CHICAGO (RNS) Larycia Hawkins can’t recall the details of that day in December when she posted a photo of herself wearing a hijab on Facebook with a caption that said Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
But she does remember what was happening at the time: It was Advent, the Christian season preceding Christmas. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., had just encouraged his students to get concealed carry permits so they could “end those Muslims before they walked in.”
In response, students at Wheaton College, where she was a tenured professor, had published an open letter calling for evangelical Christian leaders to “stand in solidarity” with Muslims “who share our human dignity.”
“What was I thinking?” Hawkins asked her voice full of emotion. “What was Jerry Falwell, Jr., thinking? I think that’s the appropriate question. I also think the appropriate question is ‘who are we?’”
Hawkins, whose case was scrutinized by the media for the issues it raised about Christian views of Islam, appeared Wednesday (Feb. 24) at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple for a public conversation hosted by the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.
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She spoke alongside Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Rehab said the Muslim community received Hawkins’ actions like “a cool glass of water in a hot, arid desert.”
“It was something that stuck out positively as a surprise -- that somebody would care enough to do something like this," he said. "We had sort of accustomed ourselves to hearing and seeing the opposite.”
Wheaton began termination proceedings against Hawkins following her Facebook post and public statements. Earlier this month, she appeared at a joint conference with Wheaton President Philip Ryken after the two announced they would be parting ways.
Moderator David Dault, president and CEO of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, said there would be no “juicy tidbits about her departure.” But other aspects of the controversy -- theological, social and political -- were fair game.
In her original Facebook post, Hawkins had said, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Francis’ remarks had come during a visit to the Central African Republic to “stand in solidarity with Muslims there being oppressed by Christian militias,” Hawkins recalled. And in a previous Facebook post she noted nobody had read, she said, “Mark my words he will be called an apostate and heretic for doing this.”
Wearing the hijab, she said, was a way of “trying to position myself with my Muslim sisters.”
That’s what solidarity is, she added: “standing with people whatever their need.”
Her original intent was to show solidarity with her fellow human beings but it became an interfaith statement.
“I had no idea it would blow up in the way it did, but I would do it again and again and again,” she said.
Hawkins and Rehab noted points of religious agreement: Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the God of Abraham. The former professor defined it as, “the same God worshipped differently -- and worshipped similarly, in some ways.”
Hawkins said Wednesday her experience over the past few months has made her understanding of Islam more personal.
“I have about 3,000 more Muslim friends than I did -- literally,” she said.
She’s heard from Muslim women afraid of the growing Islamophobia in the United States and considering giving up wearing the headscarf. She said they were encouraged by her words and actions. She’s heard from Muslim girls who say she’s their hero because they feel like somebody cares about them.
And Rehab said his understanding of Christianity “has been enhanced and it’s been improved, and the appreciation for living out Christian values and beliefs have improved as well.
“I actually see Christianity embodied in Professor Hawkins’ actions," he said. "So it’s not just rhetoric. God put you on this path, Larycia. Now we’re having these conversations.”
(Emily McFarlan Miller is an RNS correspondent)