Four years after hijab controversy, former Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins is rebuilding her life — and refusing to back down

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On the first day of Larycia Hawkins’ political science classes at the University of Virginia, she steps to the front of the classroom and gives a little speech.

It’s not about the syllabus. It’s about her unintended, uncomfortable fame.

“I say, ‘OK, if you Google my name, there’s a New York Times story about me,’” Hawkins says. “And I tell students that if you are curious about what I think about issues, here are a lot of articles about it online.”

It’s important to put it out there, she says. To clear the air. Because “some of them will know, and some won’t.”

Some students will have read about their professor’s 2015 battle with her previous academic home, prominent Christian liberal arts school Wheaton College, located in suburban Chicago.

Others might not be aware that Hawkins has been the subject of an intense controversy that swept through the evangelical Christian community and cost her her job and tenure at Wheaton. Or that her story is the subject of a documentary film, “Same God,” which begins airing nationally Friday for the first time, on PBS.

The need to give an awkward speech on the first day of class is a small detail that offers a clue to how all-encompassing the changes in Hawkins’ life have been since she left Wheaton. “The further we get out from the job that I left,” she says, “it’s easier. But one of the things it has changed is how I introduce myself on the first day.”

In December 2015, Hawkins had decided to pursue “embodied solidarity” with Muslims by wearing a hijab during Advent, the Christian season leading up to Christmas. She posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, along with words that stated her 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.”

“I didn’t think, I don’t think, I was doing anything radical,” Hawkins says.

Wheaton disagreed, and questioned whether her “same God” statement contradicted the statement of faith that all Wheaton professors must sign as a condition of employment. Hawkins, a devout, lifelong Christian, found herself defending her theological views and, eventually, agreeing to resolve the conflict by leaving the school in February 2016. Along the way, she had become the subject of heated debate among evangelicals and the focus of an intense social media flare-up. The controversy was widely covered in the press. Her days of being just another thoughtful, well-spoken professor were over.

Filmmaker Linda Midgett, who began working with Hawkins on the “Same God” documentary in early 2016, has seen the impact firsthand. “I can’t overstate how much this turned Larycia’s life upside down,” she says. “I think what people fail to think about is the way that her life was uprooted for years. And she didn’t know she was risking all that when she made that Facebook post. It’s very profound, from losing your favorite restaurant to losing the sense of where you’ll be five years from now.” The details pile up: The loss of a steady income. The relationship with her Chicago boyfriend that has been forced into long-distance status. The friends, the community, the book club she had to leave.

Even more troubling, Midgett says, “she lost her anonymity, the pleasure of being a private citizen who isn’t judged by people who don’t know you. With that comes a sort of loss of identity, because suddenly you have to deal with this public identity that you didn’t create.”

Since her departure from Wheaton, Hawkins has struggled through those emotions. “It’s hard on my relationships with friends and family,” she says, “because I’m experiencing mental trauma and anxiety and depression that come and go. Sometimes I can’t keep in touch with people because I just can’t take one more phone call.”

Hawkins gave up the apartment in Oak Park where she had lived for years, and began a life of shuttling back and forth between Virginia, where she initially landed a one-year fellowship at UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and Chicago. “She was basically itinerant for a couple of years, because without a permanent job there wasn’t really a place to move to,” says Midgett.

“It’s a kind of purgatory, when you live your life in the Atlanta airport,” says Hawkins. “The overarching theme is purgatory, an in-between stage. It’s true about my career, true about academia, true about my relationships.”

In the “Same God” documentary, traveling emerges as a visual theme, with scenes of Hawkins taking the train from Oak Park and driving her car. The “L” makes repeat appearances, an easy reference to Chicago. Hawkins has begun to see underlying messages as well. “I am moving, I’m on a journey,” she says. “I also think back to my roots. For our people, there’s a theme of wilderness and searching for the promised land and it’s out there and we reach for it. A hopeful gesture for a future that is not yet, but is already present.”

Hawkins, who is African American, began her journey in Oklahoma, where she grew up steeped in the traditions of the black Christian church. Though politics were not an overt part of her church life, she says, themes of the civil rights movement and social justice ran deep in her family. “Those things were never far or distant from our memory or our home,” she says. “A lot of these lessons were taught, some of them were just there. When your father was part of the first black undergraduate class from the University of Oklahoma, it’s not politics, it’s just life.”

At Wheaton, Hawkins’ experience of the practice of faith was juxtaposed with traditions that lean more heavily on white evangelical experiences. Though Wheaton College is proud of having one of the first black college graduates in Illinois in 1866, in 2013 Hawkins became the first-ever black woman to be given tenure at the school. It wasn’t always an easy position to be in. “There was a level of discomfort about the notion that the same Jesus could lead a person reared in that black church tradition to think one way about an issue,” says Hawkins, “whereas white evangelicals might think quite differently about the same issue.”

Midgett, who became close with Hawkins during the filming of the documentary, understands different interpretations of faith. Her own religious tradition springs from the white evangelical church, her family is still very much a part of that world and she is a Wheaton alumna. ”I have some strained relationships from having done the film,” she says, “because there was definitely pressure to not do it.”

Once she saw how polarizing Hawkins’ stance had become within the evangelical community, she says, she felt she had to tell the story. “I think something so important is going on here, even more important than what happened to Larycia.” Midgett believes that the evangelical movement “is at a critical point” in its relationship to political power. “It is a difficult time,” she says, “because the majority of white evangelicals right now, the platform that they have is antithetical to a lot of Christianity, in my opinion. I say this as somebody with relatives and close friends who have those beliefs. These are people I love who I strongly disagree with. It’s hard.”

The filmmaker finds herself defending Hawkins’ “same God” statement, over and over. “I continue to see people who have decided in their minds that she is conflating Christ and Islam,” Midgett says. “And they’re completely wrong, that’s not what she was saying and not what that statement means. It’s important to understand what it means, and the intent.”

As the film grapples with the dissonance between the principles of Christianity and the response to Hawkins’ gesture, Hawkins is also shown coming to terms with the part race and sex played in the outcome. She was supported by many colleagues on the faculty, and several of them — all men — speak freely in the film about racism and their issues with the way Hawkins was treated. “They are in a different position as men at the college,” says Midgett. “And that’s a reality. It was very difficult for me to get women to go on camera.”

Though the film throws political and religious divisions into sharp relief, Hawkins says that her aim for its impact remains much the same as her aim for that original Facebook post. “I hope it brings people closer together,” she says. “My favorite showings have been where I can see the body language of people relax over time, because they allowed themselves to stay in the conversation. I’d like to think those people left with a greater understanding about embodied solidarity.”

Hawkins, who is now teaching political science at UVA on a one-year contract and has recently moved into a more permanent home, is determined to advance her cause any way that she can, even as she continues to rebuild her life and career. “I want to see us moving toward each other, at a time when the powers that be are trying to tear us apart,” she says. “I won’t sit for that — I believe we are all called to be on the front lines. And that’s all I want: the opportunity to move people. I’m hopeful.”