Nyack College students say the number one benefit of attending Nyack is the preparation they receive to work in diverse environments. (Photo courtesy of Nyack College.)
In the years since Nyack College in Nyack, New York, shared the 2001 Council for Christian Colleges & Universities Racial Harmony Award with another college, the school has become so thoroughly immersed in racial and ethnic integration that it no longer applies to be considered for the honor, its president Michael Scales and provost David Turk told UrbanFaith on a recent visit to the campus.
“We used to submit the stuff all the time, but we decided we would just stop because our communication is on a different level. They’re talking about certain things they’re doing; we’re talking about a whole different culture,” said Turk.
“If you look back over all those awards—I was even chair for a little while—they’re giving awards for prescriptions,” said Scales.
For Nyack, “intentional diversity” is one of the school’s five core values.
“We think all these are what [founder] A.B. Simpson taught back when we first started this. So, we tried to get back to what is in our own DNA,” said Scales.
At its main campus, Nyack is 37 percent White, 24 percent Black, 14-15 percent Asian, and the rest mixed-race and other ethnicities, Scales said. At its satellite campus in Manhattan, the student body is 46 percent Black, 11 percent Asian, 28 percent Latino, and 6 percent White. There is also a high level of age and denominational diversity, Scales said, with many adult learners attending the city campus.
Diversity Mavericks: Nyack President Michael Scales and Provost David Turk. (Photo courtesy of Explorations Media L.L.C.)
The push toward integration was intentional, said Turk, who has been teaching at Nyack
since 1978. During the 1980s and 90s, the school went through “rough periods” and had difficulty retaining faculty, he said. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the decision was made to innovate in the late 1990s.
“We then had the luxury to develop some things in an entrepreneurial way that other schools with an entrenched faculty group just did not have. One of those ways was diversifying,” said Turk.
Scales described Nyack’s efforts as a “noble experiment,” but said it is one that hasn’t been without costs. The average building on Nyack’s main campus is 76 years old, he said, and the school has had trouble attracting “monied” White investors to update facilities.
“I think it’s changing,” said Scales. “For the first time, we have some people coming around the table who really can be transformative agents.”
Alumni are divided, said Turk. “Some will say this is the best and the greatest thing, and some will just be blunt and say, ‘Well David, I’m not going to send my daughter to your school. She might date a Black guy.’”
In surveys, students say the number one benefit of attending Nyack is the preparation they receive to work in diverse environments, Turk said.
“The truth is that the people who are going to be leading this country are the students who come to places like this,” said Scales.
Creating Sustainable Change
In order to create sustainable change, faith-based institutions must link to their history, their mission, and to biblical principles, George Fox University’s dean of transitions and inclusion Joel Perez told UrbanFaith when he was interviewed for our previous article about the challenges students of color face at Christian colleges. (Perez researched diversity at CCCU campuses for his doctoral dissertation.)
Joel Perez: 'Sustainable change must be linked to history, mission, and biblical principles.'
“Once you anchor [diversity] in those things, then it’s harder for an institution, when it does change leadership, for someone new to come in and say it’s not going to be a focus or we’re not going to talk about it anymore,” said Perez. “If schools don’t do that initially, or don’t go back and make those connections, I think it’s easier for a school to sort of lose its way in doing the work.”
UrbanFaith asked Turk if Nyack’s proximity to New York City gives it an advantage in attracting more faculty of color who may be reluctant to move to the rural settings where many Christian colleges are located. He rejects the common argument that geography is a deterrent to pursuing diversity, saying faculty of color want to serve and would be willing to go to rural campuses. His work with Nyack’s Manhattan campus taught him that finding qualified people is as easy as reaching out to their church networks. Now when peers tell him they can’t find non-white faculty, he asks if they’ve even tried those networks.
“I just don’t buy the argument,” said Turk.
James Steen: 'HBU's multi-racial campus is refreshing.'
At Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas, where the student body is only one-third White, diversity is unintentional, said James Steen, its vice president of enrollment management. Instead it simply reflects the southwest Houston demographic. Forty percent of the student body lives within a 10 mile radius of the campus, he said.
