So another Black History Month is here, and for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types that hail from the Black community, it’s an opportunity that comes with a burden.
February is a time when your workplace, school, or church might be more open to forms of artistic expression that highlights the achievements of Black people, particularly for those of you who live and/or work in a predominantly White community. And while it’s obviously a great opportunity to highlight the best of our tradition as a community, it also means that from an exposure standpoint, it’s an opening to get your songs, poems, plays, or paintings seen and heard by people who might be able to support you financially.
But the burden is the challenge of successfully executing your art without being swallowed whole by the bitterness of the struggle. I mean, let’s just be honest: struggle might be the catalyst that serves to incubate powerful works of art, but it’s terrible as a sales technique. No one can alienate their audience through their art and simultaneously persuade them to become financial supporters.
The truth is, we’ve come a long way as African Americans. No longer are we restricted to the kinds of gigs and roles that kept us docile and subservient in the minds of the majority. In recent years, there has been a greater level of visibility to the everyday struggle that Black Americans endure, and it’s also helped place a premium on authentic Black art that helps to articulate that struggle.
Still, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall into a false dichotomy, where we feel like either we must keep it fully 100 at all times with our art, or we’re selling out for the money.
But there’s a middle ground.
Discerning the Difference
Ten years ago, I was in a hip-hop duo traveling to a Christian camp to do a concert for a bunch of youth from the inner city. When I arrived onto the campus, I headed to the most logical place for music performance—the chapel.
As I walked into the chapel, I walked up to the sound booth, and told the guy that I was with the hip-hop group that was supposed to perform. He gave me this blank stare, so I thought, “Hey, it’s loud in here, so maybe he can’t hear me that well.” I tried again, a bit louder.
“I’m with the Iccsters… y’know, the hip-hop group.”
Again, he gives me this confused stare. And then he says, “This is Christian camp.”
Right then and there, I almost lost it. I could tell that he didn’t really mean to say anything offensive to me, but it was like all the years of being stereotyped as a young Black man, overlooked and misunderstood as a rap artist, all the times hip-hop had been blamed for all of society’s problems—by other Christians, no less!—almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to set him straight and tell him that there are Christians who perform hip-hop, and his assumption was shortsighted, racist, and insulting.
But I had somewhere to go, so I swallowed that rage, walked out of the room, called my contact, and located my actual destination (a different building with a smaller setup).
Often, when I’m invited to share hip-hop as a form of worship music and find myself in spaces that remind me of that day, I’m tempted to go back to that moment, tap into that rage, and give the audience a piece of my pain.
The wisdom and maturity of age helped me learn how to posture myself, not as someone with an axe to grind, but as someone with something of value to share. And when I share my pain, I do it with an eye toward giving others an opportunity to join me in my struggle, instead of guilting them for not already being onboard.
Sometimes God calls us to stand up and fight; other times, He simply gives as an opportunity to share who we are and how we got here. As an artist, my prayer is for us to flip the script and learn to discern the difference.
“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.
Forgiveness is the ultimate form of love—and that love is a creation of God that is seen throughout Octavia Spencer’s performance as Papa, a character that is one of the depictions of God , in The Shack. Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington (Avatar), is a character whom some would call a “churching” Christian due to a combination of an upbringing by an abusive father who was an elder in the church, and the unwavering faith of his wife.
The movie, based on the bestselling novel with the same title, centers on Mack’s loss of faith after his daughter is kidnapped and killed during a period the author calls “The Great Sadness.” When Mack receives a letter from Papa, he encounters the many faces of God, including Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), Wisdom/Sophia (Alice Braga), and what is described as the Breath of Life (Sumire Matsubara). This film will take moviegoers on a spiritual and emotional journey beyond the Bible and help them understand how God works all things out with love. Be prepared for a light chuckle, the vibration of an elevated way of thinking, and a healing upon leaving the theater.
We Are Made in His Image
In a time when the racial rhetoric has become aggressive and the Bible is sometimes used as justification, it is beautiful to see the different elements of God played by a racially and ethnically diverse cast. There was some criticism leading up to the film’s release that Papa was being portrayed as a Black woman: To some people, that is just not how God looks. As the film reaches more people, the color and gender of God depicted will matter less. Papa appears as many people to convey the idea of many religions in the film; the message is that, essentially, we are all connected through the same God, no matter the appearance.
Bad Things Happen
The biggest question that is continually reiterated in this film is: “Why did you let this happen?” This is a question on everyone’s mind as our world is filled with senseless violence, corrupt politics, and very little compassion for our brothers and sisters. Sometimes we wonder why terrible things occur if God is so mighty and powerful, or why God has abandoned us. One moviegoer, Chaunetta, a former doubter, identifies with this sentiment.
