UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.) announced today that its founder Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., died on Saturday, February 13, at 86. Dr. Banks launched UMI in 1970 to provide African American churches and individuals with images reflecting their congregations and relatable, Christ-centered content from an urban perspective.
“Dr. Banks was a revolutionary publisher and giant for the African American church and community,” said C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UMI. “He was the first to create contextualized content that portrayed positive images of African Americans in the Bible. Because of his innovation, UMI has reached millions of Black churches and individuals with the Gospel.”
For the last 50 years, under Dr. Banks’ leadership, UMI has developed Christian education resources, including Bible studies, Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School curriculum, websites, magazines, books, and videos for its 40,000+ strong customer base. He wrote a number of books and devotionals and hosted a two-minute daily podcast called Daily Direction. In 1995, he brought on Mr. Wright as CEO to take on the day-to-day management of the company. Many evangelical organizations have recognized his pioneering work, including the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which presented him with its inaugural Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
“So many people have been introduced to the life-changing message of Jesus because of Dr. Banks’ ground-breaking initiatives,” said Terri Hannett, Vice President of UMI. “For 50 years, UMI has produced discipleship content that was intellectually rigorous and uniquely relevant for the Black experience.”
Dr. Banks was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1934 and made a commitment to salvation at the age of 9 years old. He graduated from Moody Bible College in Chicago in 1955 and attended Wheaton College, earning a B.A. degree in theology in 1958 and his master’s degree in biblical studies in 1960. After graduation, he took a job at Scripture Press Publishers, where he struggled to sell euro-centric Sunday School content to African American churches. This experience led him to create contextual resources for African Americans with imagery and stories unique to their culture. After a few years, he left the company to start his own to expand the publishing content for Black churches.
Dr. Banks had served as board chair since 1994 after the passing of Tom Skinner, the founding board chair of UMI. On February 14, 2021, the UMI Board of Directors voted to appoint Dr. Stanley Long to the role of Chairman after serving as Vice Chairman for the past 45 years.
“Dr. Banks has been one of my closest friends for nearly 50 years,” said Dr. Stanley Long, Chairman of the UMI board. “I will miss him beyond what words can describe. He and I have shared the same vision and burden for as many years as we have been friends. As board chair, I will invest as much energy as he did to continue the work of UMI in the same direction it has journeyed from its inception, to impact the lives of as many men, women, and children as possible.”
Dr. Banks also planted the Westlawn Gospel Chapel church in Chicago and co-founded the Urban Outreach Foundation to reach pastors, lay leaders, and Christian educators through conferences and other resources. He also co-founded Circle Y Ranch, a Christian camp and conference center for urban youth. Dr. Banks received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Wheaton College in 1992 and served as a Board Trustee.
Dr. Banks died from a month-long illness and is survived by his wife Olive and his three children Melvin Jr., Patrice Lee, and Reginald. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Circle Y Ranch Bible Camp c/o UMI 1551 Regency Ct., Calumet City, IL 60409 or donate via the website: https://circleyranch.net referencing Dr. Banks. Resolutions and tributes can be sent to [email protected].
“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.”
“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.”
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.
George Yancey has been an important voice on diversity within American Christianity. In addition to authoring several books, the University of North Texas sociologist is cofounder of the Mosaix Network, a relational association that promotes multiethnic churches and interactions between ethnically diverse churches. Yancey’s most recent book, Neither Jew Nor Gentile, is anacademic exploration of racial and ethnic diversity on Protestant campuses. Urban Faith contributor Joshua Canada talked to Yancey about his work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DIVERSITY PROF: George Yancey.
URBAN FAITH: You have written a number of books about diversity. What was your motivation for writing about colleges and universities?
GEORGE YANCEY: As I worked with different churches that wanted to become more racially diverse, I noticed that they had a hard time finding pastoral and lay leaders. I realized that part of the problem was that the people they were seeking as leaders tended to come from racially homogenous colleges and universities. I wanted to study Christian colleges and universities to see how they can do a better job preparing students for a multiracial world.
You divide your findings between Conservative and Mainline institutions. What similarities and differences did you find?
