CHICAGO (RNS) — The Rev. Tim Blackmon denies the allegations of misconduct that led to his firing from Wheaton College late last month, saying the split was caused by a clash of cultures between his “Dutch upbringing” and the “deeply religious and very Midwestern culture of Wheaton College.”
“Almost all of the challenges that I’ve had at Wheaton have been related to my sense of humor that has been misinterpreted or lost in translation,” Blackmon told Religion News Service.
In particular, he said, the culture at the evangelical Christian school in suburban Chicago does not allow people to easily discuss the subjects of race and sex.
Wheaton announced earlier this month it fired the former chaplain for “inappropriate comments and actions of a racial and sexual nature” he made toward other staff. The school later detailed those allegations after Blackmon released a statement saying he was considering legal action against the school.
Among the allegations: Blackmon reportedly referred to a colleague repeatedly by a racial slur, had “The Idiot’s Guide to Kama Sutra” left on a female colleague’s desk, mocked an online sexual harassment training during a staff meeting by suggesting a female colleague sit in his lap and complete the training for him and made comments to a newlywed female colleague about her sex life.
“They don’t quite call me a sexual predator, but they might as well have,” Blackmon said.
The former chaplain called the firing a disappointing end to five “amazing” years at the school.
Previously, he was the senior pastor and head of staff of The American Protestant Church of The Hague in the Netherlands, where he was raised. He was ordained by the Christian Reformed Church and graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Blackmon told RNS in a phone interview that he enjoyed his work and believed he had close relationships with his colleagues. So the Title IX complaint against him came as “a huge shock,” he said.
He claims the investigation that followed was “egregiously unfair” and called the college’s statements full of “factual errors.”
“The worst possible interpretation and nefarious motives were assigned to these comments,” he said.
The alleged racial slur?
It was an in-joke with a colleague, who also is a person of color, about “what it was going to be like to work at a predominantly white institution,” Blackmon said.
“The Idiot’s Guide to Kama Sutra?”
A friend had seen it at a book sale at Blackmon’s church in the Netherlands, thought it was a funny thing to find at a church and slipped it onto his bookshelf with a note, he said. Blackmon said he found it when unpacking his shelves at Wheaton. After sharing the story with a female colleague, he gave her the book, not realizing “the joke wasn’t clear,” he said.
The sexual harassment training? Wheaton allegedly misconstrued his comments, which weren’t mocking the training, but expressing surprise at its content, which was “completely at odds” with the college’s sexual ethic, Blackmon said.
“I said, ‘It’s not like I don’t know what sexual harassment is. It’s not like I’m asking my secretary to sit on my lap and take this for me,’” he said.
In a letter to Wheaton’s president, his assistant at the time reportedly said his comment was “misconstrued” and not harassment.
Wheaton confirmed the letter to RNS in an email from spokesperson Joseph Moore.
“Wheaton’s policies and procedures—as with any organization—outline the standards and process for determining when a ‘joke’ crosses the line into harassment,” it read. “Upon careful review, including a process where all parties had the opportunity to present and review evidence and be accompanied by a support person, the determination was made and confirmed that this comment, as well as other words and actions, crossed that line.”
Blackmon wrote in an email to RNS that he is “heartbroken that anything I said or did damage what I thought was a collegial friendship and hurt feelings.”
“Even if causing offense was the furthest thing from my mind, I’m saddened that a person I’ve held in the highest regard was so negatively impacted,” he wrote.
In a statement earlier this month, Wheaton said Blackmon was given the chance to respond to the allegations against him and he did not dispute that he said or did any of those things. The school said the former chaplain called his own behavior “foolish” and “not up to the highest standards of wisdom.”
“We agree and regard such behavior as unacceptable for anyone in a position of authority at Wheaton College, including someone who serves as a spiritual guide for more than 2,000 undergraduates,” the statement read. “This behavior is inappropriate in any context and incompatible with Wheaton’s mission, policies, and commitments.”
Blackmon told RNS that he did dispute the nature of the allegations against him, both in writing and in a Zoom interview.
He also believes that theology played a role in his firing. The content of several articles, which he had given to a colleague, was a big part of the investigation, and the investigation found he hadn’t done anything wrong in sharing them, he said.
The college has said that the content of those articles played no role in the outcome of its investigation.
“We wish Rev. Blackmon the best in his future ministry and regret that he remains unwilling to take responsibility for the conduct that led to his dismissal. We do not believe that continued public advocacy will bring the healing that is needed for Rev. Blackmon or for the parties impacted by his words and actions,” Moore told RNS.
Blackmon said he still is considering legal action against the school.
In the meantime, his most recent assistant reportedly has resigned over the investigation.
And several friends of his have raised more than $19,000 on GoFundMe, a crowdfunding website, to help the former chaplain pay for legal bills and launch a platform called Bellhop Media. Blackmon told RNS he is interested in exploring the impact that words can have, he said — something he knows too well.
The platform takes its name from a story about Blackmon’s father, a Black man born in the American South.
When his father was 13 years old, he worked as a bellhop at a hotel in North Carolina, according to the GoFundMe page. He was fired after greeting a young white girl at the hotel.
“I think if he was still alive today, that’s the first story that would’ve come up. It would’ve been eerily reminiscent how his behavior was misinterpreted and misconstrued,” Blackmon said.