InterVarsity and #BlackLivesMatter in Historical Perspective

InterVarsity and #BlackLivesMatter in Historical Perspective January 6, 2016

In the last month, Franklin Graham called for a moratorium on Muslim immigration. Polls seemed to show considerable evangelical support for Donald Trump. Jerry Falwell declared, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.”

Graham and Falwell represent a particular strain of Christianity. Large numbers of evangelicals find these statements unbiblical and embarrassing. A gathering last week of 16,000 evangelical university students in St. Louis offers a helpful glimpse into moderate and progressive sectors of evangelicalism that don’t make the news so often.

For over half a century, students affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters at state universities have met between Christmas and New Years for a four-day, triennial convention. For decades, they met at the University of Illinois’s basketball arena (which is why the convention still goes by the term Urbana). More recently, they have gathered in downtown St. Louis, just miles away from Ferguson where Michael Brown was killed.

Planners and speakers in St. Louis, aware of their location, made a bold statement in support of Black Lives Matter. On the evening of December 28, 2015, the worship band wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts while leading gospel songs. Michelle Higgins, director of Faith for Justice in St. Louis, explained, “Black Lives Matter is not a mission of hate. It is a movement on mission in the truth of God.” In less than twenty-four hours, InterVarsity’s stock of Black Lives Matter t-shirts sold out in less than twenty-four hours.

Higgins’s endorsement was echoed by many other speakers at Urbana ’15. Christena Cleveland, defining white privilege as “the way society accommodates some people while alienating other people,” declared, “I think it’s one of the most important things happening in the history of the United States. … [it’s] all about bringing world into alignment with how God sees the world.” Yetanother speaker, a black grandmother, described how her 31-year-old son, who walks around with hanging pants and a near perfect SAT score, is regularly racially profiled. “It’s personal,” she told the convention.

Missing from the breathless reporting (one critic titled his piece “Dorothy, This Is Not Your Parents’ InterVarsity Anymore”) on Urbana ’15 was a sense of historical perspective. As I’ve written about at length in my book Moral Minority, InterVarsity in fact has a long tradition of social activism. In 1967, for example, students drafted a resolution complaining that “there are no black men in leadership positions on the national staff.” Following Urbana ‘67, InterVarsity’s magazine wrote that very little “escaped criticism at the convention. … Anything that seemed to show intolerance came under their indictment, with impatience toward racism leading the list.”

At Urbana ‘70 the funky strains of Soul Liberation, a band of black musicians wearing afros, colorful outfits, and African symbols, welcomed attendees. The mostly white audience hesitated at first, unsure of what to make of “Power to the People,” a song full of idioms from the emerging Black Power movement. But the swell of students soon rose to its feet to sing and clap along, delighted by the radical departure from the usual hymns.

File:16,000 attended Urbana 12.jpg
Urbana ’15 — courtesy Scribe51 at commonswiki

Tom Skinner, a black evangelist, then rose to deliver the evening sermon, a searing critique of racial prejudice in American society. Cheered on by over 500 black students who had arrived early to secure seats right in front of the podium, Skinner preached, “You soon learn that the police in the black communities become nothing more than the occupational force in the black community for the purpose of maintaining the interests of white society. … You soon learn that what they mean by law and order is all the order for us and all the law for them.”

Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., Skinner contended that the white evangelical moderate remained strangely silent. “Christians supported the status quo, supported slavery, supported segregation.” “Even today, evangelicals “go back to their suburban communities and vote for their law-and-order candidates who will keep the system the way it is.”

Skinner his sermon with a rhetorical flourish: “Go into the world that’s enslaved, a world that’s filled with hunger and poverty, racism and all those things that are the work of the devil. Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised. Go into the world and tell them who are bound mentally, spiritually, physically: The liberator has come!” Skinner received a standing ovation.