Generally, conservative Protestant churches are more evangelical and more willing to make cultural adjustments to incorporate people of different races but are blinder to the power dynamics of race relations. The opposite is true about Mainline denominations in that they are more set in their worship traditions, but more aware of racial dynamics of power. … Mainline colleges and universities are more likely to utilize diversity programs than Conservative colleges and universities
You wrote that multicultural programming is not always the most effective way to promote diversity. When is programming effective?
I suspect that programming that just dictates to students what they should believe is unlikely to be effective. On the other hand, programming that encourages open dialogue and produces knowledge is likely to be effective.
How did students respond to multicultural programming?
A lot of the time, students did not even know about that programing. The most popular response was to ignore it. Other students became aware of the multicultural programming, but resented it as they thought that it just made people angry. These students had a colorblind perspective. Some students benefited from the programs since it brought them more awareness and knowledge, but most did not. White students tended to be more receptive to diversity classes compared to others’ efforts. … White students are also pretty receptive to professors of color.
Previous research has shown that faculty-student interaction plays an important role in the development of college students’ views on diversity and multiculturalism. What did you find?
Interaction seemed especially important to White students. They were more likely to alter their racial perspective due to interaction with professors. For students of color, this interaction was at times an important way for them to gain reinforcement. But they did not tend to change their past racial perspectives due to such interactions.
Did you find it to be true that Black students have a particularly difficult time persisting at predominantly-White institutions?
There appears to be little that can be done to recruit Black students relative to other minority groups. They are retained with many of the similar measures of other students of color and perhaps in the long-run that will aid in recruitment. But short-term recruitment is difficult for Black students. They are also more likely to attend Protestant colleges to participate in athletics and less likely to come to the colleges for spiritual reasons. It may be that culturally Blacks define Christian spirituality differently than those of other races.
As a whole, what were some of the most significant difficulties ethnic-minority students at predominately-White institutions faced?
If ethnic-minorities are racialized, then they often have a difficult cultural adjustment. They also are aware of the White-nonWhite power dynamics and want to be heard. The lack of professors of color also means a lack of role models and opportunities to gain mentoring.
What can Protestant institutions do to cultivate a healthy environment for ethnic-minority students?
The biggest thing they can do is recruit more professors of color and start academic programs that produce more diversity courses. The latter may be easier than the former since people of color are underrepresented in academia. I would also encourage them to support student led multicultural organizations as long as those organizations are focused on bringing people together.
What role does an institution’s Christian faith play into the institution’s pursuit of diversity?
Christian faith could aid in diversity pursuits, but only if that faith is interpreted in a way that includes different Christian cultures. A narrow and culturally bounded interpretation of that faith will scare away people who are not of that racially-based cultural tradition.
How can ethnic-minority organizations support their students at predominately-White Protestant institutions?
They can provide a place where these students can get back in touch with their cultural and often spiritual roots. They must be careful not to be too exclusive since more students today are developing friends across the racial spectrum. However, they can be places of refuge if they remember to encourage the student to go back out into a multiracial world after they have gotten their rest
What will be the impact of more diverse Protestant institutions on American Christianity and why is this necessary?
First, we will have a better witness as Christians. Having more diverse Protestant colleges and universities will help to remove the stigma of Christianity being only a “White man’s” religion.
Second, we will have leaders better trained for a multiracial world. Christians cannot reach the world if they can only reach those in their race. …
Finally, students will have a better overall college experience. There is a good amount of work suggesting that exposure to different racial groups is correlated with a number of positive outcomes, for example better problem-solving abilities. We should want our students to gain these positive benefits as well.
George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, seems like an unlikely place for a racial incident: The small Christian college was founded by Quakers, who were active in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War and helped slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.
But last year, on Sept. 23, a university employee found a life-sized cardboard cutout of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama hanging from a tree on campus, with a sign attached to it that read: “Act Six reject.” The phrase was a reference to a program by George Fox and Portland Central Young Life that offers full scholarships and leadership training to area high school students. Most, but not all, of the recipients are from minority groups. (more…)