“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.”
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.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: ‘Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic.’
“Conversations on immigration are more often politicized than humanized,” marketing text says for the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier’s new bilingual book, Listen to the Children: Conversations with Immigrant Families. In the book, which is a finalist in ForeWord Review’s 2011 Book of the Year awards, she attempts to change both the reality and the discussion by sharing immigrant families’ stories and by offering parenting advice to those in the midst of immigration journeys. Conde-Frazier is vice president of education and dean of Esperanza College in Philadelphia. She is also is an ordained American Baptist pastor with more than ten years ministry experience. UrbanFaith talked to Conde-Frazier about the book and about how Christians should think about illegal immigration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Why did you write Listen to the Children?
Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: I wrote the book while I was professor at the Claremont School of Theology in California. Part of my job was working with students from the Latin American Bible Institute. A lot of them came from families that were a mix of persons who had or did not have citizenship and it led to conversations and to my doing workshops around the country. And so, I started to understand the issues of the people, of the pastors working with the people, of the Sunday school teachers, of the social workers and so forth.
In North Carolina, I did a five-hour presentation with this community, which allowed me time to be with the parents. When we sat down to eat, a lot of children were sitting at the table with us. There had been a roundup of persons at a particular place of employment, and I looked at the reaction of the children to the conversation about this. They recoiled; they became very fearful; they left the table; they began to cry. This was hard enough for the adults. But, for the children it was even more so.
Having been a teacher myself, I realized the children were not able to articulate their feelings. And so, I later spent time sitting on the floor in this room where they were playing. Rather than asking them questions, I began to use felt puppets to tell the story of Ruth and Naomi and how they had immigrated. Then I allowed the the children to retell me the story with the same figures. In doing so, the children used the figures to tell their own stories. I began to see how they were feeling. When I finished my time with that community, they came to me and said, “Where is your book on all of this that you have presented to us? We need you to write a book.” That to me felt like a call, and so that’s what I did. But I wrote the book not so much from the perspective of the adults, but for the children and their needs.
What are the primary challenges these children experience?
Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic. Let me create a metaphor for you to describe it. If I take a bunch of dominos and I stand them up and create a pattern with them, that is life the way we know it, where we are sure about the different institutions and how life is, how the culture names things, what our traditions are that create parameters around our identity and so forth. If I take my fists and bang them on the table, the dominos fall apart and the patterns that are there fall apart. Some of the dominos may even fall on the floor. That’s how immigration feels. The patterns of life and everything about life as you know it falls apart. You may try to rebuild, but there are pieces that you lose in the process.
Then, on top of that, if I take a bunch of marbles and I roll them out on this same table with the dominos, now you’ve got all these elements of life that you have no idea how to manage. You have to take the dominos, which are the things that you think you know how to manage and you have to use them in new ways to keep all these marbles from falling all over the place. In the midst of your trying to do that, I can continue to come back and bang my fists again, and the things that you thought you had begun to construct again once more fall apart.
When children are living in the midst of that, it is very traumatic. It says there’s no routine, there’s no structure, and the most important thing that children need in life is routine and structure. The routine creates the structure. Not having work creates chaos and poor families don’t have a sense of structure. That affects the child’s intelligence. That affects their ability to organize their thoughts, it affects how their brains are formed and so forth. Putting together life parameters, relationships, and so forth becomes twice as difficult.
Children also have a sense of abandonment. The adults can leave them at any point. They have no control over any of those things. Trust cannot be built. When families are separated for long periods of time, you see how difficult it is for children to reconnect to parents and parents to children. And so, there’s this continuous sense of loss that people are experiencing, but they can’t quite put their finger on it.
How can those of us who may be in relationship with immigrant children support them and their families?
In everyday life we are on committees in the community perhaps, we have food banks, we may be in the PTA, wherever we are, we can find opportunities to help change or expand the agenda of that place so that it is sensitive to those who may be alternately documented.
If a church has a program to the community and is serving these persons, then they need to be aware of how their program can address these needs, or how they can partner with others so that rather than being limited only to what their program has to offer, they have a network of other programs to pull from in a moment of crisis.
