The Challenge of Diversity on Christian College Campuses

“Bittersweet” is how Joshua Canada describes his memories of working to improve the experience of students of color at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, when he was a student there.

As vice president of the Multiethnic Student Association at Taylor, Canada successfully petitioned the school to restructure its ethnic recruiter position and to re-establish its director of multiethnic student services position. He was also an original member of Taylor Black Men, a student group that provided support for young men who didn’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing the unique challenges they faced with White classmates.

“I was really excited that I was able to do that, but there’s also this sadness that I have now because, although I felt like it was important, it painted a lot of my senior year,” said Canada, who occasionally writes for UrbanFaith.

He was compelled to act, he said, because he feared that no one else would if he didn’t. “I was blessed enough that I had a lot of coping skills,” he explained. “I could ‘code switch,’ and sometimes get in that middle world, where I could deal with both cultures, but there were several students who couldn’t.”

It is those students that concern a number of professionals who work at Christian colleges around the nation, and especially those affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The CCCU, an international association of Christian institutions of higher education, seeks to provide resources and support for the students, faculty, and administrations of its member schools. Assisting students of color with their often difficult transition into the culture of predominately White Christian campuses has become one of its chief missions during its 36 years of existence.

Slow but Steady Progress

Twelve years ago the CCCU established a Racial Harmony Award to celebrate the achievements of its member institutions in the areas of “diversity, racial harmony, and reconciliation.”

In 2001, the organization’s board affirmed its commitment. “If we do not bring the issues of racial-ethnic reconciliation and multi-ethnicity into the mainstream of Christian higher education, our campuses will always stay on the outside fringes,” remarked Sam Barkat, former board member and provost of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.

CCCU schools have made “steady gains” since then, according to a report co-authored by Robert Reyes, research director at Goshen College’s Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning and a member of CCCU’s Commission for Advancing Intercultural Competencies.

Robert Reyes: “We’re supposed to be unified as Christians.”

Reyes and his colleagues found that overall percentage of students of color increased from 16.6 percent to 19.9 percent at CCCU schools between 2003 and 2009 and graduation rates for these students also increased, from 14.8 percent to 17 percent, which still only adds up to a tiny fraction of all students at CCCU’s 115 North American affiliate schools.

According to Reyes, CCCU has a new research director and is developing a proactive research agenda related to these issues. This kind of research “creates a certain level of anxiety,” he said, because it categorizes people and theoretically separates us when we’re supposed to be unified as Christians. “I think it’s a misunderstanding of what the unity of the body is, and what unity means in the Christian faith,” said Reyes.

For those, like Reyes and Canada, who are engaged in diversity work on CCCU campuses, the task can feel like slogging through a murky swamp. UrbanFaith talked to current and former diversity workers at nine CCCU schools about their efforts and experiences. We repeatedly heard that students of color face unique challenges on these campuses and that CCCU schools are not always prepared, or willing, to deal with them. We also heard about successes and how challenging they can be.

The Problem — a Whole Different God

Multiple sources said students of color at Christian colleges are routinely harassed with racially insensitive jokes and comments by members of their campus communities, for example, and that this harassment is sometimes not taken seriously enough by school administrators.

When racism isn’t overt, students often feel like they won’t be accepted by their school communities unless they suppress their ethnic identities. Many students feel profoundly lonely on majority-White CCCU campuses, our sources said.

Dante Upshaw, for example, has been both a student and a staff member at evangelical schools. He recalled the challenge that worship presented when he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

“For the average White student, it’s an easy crossover. … It’s kind of this big youth group. But for the Black student, the Hispanic student, this is a whole different God,” said Upshaw.

He was unfamiliar with the songs that were sung in chapel, for example, and found himself in conversations about what constitutes godly worship. “I was a young person having to articulate and defend. That’s a lot of pressure for a freshman,” said Upshaw.

Monica Smith: “We haven’t gone far enough.”

