Reconciliation on campus
Because white evangelicals had been silent on racism, he said, God had to raise up non-Christian leaders such as Malcolm X to tell blacks that their skin and culture are beautiful.
The pushback was immediate. “Both IV and Urbana leaders retreated,” according to Peter Cha, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, former IV staffer and board member.
Racial reconciliation wasn’t a primary goal for Urbana organizers again for a generation. In 1991, IV staff noticed that UC Berkeley had just become a non-majority campus, a harbinger of more campuses and society in general doing the same. If IV was to reach such places, it had to be much less white itself.
“We had to ask what God was doing in the world,” said then-IV president Steve Hayner, who is now president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. “And if God was moving to the Southern Hemisphere and changing color in leadership, Urbana had to reflect that.”
Not everyone was happy with the change. Hayner had taken board members to see multiethnic work that students were doing in downtown Chicago and was “roundly criticized by loud voices on the board.” Hayner called it a “transformative moment.” They lost some board members over it, but by then also had some African-American board members who could support the effort.
People of color and women became much more prominent at the 1993 Urbana podium, and non-white music more prominent in worship. Again there was pushback. “People said we were just being politically correct,” Hayner said.
And staff and students wondered: Would IV retreat on race as it had after 1970?
Not this time. Hayner earlier had hired Sam Barkat, a Pakistani-American evangelical, as vice-president and director of multiethnic ministry. Barkat did more than advocate for minority status within the organization -- he sought out people of color who’d been wounded by IV and worked to bring about reconciliation.
There was coincidentally a push for board members no longer to serve lifetime appointments, which opened opportunities for people of color and women. Hiring non-white-male staff ministry-wide also became a priority. Again, there was pushback. But now racial reconciliation was “a core value, rather than simply one of those things that’s a biblical value to honor as convenient,” Hayner said.
These efforts bore fruit.
In 1990, about 16 percent of IV’s students were people of color; in 2008 that figure was about 26 percent. The organization counts some 250 people of color among its 1,400 or so paid staff, including two of seven senior staff. The demographics are growing closer to matching those of college campuses, where 31 percent of students are non-white, according to figures on IV’s website.
Yet the organization’s leaders acknowledge the work is not complete. “We have so much farther to go,” said Scott Wilson, IV’s director of communications.
Despite its decentralized structure, the national-level organization uses what leverage it has, which includes hiring and training and planning the Urbana gathering. Organizationally, racial reconciliation is stressed at all events and included in training for board members and senior and campus staff. IV staffers raise their own salaries, and institution-wide now give 1 percent of what they raise as a “tithe” to people of color on staff. IV has found that staffers from communities with less access to money and power often struggle to raise enough support for their own salaries.
“Tolerance is very nice,” Cha said. “But it doesn’t have compelling energy to which you will submit even your life. IV has that.”
Chris Rice, co-leader of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke University, said that what impresses him most about the organization is that “InterVarsity has allowed this to be messy.”
That messiness has meant some embarrassing and public conflict. That’s what happened at IV’s national staff conferences in the early 2000s, where racial and ethnic tensions flared.
Several gifted leaders who were influential to IV’s racial ministry had untimely deaths, including Skinner, the 1970 Urbana speaker. Spencer Perkins, Rice’s partner in ministry and co-author of the book “More than Equals,” collapsed during a conference with major IV participation in 1998 and died shortly afterwards -- traumatic losses for the organization.
“Following Christ is difficult. You’re crucifying your flesh,” Fuller said. “This mantle has been passed by those who came before.”
Reconciliation on campus
In the end, reconciliation is more about people than policies, and Charlene Brown’s experience is an illustration.
In the early 2000s, she was the talented student leader of an African-American ministry at the University of Virginia called The Impact Movement. And she had a problem: Her group had no professional staff.
“We were in a bind in terms of leadership and how to create student leaders who were passionate about the ministry,” she said. So she asked more established predominantly white ministries for help.
Only IV said yes. And IV members saw this as an opportunity to learn, not just to offer their leadership to Impact’s members.
“They said, ‘Here, set the topic, and we’ll discuss what you want to talk about,’” Brown said.
The IV chapter had white staffers who worshipped in an African-American church and lived in a black neighborhood. Still, adjusting the chapter’s weekly “large group” -- IV’s most public, planning-intensive event -- proved difficult.
“They would offer to let Impact bring an electric guitarist,” Brown said, shaking her head at the invitation to bring an instrument associated with a white style of worship to an already too-white group. “They’d ask, ‘Why do we need a drummer?’ [But] drums are important in the African-American church.”