“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.
A UCLA student’s rant about Asians goes viral, drawing accusations of racism. But, sadly, what she expressed isn’t that different from what a lot of Americans think, even if we’re not posting it on YouTube.
Invictus may not be as popular as this year’s bigger holiday releases, but its poignant themes of justice and peace are both entertaining and redemptive.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus has generated lots of buzz as a potential Oscar contender, and rightly so. But it’s unfortunate that bigger films like Avatar and Sherlock Holmes are drawing more attention from audiences, because Invictus presents a story that’s both entertaining and transformative.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island’s maximum-security prison after 27 years as a political prisoner whose only crime was resisting South Africa’s unjust apartheid laws. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. In 1995, he began to reconcile his country through peace, justice, selflessness, and rugby.
Director Eastwood utilizes the superb talents of Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar) to adapt John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation to the silver screen.
Make no mistake — Invictus is an inspirational sports film. Those hoping for an epic history of Nelson Mandela’s trials and triumphs in office or a deep commentary on South Africa in 1995 will be disappointed. The film paints a decent background of South Africa in the mid-1990s and Eastwood and Freeman intentionally refrain from painting an idyllic picture of Mandela, but these are supportive elements for a story about reconciliation and the power of humility.
Noticing the brokenness of his country, Mandela views the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, as an opportunity to promote a unified national pride. Mandela understands that the Afrikaners (White South Africans) are afraid of his administration and fear exile from a country that has become their home. Instead of exploiting his new position as an office of domination and vengeance, Mandela acts humbly and selflessly. Mandela calls the nation to seek peace not by changing their colors or the name of the Springboks. Rather, he asks his fellow Black citizens, who spent years viewing the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, to embrace the team as their own.
The title “Invictus” (Latin for inconquerable) comes from the poem by William Ernest Henley. Mandela drew strength from Henley’s triumphant text while in prison, and he sends a handwritten copy of the poem to Pienaar to inspire him to lead South Africa’s team to the world championship. The eventual national embrace of the team transforms a symbol of division, racism, and hatred into a symbol of a “Rainbow Nation” growing towards reconciliation.
The film rightly shows the historical racism and domination of many White South Africans, but it does not do so with a broad brush and addresses the danger of Black South Africans harboring anger and desiring retaliation. This is good. Eastwood, however, errs on the side of making the White South Africans too innocent and weakens the magnitude of the reconciliation that follows. It is too easy to forget that Nelson Mandela was blessed compared to other civil rights advocates who died at the hands of a White South African government. South Africa was — and is — reconciling and recovering from a very brutal system of hatred, abuse, and murder; it is important not to forget the harshness of reality.
In a poignant scene, Pienaar and his teammates travel to Robben Island and view the cells in which many Black South Africans, including Mandela, were held. The weight of the prison intoxicates Pienaar. He sees the work yards, touches the steel bars, and encloses himself in Mandela’s former cell. Pienaar feels the sense of entrapment and dehumanization that permeates a prison. Overcome with the severity of apartheid, a system he lived within but simply accepted as status quo, and realizing the gravitas of Mandela, he remarks in genuine awe: “I was thinking how a man could spend 30 years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him?”
Mandela and Pienaar must take up courage to engage the task before them. Mandela, in a position of political power and influence, takes it upon himself to refute the temptation of revenge and put down fear. He reaches out to a person who was once his enemy and asks him to participate in something larger than either of them. Pienaar, filled with uncertainty, takes the risk to trust Mandela and reexamines the system he had believed to be true and just. He becomes a symbol and representative not only for Afrikaans, but also for the 43,000,000 South Africans of all races, all of whom are trying to discover their role in the new nation.
Based on a True Story: Freeman and Damon in Invictus (left), and the real-life Mandela and Pienaar.
Mandela and Pienaar are archetypes of reconciliation, not because they are perfect, but because they are real people. Mandela has failed marriages and a disappointing family life that mark his past. Pienaar benefited from the inhuman structure of apartheid. Yet, despite their missteps, regrets, and blotted histories, their humility in 1995 was driven by their Christian faith and understanding of biblical reconciliation.
For a film that was destined to garner Oscar talk, Invictus is surpringly grounded. Clint Eastwood does not burden his movie with sappy, self-important filmmaking. The film is straightforward, somewhat predictable, and the cinematography is rather ordinary. But, on the other hand, Eastwood does not waste any film in the telling of this extraordinary story. The film’s simplicity is engaging.
Freeman’s depiction of Mandela is noteworthy. Although Freeman is much taller than Mandela and does not quite master a clean Black South African accent, the profundity of his performance emulates the spirit of Mandela. Likewise, Matt Damon becomes immersed in his powerful and earnest portrayal of Pienaar; it is easy to forget that Damon is only playing a role.
As with any movie “based on a true story,” some of aspects of Invictus are fictionalized for the sake of the silver screen. Mandela’s involvement with the Springbok was not as calculated as the film displays and it was after the match that Mandela and Francois Pienaar became friends. However, this poetic license does not detract from the purpose of the story.
Invictus may not win any Oscars — although Damon, Eastwood, and Freeman have been nominated for Golden Globes — but it is a substantial film nonetheless. There is enough action to keep the film moving and enough drama to maintain a salient theme. The film is suitable for teenagers and adults and asks its audience — especially its Christian viewers — to find their role in reconciling a world of broken nations, broken people, and broken hearts.