Monica Smith has seen the same phenomenon played out on her school’s campus. As assistant to the provost for multicultural concerns at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, she said students of color once complained to her about being judged for skipping chapel services that felt culturally foreign to them. They were told they should be able to worship no matter what kind of music or speaker was up front. “The retort was, ‘You’re right, so why can’t it sound like what I’m used to?’” said Smith, who also teaches courses in social work.

Smith and her colleagues have identified four specific areas of challenge that confront students of color at Eastern: financial, academic, social, and spiritual. “If students are struggling in those areas, they really can’t pay attention in the classroom,” said Smith.

The university is making headway, but it’s slow, she said. “As much as we have done administratively and in the academic arena, I still don’t know that our university’s administration has gone far enough with this.”

Institutional Challenges — Like Turning the Titanic

Upshaw served as a minority recruiting officer and assistant director of the office of multi-cultural development at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, in the early 2000s. He said the number of non-White students who were in pain over their experience at the school would have been as big as his admissions file.

He recalled leaving school one day to commute home to Chicago when he saw a student of color sitting on the stairs “like a lonely puppy.” Upshaw read the student’s demeanor as saying, “You about to leave me here, man? You’re actually going to leave and go to your home?”

Dante Upshaw: “Too many students felt alone.”

“There were just too many students like that, where they felt so alone on this beautiful, immaculate campus with great food service and great athletics,” Upshaw said. “Those were some hard years.”

In response to the need he saw, Upshaw founded Global Urban Perspectives, a multiethnic student group devoted to urban issues. He believes it was successful in part because it helped foster healthy relationships.

“The fact that we were together in a safe setting where we were given space to be ourselves, I think that really struck a chord with many of the students,” he said.

It’s a wealthy system, it’s an established system, it’s a strong historic system, and it’s a very Christian religious system,” said Upshaw of the institutional challenges he faced at Wheaton. “Changing a system like that would be akin to turning the Titanic … It is going to take a long time, and it’s going to be real slow.”

Even so, Upshaw said he saw “the ship” turn quickly when influential individuals decided to act. Too often, though, he saw inaction born of the fear of alienating potential donors. Upshaw left the school, in part, because he was frustrated with the administration’s commitment to a broadly applied quota system that he felt undermined his efforts to recruit more students of color.

Additive and Subtractive Approaches

Although Joshua Canada is ambivalent about his experience at Taylor University, he returned there for graduate school and now serves as an adviser to the Black Student Union at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he is also a residence director. He said not all students of color struggle with the racial dynamics on their campuses and some students rarely do.

“In their ethnic development, they’re not dealing with this tension, or this is what they’ve done their whole life and they know how to do this,” said Canada.

Joshua Canada: “To be successful, our vision of being multicultural must be transformative.”

He described two approaches to multiculturalism, one that is additive and one that is subtractive. With the additive approach, elements of non-European culture are added to the core culture, he said, and with the subtractive approach, people of color drop elements of their culture to assimilate into the majority culture.

“Students feel it, if it’s additive,” Canada said. “We did Black History Month. We did Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a nice gesture, but people realize it isn’t who we are.”

“To really be successful, we have to come to a place where our vision of being multicultural is more transformative and then it really does change aspects of the institution. It really does change the big-picture experience, and not in a way that is unfaithful to the history of the institution, but that maybe acknowledges gaps.”

George Yancey is a University of North Texas sociologist and the author of numerous books, including Neither Jew nor Greek: Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses. (Canada’s UrbanFaith interview with Yancey prompted us to investigate the issue further.) According to Yancey, the task of student retention at Christian colleges is complicated by the evangelical community’s habitual conflation of faith and culture.

“There’s an issue in retaining students of color in higher education in general,” he told UrbanFaith, “but I think Christian College campuses have even more of a challenge because of some of the dynamics that are there. A lot of times, the way the faith is practiced is racialized. People don’t always realize it.”