“I’ve always felt like I got the short end of the stick when it came to my life,” Chaunetta explained. “I use to say that God may be all-present but he forgot about me. Seeing this film was right on time, because now I see that I am not alone [in that feeling]. This was a message to all who feel like they’ve been abandoned, and they haven’t been.”
There is a powerful image of Mack drowning in his fears and sorrows instead of relying on God, in all forms, to work with Him and take it away. When unfortunate things occur, we can blame ourselves, God, and whomever else before surrendering it to God, which drives us into a deeper darkness and further from our peace.
We Must Forgive
Mack goes through a path of forgiveness in which he combats a variety of emotions, including anger. Wisdom gives him a “Ghost of Christmas Past”-like awakening to show that Papa is the final judge and that our willingness to take that power away is so rampant that it creates wars and more sorrow, as explained by the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches Mack how to rely on God for healing and in those moments you’ll feel like you can walk on water. Forgiveness in this film is the direct key to peace for Mack and although it is not an easy road, it is worth the journey.
The Shack is a film for the moviegoer who wants to experience a connection to God instead of the sermon of a preacher. It is also for those who want to experience God’s grace through the eyes of Mack. And for those who have questions about God’s existence, this is a great flying lesson that reinforces how the love of our omnipresent God is with us always.
Check out the official movie trailer of The Shack below:
Do you agree with the portrayal of God in The Shack? Share your thoughts below.
When spring semester begins at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Jewell Jones will be like most college seniors, finishing up credits and looking forward to graduation, with one exception: Jones recently made history when he became the youngest state representative ever elected in the state of Michigan.
While serving in your state legislature isn’t a common extracurricular activity for most undergraduates, Jones is not new to politics. He first made national headlines after becoming the youngest person elected to the city council in Inkster, MI. Now, at only 21 years old, the political science and business double major is making history again before crossing the stage.
Jones ran for the seat after the passing of Rep. Julie Plawecki, D-11, whom Jones knew personally and describes as “a very passionate and community-driven individual; someone, simply, with a warm heart.”
Jones first became engaged in community organizing and politics at a young age by attending events with his family and church. “I’ve been extremely active in my church, traveling all over the nation to visit our different Temples, and for as long as I can remember, being about service to the people,” Jones says. “[I went from] a drummer, to an usher, a nurse to a Junior Deacon, to now, a Senior Deacon. I’ve learned to offer a helping hand where it was needed, and ensure my brothers and sisters are taken care of!”
Juggling a budding political career with schoolwork can be hard, but Jones says he takes it all in stride, knowing he can’t be everywhere and focusing instead on where he can be. Outside of his political responsibilities, he’s also deeply involved in his school’s Black Student Union and Army ROTC. Despite the pressures, Jones says most have been supportive of his work, and one of his biggest keys to success is having a strong support system. Jones believes that “having someone in your corner” makes a world of difference.
“A robust and formidable support system allows one to navigate through life, much more rapidly,” he says, “and on a greater level as the team continues to grow.”
Known as the “Neighborhood Hope Dealer” to many, Jones hopes to bring more people—especially youth—into their communities to make a difference. It’s something he’s been passionate about since attending a Congressional Black Caucus conference in the nation’s capital a few years ago.
“There are plenty of opportunities [to be involved]—one can become a precinct delegate, or just a concerned citizen/community organizer with some sort of community organization, or simply behind an issue that they’re passionate about,” Jones explains. “Really, all it takes is getting off the sidelines. Start talking to people, and the door will be opened.”
This attitude toward community change has propelled Jones into the national spotlight and leadership roles in his community, where he intends to promote “the classic approach, through grassroots organizing and educating and expanding the electorate.” All of this comes at a time when politics in America couldn’t be more divisive, with tensions high across the nation, including Michigan. When asked about his advice on bridging gaps in the local community, Jones is optimistic and direct.
“Everyone’s experiencing the same issues,” Jones says. “We need to begin working together, lay it all out on the table, and bring the diversity of opinion and ideas to the forefront to make sure we are truly working for the betterment of society. We need to have more conversations, listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.”
Already, Jones has the mindset of a seasoned leader, and true to his new service position in state government, the representative-elect is most excited to meet new people, bring resources to his neighbors, and see the greater community succeed.
“In the future, I am looking forward to seeing the fruition of the movement that’s going on—young people are making huge strides.”
This year’s Olympic Games include many American athletes of color to root for in a range of sports. While it’s quite overwhelming to keep up with medal counts, records and your favorite athletes, the Olympics are an incredibly inspirational culmination of hard work, sacrifice, and faith. It takes just as many prayers as it does crunches to reach the greatest level in sports. We compiled a short list of American athletes who have boldly confessed their Christian faith on the way to Rio. Check out their stories below and be sure to cheer them on in the coming weeks!
