On the morning of January 9, Luther Seminary President Robin Steinke sent a video message to students, faculty, and staff responding to an incident of racial discrimination on campus. The event involved a figurine of a monkey that was placed in the Christmas stocking that hung next to Dean Angela Shannon’s office door, which was discovered after Dean Shannon returned to campus following the Christmas holiday. President Steinke said that the incident was difficult to speak and hear about, but that it needed to be addressed as a nearly universal symbol of racial harassment and intimidation.
“We must shine a light on what is wrong in order for there to be healing,” she said.
In her comments, President Steinke made clear that harassment and intimidation are unacceptable in any organization, but especially at Luther Seminary, where students are preparing to be public theologians and mission leaders for the sake of bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“We are all made in God’s image,” she said. “Anything that seeks to deny or denigrate or diminish the image of God in others is antithetical to the gospel.”
President Steinke also clearly articulated that Luther Seminary stands behind its policies against harassment, discrimination, and hostility, and is committed to upholding a climate of mutual respect and responsibility in order to provide an environment conducive to learning and living in all facets of its communal life.
The video was accompanied by a list of resources for pastoral care and counseling; information regarding the methods for reporting harassment or discrimination; a schedule of community care events for reflection, processing, and healing; and actions the seminary was undertaking to improve policies that build a safe and welcoming environment for all of its people.
Finally, President Steinke called on the campus community to come forward with any information about the incident so that it could be addressed directly. That same morning, the student who had placed the figurine in Dean Shannon’s stocking came forward to self-report. Coming from another culture, the student was unaware of the full implications the figurine would carry in this context.
Given this update, President Steinke sent a follow-up email to the campus community, in which she shared the following thoughts and reiterated that this remains a defining moment for Luther Seminary in its commitment to welcome and reconciliation. The following text is from President Steinke’s January 9 campus email:
In reflecting on this event, I want to express my gratitude for how this community has responded. I am grateful for the student who had the courage and integrity to step forward. I am grateful for the open-heartedness of both Dean Shannon and the student to engage in a difficult conversation directly. I am grateful for the way faculty, staff, the pastor’s office, student groups, and the student council stepped up with support and solidarity. Most of all, I am grateful for the way our community has come alongside one another in a difficult moment, and to make sure we understand the story as correctly and fully as possible.
But I want to reiterate: our work is not done. If anything, this incident has further revealed the many layers of work we have to do. Our call to engage in the difficult, soul-stretching work of cross-cultural competence, anti-racism, and relating across difference is perhaps more urgent than ever.
The community will still gather for worship and prayer multiple times over the next week or so.
We will still have professionally-facilitated talking circles on Thursday and throughout the semester to process this and other situations of racial and cultural tension.
Dean Shannon and HR director Arnita Walls will continue to expedite recommendations for training sessions, community conversations, and policy updates.
Among the greatest gifts and challenges of being church together is our diversity. Our community cuts across cultural, linguistic, ethnic, generational, racial, and denominational divides. We have beloved community members with different nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities, political perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and theological commitments. This diversity brings a richness and vitality to our community—but engaging differences is difficult. We misunderstand one another. We disagree. We get defensive.
Somehow, paradoxically, the call of the gospel is to be unified despite our differences. This isn’t easy. We will struggle and make mistakes. But to see and hear and love one another through it all is the promise and potential of Luther Seminary—and, indeed, the entire Body of Christ.
I said in my initial message this morning that this is a defining moment for our institution. It still is. Let’s take this moment to lean into the work of reconciliation and healing. Let’s be present at community events over the next week, where we can pray together, talk together, be together, and engage in practices of grace, listening, and love.
I leave you with the same message I expressed in my initial video: the road to reconciliation is a long journey to which our entire community has now been summoned.
May the Holy Spirit accompany us along the way.
Grace and peace to you,