Nurturing Dialogue

It wasn’t only African Americans, however, who recounted stories about the challenges students of color face at CCCU institutions. Jon Purple is dean for student life programs at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He recalls the mother of an incoming student crying when she dropped her young Black son off at the rural Ohio campus, and not just because he was leaving home.

“She was in tears and was afraid to leave her son here, because of very real fears that some good-ol’ White boys might accost her son,” said Purple.

Continued on Page 2.

See How David Oyelowo Displays Authentic Faith in “Captive”

David Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

David Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

Were it not for the superb acting of David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, the new film “Captive” could pass for an ordinary television crime drama. But it’s not ordinary. Not only are the acting, writing, and production above average for the faith genre, but the film is based on the remarkable true story of Ashley Smith, a young woman who talked her kidnapper into letting her go and turning himself in to police by reading to him from the Rev. Rick Warren’s international best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life.”

After seeing Oyelowo’s magisterial portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma,” one might wonder why he would co-star in a small film like this. Surely bigger opportunities had come knocking. “Captive” was filmed before “Selma,” Oyelowo told Urban Faith, but he would have done it anyway, because his motivation for telling both stories is the same.

“Even though I’m playing antithetical characters, Dr. King and then Brian Nichols in ‘Captive,’ both films hint at the fact that light shines brightest in the dark,” said Oyelowo.

Life-affirming stories like these are some of the kinds of stories he gravitates toward, he said. “Nightingale,” a one-man, 83-minute HBO film that premiered this spring, is loosely based on the true story of a mentally unstable veteran who murders his mother and lives with her body in their home while he tries, unsuccessfully, to reunite with a fellow soldier.

Oyelowo humanizes this sad character and illuminates difficult subject matter, just as he does in the other two films.

“My faith enables me to have a compassion that I may otherwise not have had in relation to the dark side of who we all are as people,” said Oyelowo, a devout Christian. “What makes us human is the fact that we are never just one thing. There is always a battle between the soul and the spirit. There is always a battle for ground between the darkness and the light within us.”

All three characters are “extreme examples of either the dark or the light, but they all have the complexity of what it is to be a human being within them,” he said. “They all have weaknesses and strengths, and those are what’s come to the fore predominantly for better or for the worst at any given time.”

Realistic portrayals of the human experience are what make these films resonate with audiences, Oyelowo said. “Even if you are not Dr. King or you are not Brian Nichols … there’s something to be gleaned from a human perspective in all those characters.”

Indeed. One reason “Captive” succeeds where other faith-based films fail is that both its villain and its heroine, Ashley Smith, are multifaceted. Smith, a young, widowed methamphetamine addict, had lost custody of her daughter and had once thrown away the book that would eventually save her life, and perhaps other lives as well.

In a recent interview with the Rev. Rick Warren, Smith said, “The only thing I did in my apartment that night was give God my brokenness. … When I finally gave it to him, he began to work and show off in my life. … It’s never too late to turn your life around. It’s never too late to let God work.”

Ten years after her captivity, Smith is sober, remarried, and has regained custody of her daughter. “Today I choose to walk with [God] and let him carry my burden,” she said.

Kate Mara plays Ashley Smith in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

Kate Mara plays Ashley Smith in Captive from Paramount Pictures.

Like millions of other people, Oyelowo has read “The Purpose Driven Life.” He said the book inspired him to believe that God had a bigger plan for him than he could have imagined.  “As a person who is pretty ambitious and has big hopes and dreams for myself, it was kind of a big revelation for me. But when I then encountered this story, it sort of struck me that never was that truth that is expressed in the book truer than for Ashley Smith.”

Oyelowo said Smith told him she initially felt her kidnapping by a man who had murdered four other people before taking her captive was God’s way of saying to her, “You’ve messed up so much, you deserve death.” She never could have envisioned all that would come of her willingness to surrender to Him in that moment.

