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Oklahoma Christian University President John deSteiguer addresses the community on March 1.
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Oklahoma Christian University President John Desteiguer speaks in Scott Chapel | Photo by Erik Tryggestad

Christian university: ‘We’ve got to do better’ after racially charged recruiting incident

A recruiter representing Oklahoma Christian asked high school students to 'line up from darkest to lightest.' The university's president apologizes and promises improvements.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Christian University‘s president apologized and promised change after an admissions counselor representing the university at an area public school asked students to arrange themselves by skin tone and hair texture.

Oklahoma Christian University President John deSteiguer.

Oklahoma Christian University President John deSteiguer.

The since-fired counselor, Cedric Sunray, “led a racist activity that was offensive, harmful and inappropriate,” President John deSteiguer told about 60 students, faculty and community members Sunday afternoon.

The 2,200-student university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, convened the special weekend meeting to address Sunray’s actions.

“I’m embarrassed, and I’m ashamed, and I’m mad about what happened,” deSteiguer told those seated in church pews in Oklahoma Christian’s Scott Chapel. “I’m very, very sorry. … We’ve got to do better.”

The incident happened six days earlier, Feb. 24, at Harding Charter Preparatory High School in northeast Oklahoma City. Sunray, on a recruiting visit for the university, began by initiating games with a group of high school juniors that quickly became uncomfortable, TV station KFOR reported.

“He was like, ‘Let’s play a little game,’” student Korey Todd told KFOR. “He said, ‘OK, everyone now line up from darkest to lightest skin complexion.’”

Then he shuffled the students again, student Rio Brown said.

“What this recruiter did is not who Oklahoma Christian is, and it’s not what I want Oklahoma Christian to be.”

“He told us, ‘Nappiest hair in the back and straighter hair in the front,’” Brown said. “Teachers left. They were crying and they were offended.”

DeSteiguer said, “Within an hour after the school visit, the admissions counselor was no longer employed by the university. I believe that mistreating people, especially because of skin color, is a sin. What this recruiter did is not who Oklahoma Christian is, and it’s not what I want Oklahoma Christian to be.”

DeSteiguer visited Harding Prep Monday to apologize in person and hear from students there.

Counselor says he had ‘no intention of promoting a racist agenda’

The dismissal came in the midst of an investigation into a similar incident involving Sunray during a Future Teachers Day activity on the university’s campus Feb. 13, deSteiguer said. Speaking to a group of visiting high school students, the admissions counselor asked them to quickly arrange themselves by skin tone and the width of their lips, Oklahoma Christian employees told The Christian Chronicle.

Cedric Sunray

Cedric Sunray

The activities were short — perhaps 30 seconds — and resembled traditional “ice breakers” when students are asked to hurriedly arrange themselves by their birthdays or hometowns, one employee said. The theme of Sunray’s games seemed to be accepting and appreciating physical differences, the employee added, but Sunray didn’t make the point of the activities clear.

Sunray sent a 784-word statement to The Christian Chronicle about the incident and requested that it be published in its entirety. CLICK TO READ THE FULL STATEMENT.

“Nothing I spoke at Harding Charter Preparatory during an initial ‘ice-breaker’ session had any intention of promoting a racist agenda,” Sunray said in the statement. “My presentations are the opposite. They are intended to take a hard look at issues such as this. The most dangerous things in education are those we are unwilling to discuss. And sometimes when those discussions occur, misunderstanding and even anger can be the result. Having done 87 of these exact presentations this year prior to this one, my only regret in reflection is not providing myself enough time to fully explain the purpose as I have been able to at other presentations, as some of the students and staff from what I understand felt like it was not explained thoroughly.”

Sunray is an enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, a state-recognized tribe located in southwest Alabama, according to an online biography on the website of the University of Kansas, where he earned a master’s degree in indigenous studies. He also earned a Master of Legal Studies in Indigenous Peoples Law from the University of Oklahoma.

“This situation should not discredit the institution. My words are my own.”

He described Oklahoma Christian as “an open, inviting and supportive environment for people of many different races, ethnicities and nationalities.”

“This situation should not discredit the institution,” Sunray said. “My words are my own.”