Advocating for the laws at this time is very important. Writing to our different legislators does make a difference. Legislators do listen to that. What does it take to have a night where you serve soup and bread? I say soup and bread, because it’s a very simple meal and it’s probably what persons who have just arrived here are going to have to eat. In solidarity, what we do with this evening is we pray, we have this meal, we write these letters, we talk about the issues, and we send the letters out. It forms the compassionate heart of a people of God who do justice. And what does God require of us in Micah? Whatever it takes that we can internalize persons who are different from ourselves, whose lives are different, that’s what we want to do as the faith practice of the church.
Given your target audience’s transience, how will readers find the book?
Remember that there is the network of churches and families. That is a network that’s beyond marketing. They pass it along. For example in the summer, I teach in Texas. People come from both sides of the border to learn. They’re pastors and lay persons and they’ll use the book. They’ll take it back across the border. The section on preparing children for border crossing or separation is helpful not only to people who might be thinking of immigrating, but it is also helpful to persons who may have already done so. It allows them the opportunity to reflect on what they did or didn’t do, so that then they can ask themselves, “Oh, what do I need to do at this point, because I did it this way or that.”
How would you respond theologically to those who may criticize you for providing helpful information to people who may be planning to do something illegal?
First of all, the theological piece has to be informed by a political piece, because theology is not done in a vacuum. People need to realize that the laws of our country and the free-trade laws are taking land away from people and making it impossible for many of the farmers [in Latin American countries] to survive. Those countries do not have the safety net that we so far have. And so, I would love to see those critics find themselves hungry, with nothing to feed their children, with no way of having a job and prayers that seem to go unanswered. I’d love to see how they would stay within the confines of what they call law.
What Christians need to ask themselves is: “When is the law unjust?” If it is unjust, then it is not a law according to the purposes of God. Our response to that should be that the church is called to denounce unjust law. Corrie ten Boom was a Christian. We glorify her story because she saved the Jews. She broke the law of her time. Today, after the fact, we say, “Oh how wonderful!” We’re also okay with those who break the law in China because they become Christians, but we’re not okay with people breaking the law because they’re hungry, or because the law is unjust?
I recall from research I did for an article I wrote in 2006 that the number of legal immigration slots for Latin American countries is the same as that for countries with whom we don’t share a border. Is that still the case?
Yes, it is. And the thing for people to look at is the following: The United States has a history of always needing cheap labor. Ever since we had enslavement, we have needed cheap labor. It’s just which immigrant group gets to be the cheap labor. That changes. In order for us to ensure that cheap labor what we do is we create an underclass of people with the law. So we say, on one hand, “We need you to come and work,” but on the other hand, we create laws that say, “If you come, we can’t give you citizenship; we can’t give you your benefits and your rights as a human being.”
Matthew 25 speaks about what human rights are. It speaks about it in the language of the kingdom of God. And so, for someone to eat, to drink, to dress, to be sheltered, to have human companionship, those are the things that are important for sustenance, and the kingdom of God is about sustenance. When we have laws that do not provide for the sustenance of a group of persons, then we are the ones who are against the law, but it’s the kingdom law that we are against.
There’s a discussion in the book about the “worthiness” of immigrants and you advocate using terminology like “alternately documented” and “uncertain” or “precarious” status instead of “illegal alien” and “undocumented.” What’s wrong with using language like “illegal alien”?
The most important thing for Christians is to recognize the Imago Dei, the image of God in all human beings, because to do so is to honor God. To fail to do so and to shut our wells of compassion is to dishonor God. How we call one another needs to reflect what we truly believe. I don’t believe that you are the only one who is in the image of God just because you happen to come to my church or you look like me, or you’re a citizen like me. All human beings are. When we do mission work—and these churches are very happy to go out and do mission work—is it only because it makes them feel good? Or is it because they believe in the image of God in others?
And so, the theological and biblical roots of worthiness come from there. Worthiness also comes from the laws in the Old Testament about how we are to treat those who are foreigners in our midst and how we are to treat the poor and the widows in our midst. There should be no one who is poor in our midst. There should be no on who is discarded in our midst. The words we use have to reflect honor. Rather than using words that reflect distance from others and categorizing them as not being a part of ourselves, we should use words that demonstrate the ministry of reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 5, we’re called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. “Illegal” and “alien” are words that reflect disconnect with others and say they’re not my neighbor, so I don’t have to watch over them. They are words that go along with a current in our country, and around the world really, that categorizes human beings politically as being far away from us, and not deserving of any type of rights as the rest of us, whereas in the eyes of God, that is not how to do it. And so, we need to use words that allow the space for worthiness.
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.