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Sunday, March 27, 2011

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Apologizes

'File not found' at FCA or CCCI
Of the national campus ministries serving at colleges and universities, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) seems to be one of the most intentional about multi-ethnic worship and racial reconciliation.  At all levels of the organization, there is an intentional effort to live out God's vision unity, which has been born out all through IVCF's history.  IVCF is where I began my journey of racial awareness and was convicted by the deep racial wounds that the Church bears.

But this week, IVCF made headlines for a terrible blunder in a Michigan chapter, in which the group held a 'slave auction' to raise funds and awareness of modern slavery. Though it might have been a powerful and solemn event, the causal and light-hearted nature of participants made trivial the modern and historical burdens of the marginalized, which will cost their fellowship a lot of trust with the POCs on their campus, as well as with the wider community that hears about it. And, as though from some twisted Buckeye/Wolverine rivalry, the IVCF event came on the heels of a similar scenario in Ohio, in which a black 10-yr-old student was sent to to the auction block as part of a classroom history lesson. As is so often the case, the intentions in both situations were probably good, but an offensive lack of understanding about context and history made the events incredibly insensitive mockeries of painful struggle. White folks are often surprised when our good intentions end up causing pain, but the mistakes we make could so often be avoided with a little education and perspective.

In a recent post, we leaned about the meaning of true apology, and it's evil twin the non-apology. Below is the apology statements that came from IVCF in response to the MTU events. They are posted below, with my thoughts following them. It should be noted that even though it has taken me several weeks to post these letters to BTSF, the response from IVCF to the Michigan Tech community was almost immediate.

First, here is the letter from the MTU IVCF chapter that appeared in the Michigan Tech newspaper the week after:
On Saturday, Feb. 26, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held a reenactment of a slave auction to raise awareness and money about modern day slavery and child sex trafficking as a kickoff to our annual Justice Week. Though we had good intentions, we quickly realized that many people on campus took offense at our portrayal of a historical reality that is painful and hurtful to people to this day. People were particularly hurt by the timing of the event, our lack of communication about it with any of the Black Student organizations on campus, and the levity in which the event was carried out 
For all of these things, we want to extend a sincere apology to those hurt or offended by our actions, especially those part of the African American community. We are passionate to bring awareness to our campus about the estimated 27 million people held as modern day slaves who have no voice of their own, and we are passionate to raise money and take action to combat this evil, but we realize that, unfortunately, we allowed our foresight and common sense to give way to our passion in this situation. We should have asked for input and partnership from other groups on our campus before going forward with plans that obviously have provoked a painful reaction in many. We did not intend to do this; it was not our goal, but we understand this is what happened and take full responsibility. I personally apologize for anyone who was hurt.
As a Christian group, we have strong convictions that Scriptures speaks clearly and often on the issue of reconciliation, particularly reconciliation along racial and ethnic lines. We feel that pain and discrimination that happens in our world and our society today is just as much an injustice as many of the wrongs we tried to highlight during our Justice Week. Our hope is to be a catalyst on our university to help gain a deeper understanding of this issue, first starting within our own group. Within hours of the event our leaders were dialoguing with leaders of other groups on campus, expressing our apologies and ultimately discussing how to not simply ‘forget about this’, but to positively use it to grow our understanding of others as well as to grow real relationships across different groups on campus. We thank everyone who took the opportunity to have a real conversation on this issue and sincerely hope that this is just the beginning of good things to come.

In a personal letter sent directly to those hurt by the incident IVCF national leadership wrote (excerpts only):
On behalf of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, please accept our sincere apologies for allowing this event to take place. We are sorry that it hurt you and others who witnessed it on the MTU campus.   
We realize that the hurt that this event caused is real, and that the history that it references is truly dark. We recognize that this slave auction being held during Black History Month is likely another disturbing aspect of this event for many who are in the midst of celebrating the history and achievements of African-Americans. 

Sorry = Sweet Revenge?
  Even our children's games seem confused
We want you to know that our staff are currently working with the student leaders of our chapter at Michigan Tech to help them better understand the effect that this event has had on the campus community. InterVarsity leaders and the leaders from the Black Student Association are meeting tonight (Thursday) to discuss what happened and how to move forward. The campus diversity director will host the meeting. We expect a letter of apology written by the InterVarsity chapter will be submitted for the next publication of Michigan Tech Lode, the campus newspaper.  
Ethnic reconciliation is an integral part of the fabric of a Christ-like community. In InterVarsity we encourage students to build authentic, multi-ethnic communities that engage Scripture and seek after biblical justice and equality. Recently students at another InterVarsity chapter in St. Louis have worked to bridge a racial divide, and the campus climate has been transformed. Here is a short video that shows more.
The story at MTU is not over yet and we pray that the dialogue that has begun will lead to true reconciliation. Although our staff and students have a history of working toward racial reconciliation for many years, we acknowledge that there is much more that we need to learn and do to live up to our values.
Thank you again for taking the time to inform of us of how this event impacted you. Please accept our sincere apologies.  
-signed the President of IVCF and Director of Collegiate Ministries at IVCF