“We’re not striving or working to try to attract more diversity. It’s just who we are and it’s just part of the culture. So, it’s a refreshing thing to be a part of,” said Steen, who previously worked at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where, he says, the student body is 70 percent White.
Twenty-eight percent of Houston Baptist’s student body is Hispanic, 29 percent is White, 19 percent is African American, 14 percent is Asian, and 6 percent is multi-racial, Steen said. The faculty, however, is mostly White, but more diverse than Baylor’s.
Because Houston Baptist has had a highly diverse student body for so long, the school has “grown comfortable” with its diversity, director of student life Whittington C. Goodwin said.
“Now we’re going towards really giving each student a way that they can develop academically, socially and spiritually,” said Goodwin, who came to Houston Baptist 18 months ago from predominantly White Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
Houston Baptist’s diversity not only reflects community demographics, it also reflects the city’s churches, Goodwin said, many of which are “making huge pushes to really integrate those worship services, so it’s not the most segregated hour in America anymore.”
Whit Goodwin: 'Differences make for good spiritual formation opportunities.'
It can be a challenge to clearly define “who your students are” on such a racially integrated campus, said Steen. “What may appeal to one student group is not going to appeal to another student group.” For example one group may prefer a country western dance while another would opt for a hip hop concert.
“We’re cognizant of differences here, but we’re also cognizant of human nature, of what God has called us to be, and all of us living, working, studying, worshiping together makes for a really wonderful educational opportunity, but also a wonderful spiritual formation opportunity,” said Goodwin.
Waiting for the Immigration Law to Catch Up
At Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, the student body is only about 16 percent non-white, its president Randolph Lowry told UrbanFaith, but at one point last year it was the most ethnically diverse campus — religious or secular — in the state of Tennessee.
“The world is a pretty global, cross cultural place. The degree to which the school can reflect that cross-cultural nature, it’s going to be much easier for our students then to go into the world and feel comfortable and be effective,” said Lowry.
Randolph Lowry: 'Educating undocumented immigrants is a calling.'
In addition to a school-wide service requirement that places students in cross-cultural off-campus environments, Lipscomb sponsors Conversations of Significance that bring together ethnic groups for cross-cultural dialogue and the Davidson Group, which pairs community members of different ethnicities for year-long relationship building, Lowry said. The school also admits and financially supports undocumented immigrants.
“We’d like the federal [government] to be more courageous about immigration policy, but until they do that, I think we have to look at what we feel called to do as the Christian community,” said Lowry. “Our board has recognized that Jesus continually responded to those in the world who really were the outcasts. … Some of our students of color fall in that category, and we want to do what we can to respond to their needs.”
Pursuing First-Generation Students
Interracial dialogue is a priority at Lipscomb University. (Photo courtesy of Lipscomb University.)
All the highly diverse schools UrbanFaith talked to have a significant number of first-generation students on their campuses — that is, students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.
North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, for example, recruits first-generation students as part of its mission, regardless of their race or ethnicity, dean of diversity Terry Lindsay said. Still, 40 percent of incoming freshman were students of color in fall 2011, he said.
Like administrators at other highly diverse schools, Lindsay has heard concern expressed that North Park’s commitment to racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity will compromise its academic standards.
“When you intentionally go after first generation college students, they come with their fair share of challenges,” he said. “They don’t know how to seamlessly transition from high school to college. They may … struggle academically with the curriculum. Because we know that, we are very intentional about putting measures and tools in place to make sure all of these students achieve success.”
Scales said there is “a lot of racism” around the issue. When he hears that Nyack is “watering down” academics in favor of diversity, he gives critics an opportunity to reflect on the offensiveness of that perspective and tells them: “We’ve taken that issue off the table.” Additionally, Nyack has pursued every specialized accreditation available for its programs, Scales said, to insure academic rigor.
Terry Lindsay: 'Social justice is key to North Park efforts.'
Like several other schools, North Park offers a program for incoming students to help them navigate the transition to college life. The Compass Scholars program identifies students who are potentially at risk and brings them to campus prior to their first semester, Lindsay said. They are given enrichment activities and academic skill development activities that are designed to help them acclimate.
The school also employs an Early Alert Reporting System that allows faculty to identify students who are at risk in their classes. “An EARS form is done online and that information automatically goes to student development and then they intervene immediately,” said Lindsay.