Trayvon Bromell, Track & Field
Twenty-one-year-old Trayvon Bromell is a member of the men’s 100m relay team, something that seemed almost impossible just a few years ago. After suffering debilitating knee and hip injuries, Bromell executed patience and diligence on the road to recovery. “I didn’t have the resources and my family didn’t either, but God got us through it and it all paid off. I put my faith in God, knowing He would get me through it,” Bromell said in a 2015 interview. A junior at Baylor University and NCAA champion, Bromell has received attention from sprinting greats Michael Johnson and Justin Gatlin. He regularly professes his faith on Twitter, including in his bio, “He must become greater; I must become less.” He’s the reigning indoor world champion in the 60m sprint, and will make his Olympic debut August 13 in the 100m and August 18 in the 4x100m relay.
Carlin Isles, Rugby Sevens
Carlin Isles, 26, is known as the fastest man in rugby. A former track and football star at Ashland University, Isles was a long shot prepping for the London Olympics when he came across rugby sevens video online. Knowing his shot at the Olympic track team was slim, he called the head of the U.S. rugby team, switched cities, and began training in a new sport—a decision that required a great leap of faith. “I knew it probably wouldn’t be easy at first … Basically, I put my faith in God and myself and it all panned out,” he told the New York Times. This is the first Olympics featuring rugby sevens (the condensed version of rugby) as a medal sport, and Isles, though only 5 feet 8 inches tall, is one of the quickest in the world. He recently told ESPN, “I pray that when I get there, I can do what God allows me to do and take it from there. I’m sure a good Olympic showing would only be beneficial.” The U.S. team competes against Argentina in Group A on August 9.
Simone Biles, Women’s Gymnastics
By now, you’ve probably heard that Simone Biles and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team won the gold medal during the 2016 Olympic Games which further confirms what we already knew about this woman of God. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most decorated athletes in the world. The gold medalist has taken the entire world by storm during this year’s games and even has a gravity-defying move named after her (Google “The Biles” to see what we mean.), but her story hasn’t always been this amazing. Biles was born to drug-addicted parents which resulted in she and her siblings being shuffled between her mother’s house and foster care. Thankfully, her grandparents eventually adopted Biles and her sister and raised the girls in a God-fearing home where faith and family always came first. Now, fast-forward to today, and you are sure to find a rosary that was given to Biles by her grandmother in her gym bag, and you’ll definitely find her attending church on her only day off from her grueling training schedule, Sunday. In the midst of all the media attention and extraordinary ability, the gymnast has always made faith and family her main priority.
Jordan Burroughs, Wrestling
Jordan Burroughs is defending his Olympic title in freestyle wrestling during the Rio Games. The three-time All-American and two-time undefeated national champion has won multiple international titles and Olympic gold, but none of it, according to Burroughs, compares to a relationship with God. “A gold medal is always going to leave you empty … There’s no other thing in life that’s more fulfilling than a relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s all about being content with God’s provision.” In a beautiful blog post from 2012, Burroughs writes, “I believe that Faith is the most important aspect of our sport and our lives. As a competitor, the first day that we decide to put on a pair of wrestling shoes and step into the center circle and shake hands, we need faith before any victory can ever be earned.” He will begin his title defense August 19 in the men’s freestyle 74kg division.
Claressa Shields, Boxing
Reigning Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields dominated the amateur boxing world and won in her weight class at the inaugural Olympic women’s boxing tournament in London in 2012. The 21-year-old Flint, Michigan native is a historic champion with a stunning 74-1 record. She’s the first American woman to win titles at the Olympics and the Pan American games. Universal Pictures recently acquired the rights to make a movie about her life. Despite her success in the ring, Shields cites her faith as the source of her drive to give back. “[Harriet Tubman] was a very strong black woman and I think it took a whole lot of courage to actually be free and go back and free others and I feel like that’s kind of my job as a Christian,” Shields said during a 2015 Black History Month keynote speech. “I made it and it’s time to come back and save others to help them be as successful as they can be.” Catch her in action August 17 in the women’s middle 75kg class.
Allyson Felix, Track & Field
Allyson Felix is a household name in track and field, and for good reason: she’s a 4-time Olympic gold medalist, with over 30 championship medals over the length of her career, and a 4-time recipient of the Jesse Owens Award, the USATF’s version of Athlete of the Year. Rio marks her fourth Olympics, and at the age of 30, Felix hasn’t slowed down—literally. She also isn’t shy about discussing her devout Christian faith, which she says keeps her going. Felix recently told the LA Times, “Faith leads my life. That’s definitely the reason that I run. I feel like I’ve been blessed with this gift, and so that’s something that helps me to see the bigger picture.” She is also a member of Project Believe, an anti-doping program to fight the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Felix voluntarily gets tested for PEDs regularly to promote integrity in the sport. In a recent Instagram post, she quoted Eric Liddell: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Allyson will race August 13, 15, and 19 in the 400m, 200m, and 4x400m relay, respectively.