Nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Evangel University will no longer evoke the Middle East or the Middle Ages.
Since 1955, the flagship institution of the Assemblies of God has acclaimed its crusaders, filled with helmeted knights and couriers.
This semester, the university will announce its new mascot soon after reviewing nearly 300 submitted suggestions, including 77 animal names, 69 military names, and 38 Biblical names. The change was made in light of the school’s 55,000 alumni serving overseas.
“The world has changed dramatically since the 1950s, when the Evangel community, intending to represent strength, honor and commitment to the faith, first identified a crusader as the school mascot. Acting President George O. Wood said in March, when the decision was made to drop the name.
“Today, we recognize that the Crusader often prevents students and alumni from proudly representing the university in their areas of world work and ministry.”
For some elders, the change is slow in coming. The review process began in 2007.
“When you want to share the love of Christ, you don’t want to identify with something that ends the conversation,” said Emily Greene, class of 2008. “It’s the equivalent of saying ‘jihadist’ to an American Christian, evoking a cruel character.
Greene grew up as a history-loving child missionary in predominantly Muslim Kazakhstan. But her father sat her down when she first met the Crusades, and made it clear to her: We don’t use that word here.
Upon further study, Greene discovered that the Crusaders weren’t necessarily the right ones. But with Evangel, imagery was everywhere. The campus newspaper was called Spear. The cafeteria was “La Joute”.
In his senior year, Greene signed a petition against Crusader’s name.
But the disgust did not come only from his unique upbringing. His American and non-Christian family members also resented the college mascot.
Not as harshly as many Muslims, of course.
“One thing about the story here they never forget,” said an American Christian worker linked to Evangel, who requested anonymity for the sake of his ministry in Turkey.
“Many believe that missionaries are the modern crusaders.”
He described posters urging parents to take precautions against such strangers throwing their babies off a cliff. Common is the feeling that Christian workers are also spies.
“I believe Evangel is doing the right thing,” he said. “We are extremely careful not to talk about it [Crusaders] name in any context.
A month before Evangel, the University of Valparaiso, a Lutheran institution in Indiana, announced in February that it was dropping its own nickname of Crusaders. Last month, the school renamed its sports teams the Beacons.
“We are beacons of knowledge for the academic, social and spiritual growth of our students,” said University President José Padilla, linking the new name to a school motto: In Thy Light, We See Light .
“Above all, we are beacons of God’s light in the world. We light the way for our students, so that once they graduate, they will enlighten others. “
But unlike Evangel, the school popularly known as “Valpo” hosts a large Muslim community. While centering its Lutheran heritage and requiring the study of theology, the school does not require a declaration of Christian faith for students.
“As a Muslim, I was embarrassed to come to Valpo because the school mascot was a crusader, even though my mom and older siblings came here before me,” said Jenna Rifai, class from 2021.
“It’s like, in their minds, do they accept me?” Are they anti-Muslims? I know it looks like a small picture, but symbols have power. “
But Rifai also became well-known on campus for her TEDx talk in Valparaiso, where she described how seductive interactions with students during a dreaded class on “Trump’s America” helped her find peace.
The course was taught by Heath Carter, now Associate Professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.
“There have been a lot more scrutiny of names and mascots in recent years, and this represents a critical turning point in how we view our history,” he said.
“As a Christian, I think it can be very faithful to reassess what we hold up as examples and models. There is a calculation going on, and it is possible to see Valpo as part of this movement. “
Evangel, however, quickly distanced itself from any larger societal movement. Its FAQ page emphasizes that the mascot change is not a “culture cancellation reaction” but a requirement of the school’s “Christ-centered orientation”.
It’s a bit of a trend among Christian institutions, however. Wheaton College dropped its nickname Crusaders in 2000, followed by University of the Incarnate Word in 2004, Northwest Christian University (now Bushnell) in 2008, Eastern Nazarene College in 2009, and Alvernia University and the Northwest Nazarene University in 2017.