That God brought good from the situation does not erase the fact that four people lost their lives—among them, a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and a federal agent. The film is dedicated to those victims. Oyelowo doesn’t know if Nichols has seen it, but he said Nichols’ mother has and is “incredibly complimentary.” For a man who sees the potential for good and evil in all of us, her approval is a “relief.”

Unlike a lot of faith-based films, “Captive” does not feel like it is selling a product, even though passages from “The Purpose Driven Life” are read throughout. Perhaps this is only because, as a viewer, I knew this unlikely miracle actually happened.

Oyelowo said the filmmakers’ goal was simply to tell a good story.

“If your movie is agenda-ridden, whether it’s a horror movie or an action movie, whatever the kind of movie it is … it’s not good storytelling. Good storytelling is presenting things to the audience that enable them to project themselves into the situation and make decisions with the character as they’re going along,” said Oyelowo.

“Where I think films around faith have failed and the reason why they only appeal to a very niche and specific audience is because they lack complexity. They lack a degree of truthfulness in a sense. Anyone who has read the Bible will see that it’s an R-rated book, that it is a book full of darkness, full of complexity, full of the gray areas of life,” he said.

“What the Bible doesn’t do is glorify or glamorize those darknesses. It very much juxtaposes them with a possibility of light, but in a way that shows things in all their complexity–whether it’s David, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, or Jesus himself. You see the challenges these people faced and the fact that it wasn’t always pretty and it didn’t always have a happy ending. Moses didn’t get to go into the Promised Land. These are the things that I try to bring to storytelling, because I just see them to be the truth of what it is to be a human being on planet earth.”

This approach is why “Captive” is a cut above, and why we’ll keep watching David Oyelowo for many years to come.

Next up for the actor are “Five Nights in Maine,” a story about grief, with Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez (it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this month) and “A United Kingdom” with Rosamund Pike, based on the true story of Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana, whose interracial marriage caused an international stir in the late 1940s.

Christine A. Scheller is an Urban Faith editor-at-large. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC.


Ben Carson Lays Out His Vision for ‘One Nation’


Dr. Ben Carson (Photo Credit: John Hopkins Medicine)

For a generation of Christians (me among them), the name Ben Carson brought to mind the inspirational story of an angry young man who overcame his temper to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the first neurosurgeon to separate conjoined twins at the head. The politicized Ben Carson who emerged on the stage of the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast was a shock. Since then, Carson has become a popular, if controversial, political pundit. In his new book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, he lays out his vision for what some see as a presidential campaign platform. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christine A. Scheller:We spoke when the Affordable Care Act was affirmed by the Supreme Court. Your comments about the act seemed more moderate then. Has your perspective on it changed?

Dr. Ben Carson: I think it’s still a fundamental transfer of power from the people to the government. It’s exactly the wrong way to go, as demonstrated by the VA scandal. You just put layers and layers of bureaucrats between patients and healthcare providers and that is going to lead to the kinds of inefficiencies that we’re seeing with the VA, but it’s going to be considerably worse with more people involved.

And yet, a new study out of Rutgers University found that the number of uninsured citizens in the state has been reduced from more than a million to 430,000. Isn’t that a victory?

That’s a victory in only one sense. Of course, if you take people who don’t have health care and you make it available to them, that’s a good thing. But the way you do it, that’s where the problem occurs. Should we provide healthcare for everybody? I think so. I think a responsible society should do that and we can certainly do it. We pay twice as much per capita for healthcare as anybody else in the world. It’s a matter of incredible inefficiency. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it in a way that puts healthcare in the hands of the individual and their healthcare provider, not in the hands of bureaucrats, which just leads to a bigger, eventually much more expensive system.

OneNation_300-resizeWhy did you open One Nation with your 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech?

Because that had a profound affect on the nation.

In what way?

