordon.
He just wishes more people came to chapel with an open mind, willing to experience new ways of worship and fellowship, instead of being there simply because it is required.
For his part, Mooney-McCoy says that despite the bumps, “This is what I dreamed of.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.