The Challenge of Diversity on Christian College Campuses

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.

Denominations Pursuing Diversity

Denominations Pursuing Diversity

The Southern Baptist Convention is the latest majority-white denomination to publicly reaffirm its efforts to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in its leadership ranks. Earlier this month, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) announced that Ken Weathersby, an African American, would fill the newly created role of Presidential Ambassador for Ethnic Church Relations. Weathersby will work to facilitate diversity in the SBC’s executive leadership circles, as well as in the convention’s local churches.

Ken Weathersby

The SBC’s efforts are bold, especially in light of its complicated history with race relations. But it’s far from the first predominantly white evangelical denomination to get serious about racial and ethnic diversity. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) have been at it for a long time, too. And, despite inevitable challenges, both are making headway.

A Long Road Ahead

“I definitely celebrate the progress that is being made in terms of Christ centered multi-ethnic development within evangelicalism, but I also would say we have a long way to go,” said Rev. Efrem Smith, Superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Pacific Southwest Conference.

Smith’s sentiments were echoed by three other African American leaders that we  talked to in the weeks since the Southern Baptists’ NAMB announced its appointment of Weathersby to his new executive role.

Southern Baptists Working, Not Talking

NAMB’s move follows closely behind the SBC’s election of Rev. Fred Luter as its first African American first vice president. UrbanFaith emailed Weathersby as soon as the news broke to request an interview as we had done after Luter’s election. This time, however, NAMB’s vice president for Communications Mike Ebert replied saying Weathersby needs time to settle into the job before granting interviews. Several other SBC pastors, including Luter, either didn’t return calls requesting an interview or declined to talk about the SBC’s diversity push.

Smith and other leaders in the ECC and the EFCA did agree to talk to us about the trend and wished the SBC well in their pursuit of change.

“The real progress in the Southern Baptist or any evangelical denomination will be when the president of Southern Seminary is a person of color, when the district superintendent in the Southern Baptist Church, when the president of the Southern Baptist Church is a person of color,” said Smith.

Evangelical Covenant Church Takes Holistic Approach

“Instead of one reconciling ethnic staff person who focuses on diversity, our president [Gary Walter] has said, ‘We need at all levels of leadership in this denomination to have a commitment to diversity,” said Smith.

Efrem Smith

“I’m a 41-year-old African American who is leading the largest conference in our denomination. A few years ago, I would have never dreamed that would have been a possibility for me, not because I’m saying the denomination is racist, but it’s not every day that an evangelical denomination elects an African American superintendent. … Out of 11 superintendents, we have three that are African American and one who’s a native Alaskan,” he said.

Executive Vice President at Covenant Ministries of Benevolence Harold Spooner worked with Walter and others to create a Five-fold Test for multi-ethnic ministry instead of hiring a point person.

“One of the things that we discovered in the process is churches and organizations will hire a person and give that person that title, then what tends to happen is that everything ethnic goes to that person and so the buy-in wasn’t necessarily whole and complete,” said Spooner.

With a little over 800 churches and 200,000 or less members nationally, the vitality of the denomination has depended upon ethnic growth, Spooner said. Twenty-four to 25 percent of ECC churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic, he said.

“One of the things that we strongly believe is that God is a God of cultures. Yes, we’re created equal. Yes, we’re all human beings. But we also have various ethnic backgrounds that when you don’t deny the ethnic realities and embrace those, you become more whole as people,” said Spooner.

Reformed Church in America Follows ECC Lead

Spooner grew up in a predominantly black Harlem church in the majority white Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination and worked for the RCA in the late 1970s. He recalls, at the time, his Reformed brethren would joke that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

Harold Spooner

“The Reformed Church had a long way to go at the time. The interesting thing in the Reformed Church is that they are now looking at some of the things that we have done,” he said.

In a 2010 report, RCA general secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he is encouraged that more than one-third of its 249 new congregations are “racially or ethnically different than the RCA Anglo majority.” He warned, however, that a “relationship gap” between traditional and new congregations poses “the greatest threat to the RCA’s life together as a whole.” RCA created a Multi-Racial Strategy Coalition to guide its efforts toward diversity and has adopted its own Five-fold Test that mirrors the ECC’s.