But according to mascotdb.com, which lists hundreds of high schools and colleges that have carried the moniker, a dozen colleges still use it, including the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
“The literal definition of the word ‘one marked with the cross of Christ’ was appropriate for the Jesuit and Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition of our institution,” President Philip Boroughs said in 2018, when the college decided to keep the name.
“We are crusaders for human rights, social justice and environmental protection; for the respect of different perspectives, cultures, traditions and identities; and for service around the world, especially for the underserved and vulnerable.
But the image still caused consternation. A month later, Holy Cross ditched his knight as the college mascot, only to be eliminated from the school’s symbolism and branding altogether.
Will it make a difference?
Across the ocean, evangelicals in the Middle East hesitate. Whether the anti-crusader spirit is a consequence of US domestic politics or concern for the gospel in the world, their problems are far greater than the fluffy mascots.
“Americans are sensitive and try to adapt to everything and everyone,” said Wageeh Mikhail, Egyptian engagement director for ScholarLeaders. “But I don’t think that makes sense to Muslims or Christians in the Middle East.
Instead, it focuses on the modern poor translation of the Crusades into Arabic. An expert on historical relations between Muslims and Christians, he said that contemporary Muslims, Christians and Jews all called the conflict of the Middle Ages “wars of the Franks.”
It was not until about the 18th century, Mikhail said, that Muslim polemicists began to translate the conflict as “the wars of the cross bearers.” But today, it is the term that has universal use in Arabic.
Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, made a similar point, pointing out that most Christians in the Middle East stood with Muslims against the Crusaders.
But given the abuse of a perfectly good word—crusade– it resonated with the College of the Holy Cross.
“It would be better to give the true intention of the word rather than fall into the trap of the unfair and damaging way in which it has been described,” he said. “We can’t keep changing our vocabulary just because a group uses it, not literally, but with a nuance meant to hurt.”
Martin Accad, however, resonated with Jenna Rifai. Symbols hold power.
“Christian students can sit in their dormitory in Valparaiso and read about how Jesus taught us to love and be peacemakers whatever they want,” the associate professor of Islamic studies told the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, in Beirut.
“But then they go out to watch a soccer game and cheer on the team, and the Crusader mascot has more of an impact on their subconscious than any of the books they’ve just read.”
Meanwhile, Muslims have their own issues, he said.
Mosque preachers are also adept at stirring up crowds. Even when their complaint is political, rhetoric tinged with theology often predominates.
Accad underlined the term kafir as particularly problematic. Translated as “unbeliever” or “infidel,” moderate Muslim scholars often fail to recognize the real harm this classic language causes to contemporary interfaith relations.
“Christians and Muslims both have a lot of work to do in terms of revising elements of their religious language that plague everyday relationships,” Accad said.
“We have to create new symbols.
Hussein Shahine, a Shia Muslim, thinks Beacons works very well.
“This will help the identity of the Valpo school to rest on something stronger: its academic reputation,” said the 2017-18 student body president. “The Crusaders didn’t offend me, but I understand how uncomfortable history can make people.”
It does for him, but with a twist.
Born in Dearborn, Michigan, Shahine grew up in one of the Christian villages in the predominantly Shia Baalbek region of Lebanon. He heard church bells every Sunday and never considered that his religion made him different from other Lebanese.
Until studying the Crusades.
“The Sunni Muslims destroyed the Shiite Caliphate of Egypt and the Syrian Mujahedin treated us like garbage,” he said of the occupation of Saladin in 1169, before the Sultan launched his campaign against The crusaders.
“There have been massacres on all sides, and nothing good has come of it. “
His older brother applied to Valparaiso for a football scholarship, and their father laughed when he learned of the mascot’s story at the time. But as the president of the student body, Shahine never heard Muslims complain.
And years later, his family is still proud of his association with the school.
“Valpo is truly a place of light and has made us good men of character,” Shahine said. “I am proud to call myself a crusader.”
It is a beautiful tribute to Christian education. But names still matter – deeply.
“Evangel was a great school, and it shaped me,” Greene said.
“But I would never call myself a crusader.”