People resonated with that beyond anything I could have possibly imagined. It completely changed my life as well. I began to hear from so many people. I recognized that people in America have been made into enemies of each other and we’re not enemies. The real enemies are those who are trying to divide us up into every possible group. A wise man by the name of Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I want to make it very clear to people that we’re not each other’s enemies, that the kinds of things that are affecting our nation really should not be partisan issues, because they affect all of us. If we go over the financial cliff, everybody is going over the cliff–Democrats and Republicans. There are so many issues that we need to deal with as intelligent and rational people.

There was also a lot of criticism of the speech. Did you hear less of that than you did of the praise?

Considerably less, but it wouldn’t have mattered because of course you’re going to be criticized if you come out against the status quo, if you come out against people who are trying to fundamentally change America. What I would recommend to you if you really want to get a good idea quickly of what I’m talking about, there’s a video on Vimeo called “Agenda.” If you’ve got 92 minutes to invest, look at that.

There’s also a book called The Naked Communist. It was written in 1958 by Cleon Skousen, the same guy who wrote The 5000 Year Leap. It lays out the whole progressive plan for fundamentally changing America. The only thing that’s truly amazing is how quickly it’s being done. One of the ways to do it is to make the population dependent. You can read this in the writings of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Saul Alinksy. They talk about the best and fastest way to make the people dependent is to take control of their healthcare, which is the most important thing they have.

In the first half of the book, and in your comments now, you’re calling for more respectful dialogue. But there are ways in which you describe the “secular progressive” left that seem to undermine this message.

I don’t think so. You have to call a spade a spade. You have to point out what the problems are. It’s like if you’re a doctor and there’s a cancer there, you can’t say, “Well, these cells have a right to be there too; they’re actually nice cells.” No, you have to point out what is going on, because we’re talking about people who are trying to fundamentally change America from what it was. This was a very different nation from all the other nations of the world, where we respected each other’s rights to do whatever we wanted to do. The secular progressives, on the other hand, they want to shut people down. They don’t want to hear you. They don’t want anyone else to hear you. If you have a business, they want to destroy it. If you have a reputation, they want to destroy it. These are not good people by any stretch of the imagination. To try to soft-peddle it and make it seem like they are good people is ridiculous because what they pose is a threat to the American way of life. It’s a threat to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. People need to understand the difference.

I read your memoir, Gifted Hands, to my son, who had neurofibromatosis. Because of the field you were in, it was something we could identify with, and we found a lot of hope and inspiration in it. In that book, you described your mother as a strong single mother who was responsible for the trajectory of your life. Do I remember correctly that she would occasionally break down and spend time hospitalized?


And so, I wondered as I was reading your more politically conservative, anti-socialist rhetoric, wouldn’t it have been better for your mother to have had more personal support from the community, however that was meted out, so that she didn’t end up breaking down from the stress?

I think she did extremely well under the circumstances, coming from where she came from, having the kind of trauma that she had in her life, discovering that her husband was a bigamist, trying to raise young sons by herself. The system did support her. They were very kind and generous people. I don’t think a socialist medical system would have made her better.

I was a single mother for a short time. I worked and received Medicaid for myself and my son. During that time he was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis by a pediatrician who treated me abominably, I assumed because I was on Medicaid. I’m really grateful I had the support that was necessary for my child to get good healthcare. In the book, you do say we should provide better support for single mothers who want to go back to school, but your compassionate side gets lost for me when you compare social services to communism.

We have much better ways of doing it though. Go to and look at what we propose, using health savings accounts. For all Americans to have health savings accounts, it eliminates just the thing you were talking about — somebody treating you differently because you’re on Medicaid. That doesn’t happen with the health savings account. Everyone is treated exactly the same, and gets the same quality. That’s what we need in the system. We don’t need a two-tiered medical system.

Is that a realistic option? The battle over the ACA was intense. How would such a transition happen?

It’s extremely feasible. I’ve gone over it with a number of economists, with Physicians for Reform. In fact, the Congressional Health Care Caucus came out yesterday with legislation pushing the health savings account, and they indicated in the legislation that it was largely driven by me. This is where people go wrong, because they listen to propaganda. They think that people like me don’t want to take care of the poor and it’s the opposite. Not only do I want to take care of them, but I want them to have the same kind of care as everybody else.