North Park is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church and its commitment to first-generation students reflects the denomination’s social justice focus, Lindsay said. “Our decision to remain a college that’s committed to urban education, to remain a college that’s committed to our Christian values, and to strengthen our efforts around diversity are all grounded in what the Evangelical Covenant … has always been about,” he said.
“North Park has made great strides, I believe because they have linked [diversity] to their mission,” said Perez.
Reconnecting With a Proud Legacy
Unlike Lipscomb and other Christian colleges that early in their histories adhered to a policy of segregation and barred African Americans from enrolling, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, prides itself on in its abolitionist history. Wheaton’s new president Philip Ryken told UrbanFaith many would agree that the school’s legacy was “squandered” at times, particularly in the twentieth century, “through a lack of intentionality about racial reconciliation” that he thinks was “pervasive” in the evangelical community.
Ryken has had a lot of conversations with students of color this year about what he calls “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” “Depending on what day it is, I see our situation at Wheaton either as a glass half full or as a glass half empty,” said Ryken. “There’s no doubt that we have a lot of ongoing progress to make, particularly in the openness of our student body as a whole to experiencing other cultures and also making space for the right kinds of open dialogues about race that really lead to deeper understanding.”
Philip Ryken: 'Wheaton's proud legacy was sometimes squandered.'
One of the positives Ryken sees is the 461 students of color among the 3,000 currently on campus. When he was a Wheaton student in the 1980s, there were less than 100, he said. Forty-nine percent of these students are Asian, 18 percent are African American, and 21 percent are Hispanic, Ryken said, and many of them serve in positions of leadership on campus.
“They’re really thriving in the use of their gifts on campus. They’re not marginalized, but really flourishing,” said Ryken.
Among the ongoing challenges he sees is that “nearly all” students of color at Wheaton say other students and/or faculty have “made assumptions about them” or “made comments that were hurtful in ways that maybe even the person who said it didn’t understand.” Some students are “ready for a dialogue about ethnicity, race, culture, and the gospel,” he said, while others are “indifferent.”
The residence life staff at Wheaton is intentionally being trained to address issues of ethnicity, Ryken said, and talks are underway about designating one of Wheaton’s residence houses as an intentionally diverse living community. Additionally, a faculty development day may be set aside next year to hear from students of color as part of a proactive approach to fostering healthy dialogue about race in Wheaton’s classrooms. Although there has been a long-standing and comprehensive diversity requirement for all of Wheaton’s courses, Ryken said the faculty recognizes its need to grow in “cross-cultural competency.”
When people ask Ryken why Wheaton is re-prioritizing race, he says the most important thing to tell them is, “because this is what Scripture teaches.” But, he said, it also helps to be able to say, “because this is the school that we were founded to be.”
Reaching for the Future
Glen Kinoshita: 'Students need to be engaged on multiple levels.'
For our previous article, Glen Kinoshita, director of multi-ethnic programs and development at Biola University in La Mirada, California, told us that it can be challenging for students to shift their frame of reference, but if it is done with regularity and in community, they can grow in their “ethnic identity development.”
This takes time, Kinoshita said, and students need to be engaged on multiple levels. Individual reflection, reading articles and books, watching documentary films, and getting plugged into a larger group dialogue to gain perspective and build relationships are among the activities he suggests. Kinoshita even formed Multi Ethnic Film Productions at Biola to stimulate “thought, dialogue, and change within Christian higher education.”
While these and other Christian college leaders press ahead in embracing a multi-racial future, friends at secular institutions tell Joel Perez that the diversity conversation is changing. Instead of being driven by a Black-White binary, it has become much more nuanced. Religious diversity, multi-ethnicity, and sexual orientation are increasingly at the forefront of the discussion. Some of the schools we’ve highlighted here are already grappling with these issues. Others have only just begun.
“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.
If spiritual renewal breaks out in a forest and no American Christians are around to witness it, does that mean it never happened?
Pardon the paraphrase of the old philosophical riddle, but this probably sums up the thinking of many in the evangelical community in years past. But the times are a-changin’. According to Soong-Chan Rah, author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP), if the American church is going to be a relevant participant in the future of global Christianity, it had better recognize the church’s new multicultural reality. And the future is now.
