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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Racial Inclusivity and Campus Ministry

How can campus fellowships (and Christian organizations/churches in general) become safer places of worship for POCs?

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 at my college, despite our best efforts, IVCF was often characterized as largely unwelcoming to minority groups. The our students truly had a desire to be more inclusive. Yet time and again, a brave POC would come to fellowship night, decide it wasn't for them, and never come back. This scenario plays out in bible studies, fellowship, and churches all over the country. So what is going on? Several things:

1) Though we had several strong leaders in our group that were wholly committed to making racial reconciliation a priority, it was hard to get large-scale buy in from the rest of the members. Inclusively requires an intentionality that does not waver when life gets busy, but at an over-committed liberal arts college there are a lot of competing priorities.

2) Although there were efforts in our fellowship to incorporate various worship traditions, the band leader was often a white male singing the "diversity" songs in much the same way he might have in his own tradition. It's a good step in the right direction, but ultimately leaves the same homogeneous impression to a new visitor.

3) Being the newbie is always going to feel awkward, but it is incredibly challenging to walk into a room where you are very clearly the only person of your race. Our chapter worked really hard to be welcoming, but the challenge is that for every five new people that get greeted, the one that slips by will never forget it. Additionally, when we are more comfortable around people that are similar to us, it is the racial 'others' that are more often left un-greeted and with a sinking sense that they are unwelcome and don't belong. We must double and re-double our efforts to ensure that this NEVER happens. Not once. Not for a millisecond. Not ever. The damages are near irreversible (and for Heaven's sake stop mixing up black folks' names--they don't all look alike, and they don't appreciate your thinking they do!!).

4) Sometimes in our efforts to increase the diversity of our group we miss the forest for the trees. Too often the token black student serves to sooth the guilt of the homogeneous, letting them feel diverse without the hard work that reconciliation requires. We may welcome someone when they were on our turf, but if we fail to extend our love when we pass each other in the dining hall or in the quad, our invitation is hollow.  If we do not engage with each other in the 'real world' then our diversity was just for show.

5) We must remember the importance of ethnicity-specific ministries on campus (Asian American Ministries, Latino Fellowship, Black Campus ministries). Understanding one's own identity in Christ and in the context of one's ethnicity is a central part of the process of spiritual growth (including for those in the majority position).  Understand that white folk have the luxury of choosing how much time they spend with people different from themselves. POCs gotta be around white folk all the time--give 'em a break. Surely we can relate to how exhausting it must be to feel like you are different from everyone else. When it comes to worshiping God, sometimes it is helpful to remove that burden when we can. Those in the racial majority must never belittle, undermine, or compete against ethnic-specific ministries. But rather, we must support, encourage, and uplift (without forcing our presence, uninvited), bringing to the table the any extra resources and influence that a position of power on a racialized campus may provide. Be an advocate, not a stumbling block. (And let the university administration know that the white students value and support ethnic-specific ministries too!)

As I have mentioned, IVCF is truly doing great things for reconciliation in the name of the Gospel, in a way that I have not seen reflected in many other ministries. Furthermore, these are not just a campus issues, but of course affect every church trying to live out the Gospel today. If we let diversity become a chore, a check list, that attitude will be painfully obvious to the world. We cannot give in to the temptation of forgetting that racial reconciliation is of the utmost importance to our ministry and to our witness. How powerful it could be to show the campus an image Christian unity, rather than a lips service of clich├ęs!

I invite readers to share your personal experiences, frustrations, and suggestions.

See Also:
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Apologizes
Why it is Important--and it really is SUPER important.
Growing Up White and 'Normal'
Stuff Church People Do


  1. There is so much ministry opportunity on campus when it come to racial reconciliation. So many opportunities we pass up:

  2. I confess I often felt caught in the middle, convicted about our
    racial sins and frustrated with sluggish change, yet wishing for a little bit
    more grace from those that felt slighted. The most common complaint I
    heard about our IVCF chapter was that people only talked to those they already
    knew. Ironically (and tellingly), I heard this comment from folks of all
    races, men and women, freshmen and seniors, the passerby and
    the die-hard regulars--even from our staff worker that everyone
    adored. Clearly, there is some basic communication errors happening here that
    shouldn't be pinned directly on racial issues. But we cannot diminish our
    siblings' experiences and feelings. We cannot presume to know what it feels
    like to have to wonder how much skin color has contributed to your exclusion
    from a group. The stakes are even higher when we claim to represent Christ, and
    we cannot leave room for Satan to sew division.


    POCs at my
    undergrad may never know how hard IVCF still trying. I pray that the
    group does not become discouraged or give up when it feels like their efforts
    aren't even noticed. Though we mess up, we sin, we face
    the consequences of an ugly history, and we burn with the pain of
    broken relationships, we must persevere according to Romans


    As with any part of our walk with Christ, we know we are broken
    and that we need God to set things right. We try and we mess up. And we try
    again. Our racial sins are part of the fallen condition in which we live. Though
    it is the responsibly of those in the racial majority to humbly labor
    for change in ourselves, we remain dependent on our POC
    sisters and brothers, needing their forgiveness, patience, and second
    chances (and third, and forth, and 7 times 77th). 


    POC siblings in Christ, believe that we are genuine in our desire
    to reach out, but equal is our dearth of understanding about how
    to accomplish it and our fear of being rejected despite our
    efforts. Though we may have done little to inspire your trust, I implore
    you: be brave, be gracious, be patient, be forgiving. Be merciful, in the
    truest sense of it. We are sinners, but we continue to 'work
    out our salvation with fear
    and trembling.' But we are dependent on your faithfulness with us. 



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