In what had to be a painful decision, you withdrew last year as commencement speaker from Johns Hopkins University, the institution with which you’ve been affiliated throughout your career. A year later, in light of Condoleezza Rice and others withdrawing under pressure as commencement speakers, what are your thoughts about this phenomenon?

My thoughts are that we have gone almost over the cliff in terms of political correctness, and have forgotten one of the major premises of this country, which is freedom of speech. Our universities are supposed to be bastions of intellectual thought, conversation, looking at alternatives. We are teaching the students gossip. If someone doesn’t agree with you, we don’t want to hear from them. We don’t want to hear what they have to say. We don’t want anyone else to hear what they have to say. This is the beginning of fascism.

And yet, Michael Kinsley defended you in the New Republic last year and he could be described as a “secular progressive.” So maybe we’re not all so bad in the media?

Did you hear what Michael Bloomberg had to say about this?


It was very responsible. He was particularly talking about Ivy League institutions, but he said it was a total shame what was going on in America, and that universities really need to stop and take stock of what messages they’re sending. We’re turning into something different and we don’t want to turn into something different. In my case, the university certainly did not withdraw the invitation. The gays tried to drum up the media, which is pretty easy, to get the left wing media involved. It was very clear to me that the graduation would be about me. It wouldn’t be about the graduates and all their accomplishments. That’s why I withdrew.

Your wife is listed as coauthor on this book. What was her role in writing it?

She does a lot of the research. I like everything I say to be factually based.

I have to ask, are you planning to run for president?

It’s not something I have a desire to do by any stretch of the imagination. After a long and arduous career in neurosurgery, I was looking forward to a little bit of relaxation. But obviously I find my life going in a very different direction. The drumbeat is getting louder and louder. So I am keeping an open mind, but it is still not something I want to do.

Is your experience as the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins what qualifies you for the position?

I think the thing that is perhaps most important for leader is wisdom, because obviously we have a lot of people with a lot of experience in the world of politics who are not very good leaders. You also have to have enough humility to be able to listen to people, and you have to have a very good understanding of where you’re going. If you’re going to be the leader of this nation, you have to have a good understanding of the constitution and what the role of government is, what the role of the three branches of government are. You have to understand the role of the pinnacle nation in the world in leadership, and how that’s done. You have to understand geopolitical strategy. You have to know history, not only of this country but of multiple other countries. A lot people in leadership of our nation have significant deficits in those areas. It really doesn’t matter how long they’ve been in politics. The more important issue is what you can bring to the table.

And so, if I was to ask: “Why should UrbanFaith readers vote for you?” would that be your answer?

My answer would be, “I’m not running for anything yet.”

The Black Nativity Lights Up the Screen with Stars and Spirit

“There’s fire in the east, there’s fire in the west, there’s fire among the Methodists.

Satan’s mad and I’m so glad he missed the soul he thought he had. This is the year of jubilee,

the Lord hath come to set us free.”

–Langston Hughes, Black Nativity

Black Nativity, the new film adaptation of Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, is not a literal take on the play’s straightforward gospel narrative. Instead it is a modern retelling that Bishop T.D. Jakes (one of the film’s producers) told UrbanFaith is as much about “hope for struggling families” as it is about bringing the Hughes’ classic to the big screen. “It grapples with the fact that families are hard to hold together and you don’t always do it right,” said Jakes. Even so, when asked why he chose to produce a Langston Hughes project, Jakes said his late mother would “get out of the grave and get him” if he didn’t, because in her hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, Hughes was afforded the kind of reverence others give to William Shakespeare.

“Rereading the play, I realized that I had to build a story for it to exist in,” said writer/director Kasi Lemmons. She wanted to create a timeless, yet modern film about the “small miracle of forgiveness” — how “when you open your heart, the planets align and it allows God to come through,” she said.

