On Headlines, Right Questions at the Wrong Time, and Apologies: A Response to Roger Olson

I have a confession to make.

When I read the headlines in the Waco Tribune Herald about opposition to a proposal to convert a vacant East Waco facility into a home for unaccompanied migrant children, I made an assumption that it was xenophobia or intolerance or MAGAism (but I repeat myself) that was the culprit behind the furor. Even worse, I allowed that assumption to go unchecked for at least a week. It wasn’t until a friend in the immigrants’ rights community wrote a celebratory social media post about defeating the proposal did I stop and think, “Hmmm. Maybe I’m missing some information.” So I went back and read below the headlines. I learned that the primary opposition was not born out of a disdain for immigrants, but rather a firm conviction that no for-profit company, particularly one that has a documented history of abuse, should be using our community to make money off the suffering of young people.

Boy am I glad I didn’t write a piece aimed at questioning the motives of those who opposed the facility. Which, if I’m honest, wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In our rapid fire social media culture, I’ve done my share of squeezing my Twitter finger before my target was fully in sight.

This confession is even more embarrassing when coupled with the fact that my main online critique of Roger Olson’s piece in the Trib was that he didn’t read beyond the headlines before implying that Christians who opposed the facility didn’t understand the full weight of the issue at hand. I was like the sophomore during the first week of fall semester looking at the shenanigans of new students, rolling their eyes while exclaiming, “Freshmen. Amirite?”

I write all that simply to say that Dr. Olson’s mistake was easily understandable and forgive-able when placed in the context of “We’ve all been there, done that.” But, as is often the case when well-respected individuals are called out on mistakes, the apology made the situation worse.

First, a little context for those who only read the headline of Dr. Olson’s original Trib piece, “Ten awkward questions for Christians.” He began by describing the situation as laid out in the titles of the VisionQuest stories, then followed with ten questions, the first of which was “First, why? Why did and do you oppose it?” These questions placed him firmly in the same camp I was in between reading the headlines and seeing my friend’s celebratory post at having defeated the proposition. How do I know this? Because the answers to those questions were laid out very clearly in the articles. The strongest voices against the proposal were from those who fight every day to create a situation for immigrants that Dr. Olson was suggesting we fight for. The other voices had legitimate concerns about lack of information from VisionQuest regarding security, and a passing reference was made to the prevalence of social services agencies like this being placed in East Waco because other communities didn’t want them.

The rest of his questions were great questions. Necessary questions. They raised points that desperately need to be raised among American Christians in these times dominated by fear and suspicion. The problem is that they were raised in the wrong context. They were questions that needed to be raised to progressive Christians (like myself) during the previous administration when President Obama was gaining a reputation among the immigrants’ rights community for being the “Deporter-in -Chief”, and we didn’t raise concerns because, well, he was our guy. They were questions that needed to be raised in 2018 when Donald Trump stoked fears of “immigrant caravans” coming to “invade our country.” They were questions that, in our time of public intellectuals and faith leaders trying desperately to remain “above the fray”, needed to name names. They required a level of specificity that left no doubt as to their target. They were the right questions at the wrong time.

*Disclosures: I am a graduate of the seminary where Dr. Olson is a professor. I also work for the larger institution of which said seminary is a part. I never had a class with him, but many of my friends did and were greatly influenced by his work and ministry. My interactions with him have been limited but amiable. Also, these thoughts are my own and don’t represent those of any other person or institution.

After several former students and others raised concerns about the piece both online and, apparently, in person, Dr. Olson published a response on his blog that was full of defensiveness and frustration, placing the blame for misunderstanding on the reader. In it he lamented that those who confronted him about that should have known better. That’s fair. But the problem is that the original piece was published in the Waco Tribune Herald, not a private email chain to his friends and former students. Public mistakes require public apologies, not doubling down and blaming the misunderstanding on someone else.

He also decried that “no amount of words can ever avoid all potential misunderstanding.” While this is certainly true, it reads like a further evasion. Because what is also true is that there were some words that could have avoided some potential misunderstandings.

“While the strongest voices against VisionQuest legitimately spoke from a place of deep knowledge of the situation and the needs of unaccompanied immigrant children, and did so from a standpoint of justice, there were likely others who opposed the facility from a place of fear. For those people, particularly if they are Christians, I have some questions.”

Fifty seven words. Would those fifty seven words have avoided all potential misunderstanding? Of course not. But they would have given him a stronger leg to stand on when confronted with the criticism he received.

Apologies are strange things. They are simultaneously easy to say– “Wow, I sure screwed that up. I am so sorry.”– and can feel like bricks coming out of the mouth. (I’m thinking here of a classic, reoccurring scene from Happy Days, in which The Fonz has a difficult time saying the words.) I’ve had to learn how to get them out quite a bit during these social media years. They get easier with practice.

I know many people whose lives have been positively impacted by the work of Dr. Olson. My own faith has been saved at several junctures because of the questions about God that he gave our community permission to ask. Because of this and his standing in our community, I suspect a second try at getting it right would be met with open arms.

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