He also voiced support for students at Harding Prep who were offended by the session.

“I stand by all students in speaking their mind and making their case,” he said. “If the result is perceived as injurious to me, then I need to be (able) to handle that.”

‘This stuff happens regularly,’ student says

Sunray was hired by Oklahoma Christian last summer, deSteiguer said, and had spoken at gatherings of American Indian youths, informing them about federal grants and programs available to them for higher education. At least two groups had posted photos from Sunray’s presentations on Facebook.

We had a great turnout today for our scholarship session for juniors and seniors. Cedric Sunray from Oklahoma Christian…

Posted by Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference on Saturday, February 8, 2020

During the hour-long meeting in Scott Chapel, deSteiguer said that university “failed miserably” by allowing Sunray to continue campus visits after the Feb. 13 incident. Since the incident at Harding Prep, the university has learned of a third incident involving Sunray at Hennessey High School in northwest Oklahoma.

Among the attendees at the Sunday meeting was Josh Higginbotham, who teaches Latin, Greek and German at Harding Prep. He was not present during the student activity with Sunray but said he wasn’t surprised by it.

“The students didn’t want to say too much about it,” Higginbotham told the Chronicle after the meeting, adding that the two students who did speak to KFOR were involved in a Black History Month presentation for the school just days later. The incident wasn’t mentioned, Higginbotham said.

Although white OC employees at the meeting said they were shocked and appalled by the incident, many of the students Higginbotham teaches face similar situations on a regular basis, said the teacher, who grew up in the pews of the Britton Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.

It’s the same on the campus of a Christian university, said Trinity Carpenter, a sophomore at Oklahoma Christian, during the meeting.

“Just last week, I sat at a table with a group of students, all white, who joked about how good slavery is,” Carpenter said. “Some of them have apologized, but this stuff happens regularly.”

‘This personally hurts,’ says OC staffer

University faculty members at the meeting stressed the need for cultural sensitivity training and raised concerns about the vetting of university employees.

African-American church members who attended the meeting also talked about a culture — in neighborhoods, in schools and even on the campus of a Christian university — that allows for a kind of casual racism.

Gary Jones Sr. speaks during the meeting at Oklahoma Christian University.

Gary Jones Sr. speaks during the meeting at Oklahoma Christian University.

“We have a thing in society that’s called hidden racism,” said Gary Jones Sr., an elder and minister for the Eastside Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Jones, who is black, grew up among segregated congregations and said that many of the divisions experienced by Churches of Christ and American society in 2020 are linked to past mistakes.

“Don’t let that mess get into the Lord’s church,” Jones said of the racial division that still exists. “I thought we were making progress.”

Last year Oklahoma Christian offered a formal apology to 18 former students, mostly black, who were arrested and expelled 50 years ago for participating in a peaceful demonstration seeking equal rights. Seven of the former students attended a commemoration at the university.

One of the seven, Robert Edison, returned to campus last fall to teach Oklahoma Christian’s first African-American studies courses.

In 2014 the university launched History Speaks, a lecture series that invites prominent names in the civil rights movement to campus, including Andrew Young, Diane Nash and most recently Raymond Santana of the Central Park 5.

Gary Jones

Gary Jones

Jones’ son, Gary Jones Jr., plans and coordinates History Speaks and serves as assistant dean of students for Oklahoma Christian. He joined the university’s staff with the goal of making the campus more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of its minority students.

“This personally hurts,” the younger Jones said of the recruiting incidents. “I’ve devoted the last eight or nine years of my life to coming back to the place that was uncomfortable to me as a student to make it better. … to make sure no kid experiences what I experienced.”

One person’s actions shouldn’t be allowed to define the university, he added. But the concerns of students about the campus culture need to be heard and addressed.

He challenged deSteiguer to work in the months ahead to “come up with something more tangible than ‘We’ve got to do better.’”

Filed under: American Indian American Indians black churches Black History Month Cedric Sunray Harding Charter Preparatory High School Harding Prep National OC OC18 Oklahoma Christian 18 Oklahoma Christian University Partners Race relations racist activity response Top Stories

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