Hughes struggled with issues of faith and had a “complicated” relationship with the church, said Lemmons. “He was very interested, anthropologically and historically, in what the church is for—speaking as African Americans—for our community and what it’s done historically.”

Likewise, faith is a complicated issue for her. “Complicated things were going on in my life, and so it’s infused with a lot of wondering — how do I know what I believe? It was more than a straight-ahead look at it,” she said.

That, along with the vibrant Raphael Saadiq score and the actors’ stellar performances, is what makes Black Nativity compelling. One of the film’s great successes is its full, nuanced portrait of humanity. There are no clear villains or protagonists, just family members struggling to make their way, living with the consequences of their choices, and trying to make things right with themselves, with God, and with each other.

Black Nativity stars Forest Whitaker and Jacob Latimore (Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight)

The Reverend Cornell Cobbs, for example, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, exhibits deep reverence for black history and culture, but is paying the price for his misguided attempt to keep his daughter from throwing her life away on the wrong guy.

“He’s great in the pulpit, but it doesn’t make him a great dad,” said Jakes. “I see that every day. The notion that because you’re good at one thing means your good at everything is erroneous. He’s growing as a person and as a father.”

Asked whether he had anything to do with this pastoral portrayal, Jakes said Lemmons wrote a realistic depiction of preachers and the church, one without the “toxicity” or disrespect often found in film. “Much of what I see out here now has some venom in it for the church. It’s in the underbelly of the writing … and you can’t wash it out of the script. As we began to send in notes about the script, we weren’t trying to sanitize a pig,” said Jakes.

As the teenage boy who draws the family back together, Jacob Latimore’s character Langston is sent to stay with his grandparents over the Christmas holiday while his mother tries to figure out a solution to their financial problems. He doesn’t understand their estrangement from his struggling mother and challenges his grandfather, the pastor, about their beautiful Harlem home. “You got this tight crib… What kind of parents are you?” he says. “We’re the broken-hearted kind,” the pastor answers, with all the brilliant pathos one would expect to be infused into words spoken by an actor of Whitaker’s caliber.

The film’s stars were drawn to the project for many of the same reasons its producer and writer/director were.

Whitaker comes from a family of Southern Baptist preachers, but said the universal themes of love and forgiveness resonated with him. In his work, he strives for connection – connection with his characters and their connections with others. “That’s the driving force of all of my work. Now, I may not be able to accomplish it as completely in my life as I would like. I try. But, certainly in my work, the quest, the amount of dedication that I move towards, is in a spiritual realm. It is guided completely by my understanding of connection and my understanding of the divine,” said Whitaker.

“Forgiveness is everything, because people make mistakes. In the movie, the family made a mistake and the child needed to have his family,” said Mary J. Blige, who plays Langston’s platinum-haired guardian angel. Asked about her own journey with forgiveness, Blige said becoming a Christian was transformative. “Understanding what it is, reading the word, and understanding how important forgiveness is for you—not for someone else and not for God—for you, it changed my life,” she said.

Jennifer Hudson, who plays the reverend’s daughter Naima, grew up in church and is raising her son there too, she said. She was drawn to the film by its spiritual and family themes. “I’m a holiday fanatic, a family fanatic, and I grew up in church. All of those things are what drew me to the role. I feel as though we’re missing those things today. Where are those family films that you can sit on the couch together or go to the movies and see together?” said Hudson.

Several of the stars, including Blige and Hudson, knew little of Langston Hughes before signing on to the project. Angela Bassett, on the other hand, said reading his work as a teenager is what made her want to be an actor.

At the press junket UrbanFaith attended in Los Angeles, there was much talk about whether black films are a trend this year and what it means if they are. “It’s such a weird little conversation. There are more films with people that look like you,” said Angela Bassett, who plays the pastor’s wife, Aretha Cobbs. “When we’re playing characters, we’re just playing human beings. So, to be boxed or limited … it’s just odd. It’s good work, the films that are out, it’s good work and varied work and that’s good. If it’s a trend, may it continue until it’s not a trend and it just is.”

