You could say it was a sort of homecoming.
Since Saturday, I’d been on the road, bird-dogging U2’s Bono across the Midwest on his mission to save Africa from the one-two punch of an AIDS pandemic and the kind of poverty most Americans simply cannot fathom.
Wednesday, his Heart of America tour arrived at Wheaton College, and I found myself sitting in my alma mater’s chapel for the first time in a decade.
It’s a room I know well. I attended chapel there–10:30 to 11:15 a.m., three days a week, for four years.
Wheaton is a religious school in the truest sense. More than that, it’s an evangelical Christian school, dedicated, as the stone sign at the front of campus says, “For Christ and His Kingdom.”
Like many graduates, I had mixed feelings about my Wheaton experience after moving into the “real world.” I was out of town in October and missed my 10-year reunion, but I don’t know that I would have gone had I been in town.
Wheaton, like many other private colleges–religious or not–is a bubble. And I don’t care much for bubbles. I never felt comfortable in a community where my religious identity was presumed to define my politics, gender identity and taste in pop culture in a narrow way.
Not that Wheaton dictated what political persuasion (Republican), gender identity (definitely not feminist) or acceptable pop culture (Amy Grant, yes; Ani DiFranco, no) its students should adhere to. But there was an unwritten dogma about the secular world with which I did not agree.
Then, there was the matter of “the pledge,” a social contract all students are required to sign before they enroll. No drinking, no social dancing, no tobacco products, no gambling, no sex. It set up a hierarchy of sin and a dichotomy of those who kept the pledge religiously and those who did not. Some people were “strong Christians,” and others were not.
Wheaton had many fine attributes. By and large, students were compassionate, empathetic, intellectually curious and spiritually aware. But I left Wheaton feeling that Christianity, in the particular, narrow evangelical form found there, was not a place for me.
A lot changes in a decade. I stood a few feet from my senior-year assigned chapel seat and had an epiphany. Ten years ago, I’d sat in that seat, with a poster of Bono on my wall and dreaming of a life as a journalist. Now I was walking in here with that man, a journalist there to tell his story. I am blessed.
I told him I wasn’t sure how his message would play at Wheaton.
“I am blown away by your joy,” Ashley Judd said.
For two hours, the Wheaties, as we called ourselves, listened raptly to Bono’s call to action and responded to fleece he laid before them. It was easily the best night on the tour, Bono would say the next morning.
“That was fantastic,” he said. “They asked tough questions. They asked the things people should be asking.”
Many of my friends from college apologize before they tell someone where they went to school. I’ve been guilty of that myself.
After Wednesday, I’ll never do that again.
Wheaton was, at least in those moments, the best of what Christianity can be.
This column originally ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, where Cathleen was the religion writer and columnist from 2000-2010, on Dec. 6, 2002