One observer described the response as deafening and electric, “the most powerful moment that I’ve ever experienced at the conclusion of a sermon.” For many students, Skinner’s speech portrayed all that was wrong, and suddenly hopeful, about evangelicalism.

The theme of a complicit white church again threaded its way through Urbana ‘15. Speaker after speaker confessed to inaction in the wake of Ferguson. That evangelicals, forty-five years after Urbana ’70, had to confess yet again seems so wrong. That these evangelicals are so forcefully speaking against structural inequalities seems hopeful yet again.

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  • George

    Looks like Urbana will continue to be just as irrelevant as it always has been. Lots of hand-wringing and castigation at swanky events, then everyone goes home and continues to do the exact same thing. Lots of money spent, nothing accomplished.

  • George

    Hahaha – WOW! Those hallucinogens must be kicking your butt in the worst way!

  • Stogiebear

    Ignore this troll, he cut and pastes this same nonsense on hundreds of sites. They just like attention.

  • choctaw_chris

    It seems to me that there’s a lesson to take away from this. A revolution may not achieve its objective. But rather than foolishly believing that a rehash will be any more successful, or pessimistically counting the disappointing progress as failure; a realistic appraisal will learn from history. History teaches us that progress happens in waves and its almost impossible to predict which wave will make the crucial difference.

  • Everett Kier Jr

    just for clarification…whom do you classify as a “troll”?

  • Gregory Peterson
  • Mark Byron

    I went to Urbana ’87; the speaker list from that year ranged from Billy Graham to Tony Campolo. IV seems to strive to be apolitical and stick to a mere-Christianity generic evangelical vibe, which often bothers folks sweating the doctrinal details as well as more liberal folks who can’t swallow evangelical theology; that leaves room for everyone from Graham to Campolo (back when he was a bit more orthodox) as well as our BLM maven.

  • Stogiebear

    The deleted post by “Jason Westerley” was one long string of obscenities, as are all his posts. I think that qualifies him for troll status.

  • Guthrum

    The problem I have with BLM is their tactics: disruptive, roughing people up, and acting like a bunch of juvenile hoodlums. They need to have clear objectives. They need to work through the system. It is not perfect, but it beats anything else.
    The way they pushed around and abused Sanders was shameless. I would bet that they will never grab a mic from Trump and push him around.

  • tovlogos

    Obviously there is truth in their statements. It is a frustrating life for many. Muslims seem to receive far more compassion. The methods BLM employ, however, drastically slows up their progress.

  • Mary Elizabeth Fisher

    Sorry but you should have gone to Urbana 90 and following years. We had a special track of 500 students looking at 10 key Global Issues reporting back to the 23,000 students. The platform was deliberately diverse. 36 percent of students were minorities. One of the speakers was Native American. Diversity was very present among the seminar speakers.

    Furthermore led by black staff there has been work into Projects with staff and students working into the Urban areas.

    As someone who was on staff from 87 to 94 and was very involved in changes that continued. This Professor needs to do more research. I left INTERVARSITY to go teach at Asbury Seminary where I stayed till 2005. I suggest the Professor do a lot more research and talk with minority staff of INTERVARSITY including Jeannette Yep. His research is lacking. As are the record of changes that occurred in major ways from 88 onwards.

  • Everett Kier Jr

    thank-you….I understand

  • Linda

    The ethnic diversity is fine.
    The politicization of IV is deeply regrettable. Our church is aware of the changes in so many “evangelical” associations and is warning our kids going off to college to find a solidly Christian church near their campus and shy away from anything to do with IV. It was a fine group in its day, but it seems to be completely in step with the post-Christian culture. So sad.

  • Mary Elizabeth Fisher

    Linda I’m sorry but what do you do with all the Scriptures that deal with injustice, with taking care of your neighbour, loving your enemy, with being a peace maker, care for life so that abortion is opposed etcetera etcetera. Do you tear them out of your Bible? Or do you just become political on abortion and act as though other issues are not dealt with in Scripture.

    I suggest you read your Scripture again.