“The black community has fought for human rights and personal rights. It translates itself to other communities and it continues to move forward,” said Whitaker. “So it’s an indicator that a broader spectrum, as Angela said, is about to open… It’s a progression of healing that has to occur and it’s actively happening. We’re all seeing it.”

Yes, we’re all seeing it and, like this film, it’s good.

A Washington D.C. audience heartily and vocally embraced the film last week. A group of middle-aged women told UrbanFaith afterwards that they loved it, but a young journalist said he had trouble figuring out what was going on with a dream sequence and adjusting to characters breaking into song amidst the dialogue. He also said he sometimes felt like he was in church. Back in LA, Hudson said the film set felt like church to her at times too.

If people associate their experience of this film with church – where they’re challenged and/or bored, uplifted and/or embarrassed, so be it. “Talking about religion may kill your faith,” Hughes wrote in his play. “People who really believe don’t worry about it—because the Lord is going to make a way.”

Jesse Jackson: Christians Must Stay Engaged in the Political Process

RIDING THE THIRD RAIL: Rev. Jesse Jackson says politics isn’t enough.

With one day left until the election, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has the presidential candidates “deadlocked.” But no matter who wins, Christians must stay engaged in the political process, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week at Columbia University. Our faith demands it.

“It is not the politics of the two parties that take us far; it is the protest and conscientious objection of the third rail that takes us far,” Jackson said October 25 during a conversation about “Politics, Religion, and the Presidential Race. (The other two participants were The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Columbia University visiting religion scholar Obery Hendricks.)

Hearkening back to his own historic 1988 presidential run and to his work during the civil rights movement, Jackson said, “Change comes from the third rail. … We must discuss what was not discussed on the agenda, and that means we must not be so co-opted by politics … or so absorbed by it to lose the distinction.” In fact, President Obama was a student at Columbia when Jackson debated Water Mondale and Gary Hart, Jackson said, and Obama concluded from the debate that a black man could become president.

“Part of our movement has been to raise the issues not raised,” he said. “Those are issues of the inconvenient, issues of conscience.” Difficult questions have made past presidents better, Jackson explained, and if this president is reelected, as Jackson hopes, supporters must not “let him down” by failing to raise “the right questions of conscience so as to give him the right options from which to make choices.”

Asked what role spirituality can play in politics, Jackson said, “You can be spiritual but have no moral mandate and substance. … Those of us who are Christians have a leader who is spiritual with a concrete agenda.” That agenda is to love the Lord our God and treat our neighbors as ourselves, he said. ‘The Spirit gives a mandate to do something, … It  means feed the hungry. It means care for those whose backs are against the wall. You can be spiritual and not do anything. You cannot be a Christian without doing that.”

Jesus was born under death warrant from a regime that was trying to stop the rise of leadership in an “occupied zone,” Jackson said. His mission was not about the middle class, but about preaching the good news to the poor and challenging religious complicity with Rome and its oppressive tendencies. “Our morality is measured by how we treat not the middle of these, but the least of these,” Jackson said. “I was hungry and you fed me, not I was not hungry and you gave me a vacation.”

Jackson complained that when the moderator of the vice presidential debate asked candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan how their shared Catholic faith informs their positions on abortion, both men gave political answers to a religious question. “They gave an American answer to a Christianity question and the moderator accepted it and didn’t delve deeper,” Jackson said.

Likewise, concern for Obama’s reelection has meant that some questions of conscience that could lead to his greatness are not being raised by his supporters, Jackson said. Questions must be disciplined, not hostile, though, if they are to be heard. “To me,  that is the progressive tension,” he said. “How do we raise the right questions to our friends?”

What do you think?

If your candidate wins, will you keep riding the third rail?