Finally, I emailed them a letter of concern about the incident and will share parts of the response I received: 
"We appreciate hearing about the role of InterVarsity in your journey of racial reconciliation. 
As unpleasant as it is to hear that InterVarsity chapters periodically fail to create welcoming atmosphere for ethnic minorities, we recognize that these failures are a part of the journey of educating one another and learning together. The Michigan Tech InterVarsity chapter’s event hurt members of that campus community and affected the way InterVarsity is perceived by many beyond the campus of MTU. InterVarsity president Alec Hill and senior vice president Jim Lundgren sent a personal letter to one Michigan Tech student who wrote to InterVarsity about the slave auction.... 
...We were grateful to report that the Black student Association at MTU graciously agreed to meet with InterVarsity chapter leaders following the incident, and that the outcome of that meeting exceeded expectations. The groundwork was established for ongoing dialogue to help mend relationships with black students on campus. Aaron Green, our Campus Staff Member on the Michigan Tech campus, reported that the meeting led to the groups planning a joint letter to the school newspaper highlighting the InterVarsity chapter’s apology, and the ongoing reconciliation process. As a result of the conversation the InterVarsity chapter will bring this issue to the chapter at large and invite African American students to speak and share their feelings, with the intent that this be used as a discipleship issue. Further educational events and discussions are being considered as well that would target the rest of the campus."

In these statements, I see the following (please feel free to post your own insights and perspective):

What the IVCF letters do well:
  • They apologized in public, as well as directly and personally.
  • They apologized quickly, without needing the duress of public opinion. 
  • They make sure to apologize for the event itself, addressing the specific act that created division. 
  • They do included the more common "sorry that we hurt you" statement, but as it is in addition to the apology for the act itself, I find it more appropriate then it is the sole offering.
  • They also acknowledge of the reality of the pain they caused and the history it involves, rather than trying to diminish the feelings of those affected. 
  • They describe the steps they are taking to educated themselves about the nature, history, and context of the situation.
  • They describe actions they are taking to right the wrong, as much as it can be.
  • They commit to continuing efforts on these fronts, not just while it is on the public's mind. 
  • They acknowledge their short comings and that they have a long way to go.

What could have been better:
  • Although I get that they were trying to demonstrate the organization's commitment to reconciliation, the statement about St. Louis seemed a little out of place--a little too "some of my best friends are black." If the MTU chapter itself had already established such a positive reputation of their campus, perhaps there would have been more room for mistakes as they learn and grown, and easier forgiveness when they needed it. Consider it a lesson in being proactive in building trusting relationships BEFORE we need to seek them from behind the eight ball. 
  • I would have liked them to be a little more specific in demonstrating their comprehension of why their actions were hurtful. It would have been nice to read clear confirmation that they came to a new understanding. 
  • They open the letter to the newspaper by explaining their own perspective and what they had intended to accomplish with the event. Although, this side of the story is definitely important to share, it felt weird that it was the first statment in the letter.  It seemed seemed a little defensive--humility is of the upmost importance with these situations. 
  • I notice that even from those that I believe to be completely sincere, it is very difficult to convey genuine contrition after the fact. It is a challenge convey one's commitment in a way that sounds believable and not just trying to cover your butt. IVCF is sincere in it's letters, but would they be taken that way by someone whose first interaction with the group was hurtful? Yet another instance where we will have to rely of the grace of POCs to believe us when we say we really mean our apology.

IVCF is on the forefront of national Christian organizations working for reconciliation, but everyone will stumble on the way. Overall, I feel that IVCF did well in trying to rectify the situation. Fixing brokeness is hard. It just is. Let us not discourage each other, but rather let us reinforce one another's every effort at reconciliation and meet others where there at in their journey. Let us also pray that God uses both the original event and the dialogue that follows to challenge and radically grow MTU's campus. 

Compare IVCF's letters to the to apologies cited here. How does this one measure up? Also, if you have really good examples of apologies that communicated well and that might serve as models, please share!

See Also:


  1. Jesus said forgive, not "rake them over the coals" for not issuing a sufficient apology.

  2. Hi Will-
    I deeply apologize for my slow response. The month of May has been...interesting. Regardless, I hope to be better in the future. 

    Thank you for your thoughts here. The feedback is important. 

    This post came in the context of a dialogue about the makings of a good apology ( ). In the previous post, I had presented some examples of truly bad apologies. In contrast, in this post I offered IVCF's responses as an open question to be discussed for the sake of learning.

    Even so, I began by affirming my support for IVCF's good work and track record, and included things that I appreciated about their apology. I ended by reaffirming my support, including a collusion that "overall, I feel that IVCF did well in trying to rectify the situation." I do not think this analysis constitutes a 'raking over the coals.' 

    It is true, I offer critiques and suggestions. But this is because I believe the stakes are high and the damage we do to our witness when we falter is serious. I believe that Christians are called to be representitive of Christ, and thus are called to a higher standard. It's a responsibilty we take on when we claim Jesus' name. I care very much about IVCF, hence have devoted significat space on this forum to our mutual edification.  


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