Evangelical Free’s ‘Big Passion’ for Diversity

Dr. Alvin Sanders is Executive Director of Reconciliation for the EFCA. In collaboration with EFCA’s President, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Development Officer, and Vice Presidents of National and International Ministry, Sanders helps determine the direction of his denomination, he said.

Alvin Sanders

“Our mission statement is to glorify God by multiplying healthy churches among all people. I’m the chief architect of the ‘all people,’” said Sanders. He was hired four years ago in response to an EFCA reorganization and said diversity has been “a big passion” for EFCA’s president Dr. William J. Hamel, who created a task force on the issue in the 1990s.

“I believe this is an emerging paradigm. I see within some Christian colleges and universities my type of position, but other denominations or para-church organizations are going at this at a different rate. To be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who has my exact same position. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I definitely know within denominational circles, they’re not plentiful,” said Sanders.

“Christian organizations need to wake up. If we’re going to really reach the mission field of the United States, and fulfill the mandate of the Scriptures, we need to be more diverse. … It’s simply a matter of practicing transformative leadership and changing policies, practices and procedures so that the organizational culture becomes one where ethnics will self-select to be a part of what you’re doing,” he said.

Sanders advocates a “two-pronged” approach of helping white churches to realize that pursuing diversity should be a priority and working with ethnic churches and leaders to address historical distrust between the races. “Their major question is: why should we be joined with you all? It’s a different paradigm depending on which group you’re dealing with,” said Sanders.

About 15 percent of EFCA’s 1500 churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic and 35 percent of new church plants are, he said. But EFCA wants 20 percent of its churches to be ethnic or multi-ethnic by the year 2020. When 20 percent of “the other” is incorporated, the fabric of an organization changes, he said.

Building Bridges of Loyalty and Trust

Dante Upshaw

In 2004, the EFCA hired Rev. Dante Upshaw to serve as its first Director of African American Ministries. He had been a youth pastor and elder in a Chicago EFCA church, but said that like many members of urban and ethnic churches, he was only “marginally connected” to the denomination and felt no sense of loyalty to it.

“For ethnic and urban leaders, it really takes effort to have someone to be a bridge between the denomination and local leaders. That’s primarily my role, to be a bridge builder,” said Upshaw. With 15-to-20 African American pastors identified in 2004, EFCA’s prayer was to grow to 100 active and involved leaders by 2010, he said. “We reached that in 2009.”

African Americans are also serving on national and district boards, so they’re not just increasing in numbers, but having an impact, Upshaw added.

SBC Reports Its Progress

Although SBC pastors declined to talk to UrbanFaith for this article, last week the denomination’s own Baptist Press published an article about the change.

“African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent,” Baptist Press reported.

“Luter’s election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year’s annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging ‘to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collecttive ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” the article stated. Luter recently said he’s 80 percent sure he will run for the SBC presidency next year.

A Vocal Critic in the SBC

Dwight McKissic

Among the SBC pastors who were unavailable for comment was Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic has been perhaps the most vocal internal critic of his denomination’s record on race.

In two blog posts last spring, McKissic outlined accusations of egregious racism within SBC’s churches. The Associated Baptist Press took note.

“The SBC must repent of systemic, institutionalized and historic negative attitudes toward women, race and dissenters. … When we repent of our sins and turn from our wicked ways, then God will forgive our sins and heal our convention and anoint us to go forth with power in carrying out the Great Commission,” McKissic is quoted as saying.

McKissic also started floating the name of Fred Luter as a candidate for SBC president back in 2010, more than a year before Luter’s rise to the position of SBC first vice president.

A Painful, Rewarding Process

As the SBC and other denominations attempt to more fully reflect and embrace the beauty and diversity God intended for his church, the process is sure to be painful.

“I’ve got to really understand God’s love for me,” said Upshaw. “That’s a challenge. When I’m struggling with that, it makes it really hard to love other folks, [especially] someone who is very different from me, be it culturally or whatever.”

He added, “What has to keep me getting up each morning and pressing through the disappointment is that this is a step of obedience in reflecting the kingdom. The family of God is a beautiful tapestry of all kinds of people: men and women, poor, wealthy, Hispanic, African American. When our local church or denomination doesn’t reflect that, we’re missing something.”