Today African, Asian, and Latin American believers make up 60 percent of the world’s Christian population. According to researchers, the United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, Rah calls the North American church to break free of its de facto allegiance to a Western, Eurocentric, and white American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is global, diverse, and multiethnic.
Soong-Chan Rah is a pastor, theologian, and activist who has (how to put this lightly?) ruffled a lot of feathers over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical community. Those familiar with the Rickshaw Rally incident and the Zondervan/Youth Specialties controversy, both covered in his book, will know exactly what we’re talking about. But his passion for reform is surpassed by his compassion and concern for the health of the church.
For years Rah led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, an urban, multiethnic, post-modern congregation in the Boston area. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, he has inspired many a spirited discussion among Christians with The Next Evangelicalism, a book he confesses is intended to provoke its readers. One Christian radio station abruptly canceled its interview with Rah on the day of the broadcast after the host took a closer look at the book.
Rah doesn’t pull any punches in his critiques of the evangelical movement, but he hopes any discomfort he creates will motivate his readers to pursue positive change. He recently responded to questions from UrbanFaith readers.
How do you respond to those who suggest that your challenges to the church do more harm than good?
Soong-Chan Rah: I understand that this is a challenging topic for American Christians, and I know that I can come across sometimes as pretty intense about these issues. I am concerned that some folks will dismiss my book as an angry rant or will consider it to be excessively critical. I state early on that my intention is the reform of the church, rather than the downfall of the church. My hope is that we would bring out into the open the issue of race and racism in the American church — particularly given the changes in the demographics of American Christianity.
Practically speaking, do you think the strong tone and language of your book will change the mind of someone who isn’t already passionate about diversity in the church?
One of the questions I often grapple with as a pastor and as a professor is, how do people change? How do they grow? Particularly when I teach a course on discipleship, this question seems to emerge repeatedly. My theory on spiritual growth is that growth does not occur without the combination of two factors: the creation of a safe place coupled with the introduction of discomfort. Having just one of the two factors is not sufficient for growth. If you only create a safe place, you can become too comfortable and feel no need to change and grow. If you only have the presence of discomfort, you generate too much stress to allow for growth. Both a safe place and discomfort must exist to move towards growth. My book is an attempt to introduce a bit of discomfort to the overly comfortable culture of American evangelicalism.
Won’t ethnic-specific churches suffer from becoming multicultural, particularly those that serve immigrant populations?
I don’t hold the position that all churches in the United States have to be multiethnic. I believe that there is still a place for ethnic-specific churches, particularly among the immigrant communities. The need for language-specific churches still exists. Racism in America still necessitates the existence of the African American church. We are still many years away from multiethnic churches being the norm in American Christianity. We don’t want to mandate that the church enter into an era that we are not prepared for. I would want the church in America to be prepared and moving towards that multiethnic reality. I think, however, that we need to take a hard look at what we are doing and what cultural captivity we need to break off in order to enter into this multiethnic reality.
On the local church level, how will minority and immigrant groups maintain the kind of close-knit community that gives them encouragement and empowerment?
Part of the success of the immigrant church in America is the ability to develop a strong community in the context of suffering and difficulty. Throughout the book, I talk about the “language of primary culture,” which is the type of personal relationships that many ethnic churches develop and maintain. I think the ethnic churches will benefit from interacting with secondary cultural dynamics (usually Western cultures), as long as their primary culture is not obliterated by coming into contact with secondary culture. Maintaining the positive primary cultural dynamic of ethnic and immigrant churches is more likely to happen if we understand these dynamics to be an issue of relationships and power rather than simply an issue of culture.
You seem to suggest a connection between the Korean/Korean American church and the African American church. Where does this come from, and why do you establish such a connection?
Actually, I’m not the first to make this connection. Theologian James Cone makes this assertion in the commonality of suffering that is found in the Black church experience and the experience of the Korean community. As a Korean American, I do think there is a powerful common thread in both the Korean and Black communities in the stories of tremendous victory amidst great suffering and persecution. Both communities have experienced oppression (slavery, Jim Crow laws, racism, conquest, persecution, etc.), but both communities have experienced God in very deep ways in the context of great suffering. I talk about the contrast between the theology of celebration and theology of suffering in chapter seven. I think both communities have experienced the theology of suffering, and we have embraced an ecclesiology that reflects that suffering.
