Feb

10

2014

Elizabeth (Sims) Munn|12:05 AM CT

Why I Quit My Sorority Over Racial Discrimination

Our decisions tell the world who we are. They reveal far more about our fundamental loyalties than we often realize or even hope.

I made a decision upon entering college to join a sorority. In the affluent culture in which I had been raised, pledging a fraternity or sorority was common. The majority of adults I knew had been involved in the Greek system, including members of my family and most of my parents' friends. Therefore, it was somewhat expected that as a college freshman, I would go through the weeklong process of sorority recruitment informally known as "rush." The fact that I had chosen to attend the University of Alabama made this expectation even stronger. In my experience, two things reigned supreme at the University of Alabama: football and the Greek system.

President's Mansion, University of Alabama

President's Mansion, University of Alabama

Many see Greek sorority life as an exclusively negative phenomenon because of its association with crazy parties, elitism, and "cat fights." In this view pledging a sorority or fraternity directly contradicts the pursuit of holiness. Other Christians speak of the Greek system as a wonderful place to make friends with Christians and non-Christians alike. When I joined my particular sorority, I certainly experienced the benefits of building strong friendships. Many of the older girls in my sorority set a tremendous example of faith, and I quickly seized opportunities to testify to the goodness of the gospel, as I had watched them do before me.

Turned on Its Head

But at the beginning of this school year, my last at the University of Alabama, my life was turned on its head. For the past three years, I had seen the Lord bear much fruit as I matured spiritually and ministered to and with my sorority sisters. As a senior, I served as the philanthropy chair and lived in the sorority house. Still, some aspects of sorority life unsettled me, including the fact that there had never been an African-American member of my particular "chapter."

Along with many others I was hopeful that 2013 would bring change. We were especially excited because an outstanding African-American student, already known and loved by many girls in my sorority, was going through our recruitment process. Yet three days into rush I was informed that this woman had been abruptly removed from our list of potential new members during a private meeting between two alumnae advisers and four student leaders. This African-American student had been eliminated despite impassioned pleas from student sorority leaders in this meeting. I spoke personally with three of these four student leaders, and they each tearfully testified that her removal had been driven by racial prejudice.

Although I was no stranger to living in a world of white privilege, I was shocked. (I realize that many readers may be thinking, Well, what did you expect?) The more I had learned about Jesus over the years, the more I saw how boldly he spoke out and acted against racism. And I grew to understand Paul's repeated declarations that Jesus came not just for the Jew, but also for the Gentile. Only a few weeks prior, God had convicted me through a sermon preached by a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He explicitly addressed racial prejudice and injustice, and while listening I had devoted myself freshly to the gospel of reconciliation. Though my sorority is not the church of Jesus Christ, I knew that Jesus' example and teaching mattered here too. Faced with these heartbreaking statements from my trustworthy peers, what should I decide to do as a Christian?

Tears and Confusion

The next 24 hours were a blur of tears and confusion. I knew that what happened in that private meeting was absolutely wrong. Everything in me revolted at the thought of our wronging this student. However, as I considered how to respond, many thoughts competed with my initial impulse to act with boldness:

  • ". . . but what happened in that room does not reflect how most girls in my sorority feel. Just because a few people have acted unjustly doesn't mean the whole organization is corrupt."
  • ". . . but I've begun to see God bear so much fruit in this house. I have been praying for months about the ministry opportunities I will have this year living in the sorority house. I can't leave my friends now! They might think I don't love them, and maybe God will use me here in a special way to change our organization."
  • ". . . but I hold a leadership position in this organization as philanthropy chair, and it would be irresponsible to leave my sorority so hastily. Maybe I should wait to act until rush ends, especially because I am responsible to make speeches in the rush round tomorrow."

Then it dawned on me that these thoughts had one thing in common: they were excuses. The matter at hand was urgent. An organization of which I was a member had apparently discriminated against one of my fellow students based on her ethnicity. I had only two choices: I could stand against racial discrimination, or I could downplay it.

