Campus Ministry, Race, and Affirmative Action

We here at IVCF have a spiritual legacy that over the years has sort of dipped a little bit. Fifteen years ago, our fellowship was made up of a majority of white students, and one of the areas that students and staff began to be convicted about was the lack of connection with the rest of the ethnic groups on campus, and then through a series of events … IVCF started to cross ethnic barriers. … Each one of us, each one of us staff can point to specific people in our lives who were like these Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene, who crossed ethnic barriers for the sakes of God.

Over the course of several academic semesters, Julie Park was a participant observer at a variety of IVCF groups at “California University” (CU), a large, research-oriented public institution in the Golden State. In When Diversity Drops, she details how an organization’s commitment to racial reconciliation and the curtailment of affirmative action affected a campus ministry’s ability to attract and retain a racially diverse membership.

Through interviews and statistics, Park charts the CU IVCF chapter’s commitment to racial reconciliation and justice over a roughly fifteen year period. She argues that while both internal and external factors have driven the chapter’s racial composition and values, California’s Proposition 209 made it nearly impossible for IVCF to continue to attract a critical mass of African American students. (At CU, black enrollment dipped to just 2 percent of the first-year class in 2006). Park concludes that “despite IVCF’s best efforts to foster an organizational culture supportive of diversity, the group was greatly limited by the lack of structural diversity at CU.”

For the purposes of analyzing Park’s argument, it makes sense to — at least for the moment — set aside concerns about either the constitutionality or broader social effects of affirmative action. What I found fascinating in her book was her careful account of a fairly autonomous decision of a local (and predominantly white) IVCF chapter in the early 1990s to self-consciously attempt to initiate honest conversations about race on campus and to purposefully reach out to minority students. This began in the mid-1990s, when IVCF at CU initiated “Race Matters” discussions, forums at which staff and students initiated what were risky and sometimes chaotic conversations about race. The chapter also made racial reconciliation a core value, discussed it frequently in meetings, and actively recruited black and Latino/a students. The chapter became truly multicultural, with Asian Americans the single largest group but with substantial contingents of African American and Latino students.

IVCF at CU rejected the ideal of “color-blindness,” instead insisting that “God made race for a reason” and that Christianity brought something to efforts to achieve racial reconciliation that the secular academy did not. They reframed racial and ethnic identify “as part of God’s unique design and purpose,” and they looked to images of a multi-racial (“every tribe”) New Jerusalem for inspiration. Staff members also actively contrasted a biblical approach to racial reconciliation with “PC jargon.” One example, from an Asian American staff member: “‘The foundation of my religion is that I can’t save myself; I’m not a good person in my heart. Am I a racist? Probably, probably more than I know.’ The world says, ‘No, no, I’m not,’ but in the kingdom of God, that’s where we start. Jesus said, ‘I will. I’d die for you.’” IVCF set itself apart both from other campus ministries and from the secular diversity agenda of the university.

IVCF at CU largely succeeded in building an multiracial ministry, but that success came at a high cost. The commitment to racial reconciliation wore students out, especially minority students frequently asked to share their experience and to involve themselves in a multiethnic ministry that diminished their involvement within their own racial communities. Eventually, the chapter experimented with single-ethnic ministries, and with an increased emphasis on evangelism, the formerly pervasive commitment to racial reconciliation took a backseat. In conjunction with the effects of Proposition 209, the chapter’s racial diversity decreased. Most obviously, fewer African American students were active in IVCF by 2007. Latino/a participation, however, held rather steady. “The question remains,” Parks concludes, “whether universities will be able to attract the diverse student bodies that groups such as IVCF need to help students understand that race matters, both inside and outside the ivory tower.”

During these years, IVCF at CU became predominantly Asian American (nearly 60 percent as of 2007), even though the Asian American enrollment at CU did not change significantly after the curtailment of affirmative action. Park ends her book by chronicling the chapter’s attempt to forthrightly discuss its Asian American predominance and renew its partly lost commitment to multiracial ministry. Music, it turns out, was a major impediment to attracting non-Asian, non-white students to IVCF functions.

I highly recommend When Diversity Drops for those involved in campus ministry (and for those interested in the intersection of religion and higher education). Parks makes it clear that multiracial ministry takes a tremendous amount of patience, planning, and persistence. Perhaps most obviously, since many students will have grown up in racially homogeneous Christian subcultures, they will feel most comfortable in seeking out similar ministries as undergraduates. Multiracial ministry will not simply happen. It will take a tremendous amount of hard work. In fact, Park’s book is rather sobering. Even a ministry that dedicated itself to racial diversity and reconciliation for a decade encountered unexpected challenges and a fair amount of burn-out.

At the same time, I found When Diversity Drops extremely encouraging, for the suggestion that Christian ministries can provide different (and firmer) foundation for racial reconciliation than the secular university. Furthermore, IVCF at CU, because of its commitment to racial reconciliation, was able to gain a hearing for its core message of salvation in Jesus Christ from students who otherwise might have ignored a predominantly white or Asian American ministry.

  • Miles Mullin

    Nicely done, John. As a side note, IVCF as an organization began to be concerned about racial issues in the 1950s. In particular, as editor of HIS, Joe Bayley raised issues in the 1950s.


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