How do ethnic minorities begin a conversation amongst themselves about reaching out to other racial and ethnic groups?
I feel that dialogue across the races and ethnic groups is an absolutely necessary element of the Next Evangelicalism. Part of freeing the church from Western cultural captivity is the ability to move beyond a conversation that puts Western cultural values at the center or considers Western expressions of faith as normative. One of the ways we can facilitate this dialogue is by having a stronger sense of identity for every ethnic group. For example, it may be difficult for African Americans to relate to Asian Americans if Asian Americans are simply parroting the values of majority culture. Part of engaging in an authentically cross-cultural dialogue is the ability to define one’s own identity in the context of others. In other words, we need to know who we are if we are to truly talk to one another and move the conversation further along.
As I wrote the book, I realized that my style of writing might surprise some who had a particular assumption about the Asian American community. I felt that it was necessary to assert a strong identity that would provide a strong voice in the dialogue about what the next evangelicalism could look like. I hope that my book offers an encouragement to many non-white voices to assert a strong identity and voice in the dialogue — an identity that God delights in rather than seeks to wipe out.
You offer a blistering critique of the emerging church movement, suggesting that it is overhyped and lacks diversity. Is diversity possible in the “emerging” or “emergent” churches”? It seems as if Christians involved in that movement are extremely cultural bound, even more so than “mainstream” evangelical Christianity?
Yes, there is always hope. Any organization can change and adapt if they desire, and if they are willing to pay the price. There is also the importance of self-awareness. I think when there is a new thing that comes up, its advocates should exercise enough self-reflection to say, “We’re saying some really exciting things, but what are the unintended negative consequences of what we are saying? What are our blind spots and the areas that we need to grow in?”
What challenges or exhortations would you issue to the young “justice and reconciliation” minded folks, particularly those that are part of the “emergent” or “new monastic” crowds?
I think it is critical that we are willing to hear the stories and receive input from various points of view. I think even a new thing like emergent or new monastics can get stuck in a vacuum and not recognize that there are divergent voices that can contribute to the dialogue. I would encourage any new movements to consider and hear from disparate — and even oppositional — voices.
If you were a mentor to one of these young “justice and reconciliation” Christians and they asked for specific, clear advice on what type of church to attend and how to engage “the Next Evangelicalism,” what would you say?
First of all, I would encourage them to broaden their reading list. I would begin with works of fiction. I find that works of fiction tend to communicate the best insight about a culture. There’s a variety of novels that I’d recommend: Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease; Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker; Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake; Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner; Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. There also are a number of nonfiction works that provide insight into different cultures: Eldin Villafane’s The Liberating Spirit; One Church, Many Tribes by Richard Twiss; Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum; Yellow by Frank Wu.
I would look for places of interaction across cultures. Many of us may find these opportunities at our place of work or in our neighborhood — it’s probably our church and Christian world that is more likely to be segregated. I would encourage the building and deepening of healthy cross-cultural relationships in your current context. My recommendation has been to seek out mentors or spiritual leaders from a different ethnic/cultural background. There will be different contexts (single-ethnic churches that are of a different ethnic background from you, or multi-ethnic churches with a diverse staff) where you may be able to find cross-cultural mentors. These relationships should not be forced, but it really needs to have the foundation of a genuine relationship and commitment. In other words, there are no quick solutions, and it’ll take time to build the relationships and connections that will broaden your world.
It seems that often the conversation is how white churches can become more diverse, which can come off as an expression of white dominance or perpetuate the phenomenon of “white guilt” as a motivator. Would you suggest that some white and minority churches serving in the same neighborhood merge rather than having white churches glibly trying to be diverse?
The idea of a “merger” is a lofty concept that is very difficult to pull off. It is very hard to pull off the equality of power, or even an understanding of how power dynamics work, in the different cultural contexts required for a successful merger.