As God shone clarity on my moral dilemma, I began to reflect on how I had faced such choices many times before. I had been making decisions since the first day I set foot on this campus. I had heard rumors of past racial discrimination in my sorority, as well as stories of courageous sorority members who had sought change to no avail, and in my three-year membership I knew we did not have one single African-American member. These facts certainly had made me frustrated and uncomfortable, and I engaged in many conversations with fellow sorority members in which we expressed our sorrow. At times, I questioned whether participation in such an exclusive group amounted to actively ignoring these problems.

However, I ultimately made the sorts of decisions that deceptively felt to me like non-decisions, the sorts of decisions that put me in line with my peers and reinforced many of my social preferences and social expectations. I cultivated "peace" in my mind about my role in this situation while I lamented the sad disunity on our campus. Ultimately I felt little urgency to make a bold decision over the matter and comfortably continued in the rhythm of everyday life. But I now realize that all the while I really was making a decision to support and help lead a group within a system that deepened racial divides.

By God's grace, this time I made a different decision, a decision to act. After affirming my love for my friends, I packed my bags and moved out of the sorority house during rush. I contacted my sorority's national office to inform them about the allegations of racism, request their intervention, and notify them that I would resign by a specified date if they failed to appropriately intervene with the urgency this issue demanded. After disappointing interactions with the national office, I did ultimately resign. Because I considered this problem serious, I met privately with University president Judy Bonner, as I had told the national sorority office I would do. I also contacted the young African-American woman, met with her and her family, and sought to work alongside them in any way I could. The freedom to relate with this student, a fellow believer in Christ, with a clean conscience meant more to me than I could have ever anticipated, and I am forever grateful for her friendship and her grace.

Story Breaks

Eventually our Greek system grabbed national media attention when the school newspaper released a powerful article entitled "The Final Barrier." This piece exposed rampant racial prejudice within University of Alabama Greek life. It featured several student sorority members who spoke out about resistance when they supported an African-American student as a potential new member. Unlike previous attempts by the school newspaper to explore the problem of segregation within the Greek system, this time students broke sorority confidentiality codes and exposed sorority alumnae and advisers who apparently blocked African-American students from becoming members. The story was so compelling that major news sources like The New York TimesCNNTime magazine, and others picked it up.

The outcry led to major changes on campus. University president Bonner spoke out against racial discrimination within the Greek system and re-opened the "bidding" process for sororities, so they could invite new members with fear of interference or reprisal from alumnae or advisers. As a result, multiple African Americans were offered and accepted membership into traditional all-white sororities at the University of Alabama.

I share my story not to present myself as some type of hero or martyr, of which I am neither. I do not think I would have persevered without the encouragement of faithful Christian brothers and sisters who helped to cast (and recast) a gospel vision for me and pray with me, including my brothers and sisters who were and are Greek. They helped me see that if I claim Christ as Lord, then he has the rights to all of my life, including every decision, even about social associations. Jesus is not only clear about sexual immorality and drunkenness; he is also crystal clear about racism. In fact, Jesus broke down such barriers in his life and death. So as a Christian attending college in the middle of the Bible Belt, where racism is often viewed as a bad habit rather than grievous sin, I had to ask God for wisdom about what it meant for Jesus to be Lord of my life in this area.

Though I can no longer bond with my friends over our sorority loyalty, I can testify to the truth that my deeper loyalty to Jesus Christ and his gospel of reconciliation has brought great joy. The more I experience the grace of Jesus Christ, the more I see his loyalty as my bedrock. Had he abandoned me when I repeatedly ignored his costly call for justice in this world, I would be without hope. I cannot express how grateful I am that my ever-loyal Savior granted me another opportunity to walk in repentance and trust his faithfulness.

Elizabeth (Sims) Munn is a senior at the University of Alabama from Memphis, Tennessee, where she is a member of Second Presbyterian Church.

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