The team members from Chapel Hill Bible Church prepare for their missions adventure in Nairobi, Kenya.
Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims: 1. Humankind is made in the image of God. 2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of. 3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.
In early December, my wife, Alyssa, and I moved to Huntington, Indiana, a town of 17,000 that’s about 98 percent white. Alyssa is Taiwanese American and I’m African American, so this was a bit of a shock for both of us.
Although we both attended Taylor University in nearby Upland (another 98 percent-white community), we were in college then. Our community was students, staff, and professors. Though the student body was predominately white (only 7 percent American ethnic minority), with just under 2,000 enrolled, most people of color didn’t feel isolated. Additionally, the town was so small that we didn’t spend much time in civic life or patronizing businesses. To grocery shop, go out to eat, and engage with the broader community we ventured to Marion or Muncie. Although we were in rural white America, as college students, the town was not our home. In Huntington we aren’t afforded that exemption; we are community members in a northern Mayberry. We shop. We go out to eat. We have friends. We go to church. We are citizens of the City of Huntington. For two ethnic minorities who are interracially married, this foray into rural white life has been an interesting journey.
A few weeks ago Alyssa and I were engaging in one of our favorite activities, our weekly shopping trip to Aldi. We had gotten our cereal, fruit, and other necessities and were heading to the checkout. But before we made it, my ADHD kicked in and I decided to go back and grab some other — unnecessary — items, namely more cereal. When I returned to my wife, I noticed she was conversing with an older, white woman. When she saw me, the woman responded in a surprised yet excited manner, “This must be him!” In retrospect, I think she was scouting us from the moment we entered through the sliding doors. As we chatted, we discovered that the lady, stereotypical of many older women, was quite inquisitive. She thought our olive oil was wine, and she was overbearingly sociable. After seemingly meaningless banter, our conversation ended by her saying that she was “very glad that we were in Huntington,” and like many “good” Christians, she invited us to visit her church.
Alyssa and I pushed our cart up to the checkout lane, bagged our items, and headed to the car. Then my wife filled me in on chapter one of the story.
While Alyssa was walking through the frozen food section, she almost bumped into something. She turned around and noticed this something was an older lady. The cordial “excuse me” came out from both my wife and the elderly woman. My wife assumed that the incident was over; both had gone through the social routine of apology and now it was time to move on with life. However, the woman, in her curiosity, had other thoughts.
Before Alyssa could scoot away and find me, the woman asked, “Oh, are you from the college?” It is a logical assumption: 1) we are young and many of those under 25 who live in Huntington are students at Huntington University, 2) when in non-business clothes, we (I especially) dress more “urban,” and 3) we are ethnic minorities, and many of the ethnic minorities that live in Huntington are affiliated with the college — or work at a restaurant.
Post-assumption, Alyssa informed the woman that she was not from the college and that I actually worked at the university. Unaffected by my wife’s attempts to escape, the woman asked where we lived – assuming that we didn’t actually live in Huntington. Alyssa told her that we just moved from Fort Wayne and that we previously lived in Champaign, Illinois. At that moment, the great awkwardness began. In an effort to connect with the anomaly of an Asian American in Huntington, the lady trotted down the road of “trying too hard.”
“I lived in Chicago!”
My wife politely responded, “Oh, I am from the suburbs of Chicago.”
The lady, in all genuineness . . . and cluelessness, said, “What, Chinatown?”
Alyssa’s face immediately expressed the words she could not — or at least should not — articulate, “Are ya serious?” The lady must have noticed my wife’s chagrin because she quickly recanted her statement, “That was a stupid and dumb thing to say . . . but you are Chinese, right?”
My wife, attempting to maintain her patience, responded, “Kinda, I’m Taiwanese.”
At this point, I, the unsuspecting husband, came up with my box of Aldi-brand Honey Bunches of Oats.
The complexity in this situation comes from the lady’s honest naiveté. She had probably never interacted with an Asian American in Huntington; she was probably nervous and somewhat dumbfounded; she was probably hopeful about the prospect of diversity, yet unsure of how to embrace it.
The blessing of this situation, odd as that may sound, is that my wife was given the opportunity to offer grace. When dealing with racial issues — reconciliation as a whole — grace must remain preeminent. This doesn’t mean that words do not hurt, people aren’t insensitive, or that people aren’t bitter. It does mean that as Christians we do not have the liberty of staying mad at someone. Grace is sometimes difficult. Uttering something racially offensive — in either ignorance or brazenness — not only conjures personal incidents of racism, but uproots the experiences of others, of family, and of ancestors. This is a deep litany of pain. It is much easier to choose the ways of anger or apathy rather than the way of grace.
The words that this woman spoke were wrong, they were insensate, but my wife had the opportunity to show her love just the same. If Alyssa had snapped back and said, “No, I am not from Chinatown, you racist idiot?” her frustration would have negatively influenced this white woman’s tolerance for diversity and understanding of others unlike her. My wife’s face said enough to suggest that the comment was not cool.
Don’t get it twisted, though; my wife was upset with the words spoken and she was angry that they were spoken. One is justified for having those emotions as the response of the sin and/or its ramifications. Grace does not preclude us from experiencing frustration and anger, but rather redirects those emotions to a productive, restorative response.
Ultimately, this situation was neither about my wife nor this woman, it was about reconciliation. A graceful response both freed my wife of bitterness and, hopefully, influenced that well-meaning woman towards a greater understanding of racial diversity and, more important, reconciliation.