I think there needs to be a clear understanding of the reality of power distribution before engaging in talks about a merger. One of the most ignored aspects of any discussion on multi-ethnicity is the aspect of power. Those who have the power are oftentimes the ones who are unwilling to discuss the issue of power and dominance. Part of white privilege means the capacity and ability to not talk about the issue of power and the wielding of that power. I think one of the great things that a majority culture church can do in preparing for multi-ethnicity and diversity is to become more aware of white privilege. Instead of taking the lead and trying to fix the problem and create diversity, it might be better to be in a place of listening and preparation — particularly in the practice of yielding power.
1.) How do predominately white organizations (Christian colleges and seminaries, Christian magazines, etc.) become multicultural without somehow developing the sense that they — white Christianity — are the impetus for multiculturalism?
2.) How willing do you think evangelical seminaries are to embrace both contemporary and historical ethnic minority theologians and scholars? Will these theologians be in the primary fold of essential theologians, or will it be a tag on (i.e. solely having a course on African American theology rather than adding these theologians to the basic theology courses)?
Great questions. Again, the main issue is the issue of power. Are white institutions willing to yield decision-making power, theology-shaping power, curriculum-shaping power, culture-shaping power to non-whites? Will predominantly white organizations be willing to share power — and initially that will require a yielding of power — with non-whites? Any discussion about diversity will need to engage in a discussion about power. Otherwise, we reduce our efforts to tokenism.
For more information about Soong-Chan Rah and The Next Evangelicalism, visit his website: www.profrah.com. Special thanks to Joshua Canada, Joel Hamernick, and Ariah Fine for their questions to Professor Rah.
What led you to leave Boston for Chicago?
Soong-Chan Rah: Leaving Boston was a very difficult decision. One of the most difficult decisions in my life and it was certainly the most difficult decision that we faced as a family. We had a great community in Cambridge, and our family has always been committed to incarnational and local expressions of ministry. The church in Cambridge was a church that I planted, and it still holds a very special place in my heart. Aside from my family, I think planting the church is the best thing I’ve been able to on earth so far. I also had deep and meaningful relationships with peers and mentors throughout the city who were some of the most formative mentors in ministry.
A few years ago, I was offered the opportunity to join the faculty at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. It meant a significant change: moving from the East Coast to the Midwest, shifting from being a local church pastor to a seminary professor. I was beginning to sense God’s calling into a ministry that connected the academy to the local church. Being on the faculty of my denominational seminary would strengthen my ability to integrate my academic interests and study with my experience and heart for the local church. While it was an extremely difficult decision, I felt that the church was at a place where a new lead pastor would be a good opportunity and that God was calling our family to be part of a new venture at North Park Seminary.
What church do you currently attend?
Our family has always believed in neighborhood churches. I really don’t like the idea of driving a great distance to attend church (bad for the environment and bad for the family). We attend Immanuel Covenant Church on the north side of Chicago, about three blocks from our home (which is about three blocks from the seminary where I teach). Our home, my place of work, our kids’ school, and our church are all in the 60625 zip code of Chicago, which is one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. We were told that our kids’ school has over 50 languages and over 70 different nationalities.
Our church reflects that diversity. The church at one point had been a Swedish immigrant congregation. Less than a decade ago, the church was overwhelmingly white. Now it’s home to 15 different first generation immigrant groups — including Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, etc. There is no clear majority at the church. Furthermore, we have a joint worship with a Filipino congregation adding to the diversity. There is great diversity in the church and that creates many challenges. But we have loved the community at this church and appreciate the genuine effort by the church to reflect the diversity of our neighborhood.
Are you still a Boston sports fan, or have you transitioned over to Chicago teams? If so, Cubs or White Sox?
I’m very loyal to my sports teams. I grew up in the inner-city of Baltimore, so I’ve been an Orioles fan since I was about 8 years old and haven’t changed my loyalties in over 30 years. I still follow the Orioles via fan websites and online games. While I was in Boston, I developed an affinity for the Red Sox (especially since they gave me a free clergy pass to the regular season games). I’m thoroughly convinced that it was the prayers of the clergy members who received free tickets to Red Sox games that led to Boston’s breaking of the curse and their winning two World Series championships. In contrast, when we moved to Chicago, I wrote to the Cubs asking if they had a clergy-pass program. They replied that they didn’t. So it’s a 100 years and counting for the Cubs.
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.