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Sam Barkat: We have all been made in the image of God

For Sam Barkat, Christians must become “people of the basin and towel,” since humility is crucial on the journey to diversity.

July 7, 2009

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Drawing upon his experience as a psychologist, a Christian and an immigrant to the United States, Sam Barkat has spent his career pushing institutions to embrace people of all races and ethnicities. Barkat, executive director of the Institute for Collaborative Engagement, is an international consultant, focusing on reconciliation and conflict resolution among individuals, communities and organizations, including for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

Barkat has held positions in higher education including vice president and director of multiethnic ministry for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. When he became IVCF’s first multiethnic director in 1988, the organization had 13 African American staff, a handful of Latinos, and 20 or so Asian Americans. Over his tenure, the number increased nearly sixfold, and by 2000 more 30 percent of InterVarsity students were nonwhite. Barkat later was a senior adviser at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and provost and executive vice president of Nyack College.

Barkat spoke with Faith & Leadership in June 2009 while teaching at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute: “Shaping the Beloved Community.”

Q. How does your faith as a Christian affect the way you view and practice leadership?

It’s very important that all of us who profess to be followers of Christ show a faith that impacts all of our lives, and avoid distinctions between what we do on Sundays and what we do the rest of the week. Everything that I do, doing it as a believer is what counts for the good of people now and for eternity.

Q: Can you name some of those values that matter for eternity?

This comes from my background as a clinical psychologist. Human beings have value. We have all been made in the image of God. Therefore whatever I suggest to an organization, they should keep in mind how it will impact the people they serve. If we neglect that, then what’s the use of making lots of money, or accomplishing lots of other things, if we have ruined people on the way?

Q: You’ve written beautifully about the need for Christians to become “people of the basin and towel,” of how important humility is on the journey to diversity. Your own experience has been as an immigrant to this country. Yet you’ve also had access to power in predominantly white institutions. Has your own experience helped you push those institutions toward the kinds of diversity you care about?

One, I grew up as a religious minority as a Christian in Pakistan, so I knew what it meant to be a second-class citizen. Then as a student I started learning about the history of this country and was compelled by hearing the stories and seeing movies about people who had been affected by the history of slavery and segregation.

Then I became provost at educational institutions. I made a very conscious effort to acquire a faculty that would bring different perspectives. All of the institutions I served were majority white. As an institutional leader I wanted to be careful about the values we portrayed. During faculty interviews, I would ask the deans and chairs of the departments where they were making announcements for positions -- in what kind of magazines? I wanted applications from different pools: not only from the institution’s own church, or one person’s own church or own graduate school, but from other places.

Then when I became a vice president at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship I was charged to deal directly with this issue. My job was to help the whole organization be multiethnic and racially reconciled. That’s a big order! And I didn’t even know what it meant. I started working with staff of different ethnic backgrounds. More than just bringing new staff, it was important how I walked with minority staff -- how I heard their stories, listened to their pain, laughed and cried with them -- then how I became their spokesperson, their advocate to the organization’s board.

I also had to deal with the majority community, to ask how we become sensitive to each other. How do we help each other now? We made good progress. But by no means have we arrived so as to say it’s all accomplished.

Q: Why has racial reconciliation become so important in the evangelical Christian colleges and universities with which you’ve worked?

A few years ago, accrediting agencies were not paying much attention to diversity in Christian institutions. Then accrediting agencies started looking at it very carefully -- asking accreditation evaluation teams whether institutions are serving all of their population. Is somebody taking care of the needs of ethnic minority students? Or are they treated as guests who have come to “our” institution? Those kinds of questions put a certain pressure on institutions to hire more faculty of color.

There is also more and more teaching on this issue. Christian institutions have in their mission statements claims to be serving all people. How then can we intentionally exclude some people?

Q: Who has inspired you as a particularly Christlike leader?

A: David Atkins’s “Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century” describes the way each of his six leaders had a powerful message and then lived their lives very consistently with that message. He writes of Mother Teresa’s quality of compassion that drove her, Nelson Mandela’s passion, Elie Wiesel’s emphasis on remembrance. These are people of integrity with passion for doing something. There have been other people who are not that great and mighty (about whom books have not been written!), but very simple people who just consistently, quietly, lived their lives. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

My professional hero has been Viktor Frankl. He lost all of his family in a concentration camp. Yet he came out of that difficult, difficult situation, and still thinks of the good and well-being of other people. It was my privilege a few times before he passed away to be with him. He told me, “The more you run after happiness, the more it escapes you. But the more you involve yourself with other people, the more happiness follows you.” That is profound. It’s not far from what Jesus taught.

I asked Frankl, “How could you think about the happiness of the German people?” In a very gentle and gracious way he said, “I really feel sorry for their collective conscience, that they have to live with what they’ve done. I wish they didn’t have to. And I really feel for them.” If I were asked that question, I probably would have said many other things! But here, with what he had gone through, he still was thinking of others -- what was hurting them and putting them in a very bad situation. That is a hero for me.