If we are to learn anything from the uprisings against racial injustice that has taken place on many campuses, it is that as campus ministers, we can no longer view them as outside of our commission because they are occurring within our very own mission field—the university campus.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6:8
Months of student and faculty protests to address racial tensions followed by the threat of a boycott by the football team brought about the resignation of the president of The University of Missouri. Hundreds of students were involved in a campus protest after the non-indictment of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at Princeton University. The list goes on and on.
While some Christians are pleased that students are speaking out, many are less willing to accept that God calls us not only to empathize with their concerns but to also be the ones who help lead the charge for biblical justice. If we are to do the good that God requires of us —which is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with Him— what are some of the actions that Christians can begin to take to enter into the fight for racial justice on campus?
Here are four steps that I believe are necessary and wise in our efforts to honor God and stand with others in solidarity.
1. Pray For Clarity in our Actions
Before we take any action at all, we need to invite God to give us discernment and direction in prayer so that our actions are biblical and productive. This is always the first step when we engage principalities, powers and systems and structures because our God is full of mercy for the oppressed and will speak.
Recently at Loyola University Maryland, the InterVarsity chapter hosted a “Race Matters” Panel of multiracial students exploring the connection between Ethnicity and Spirituality. A Black student named Kyhlia Desire recounted a conversation with her mother where she shared about some of the racial injustice she was feeling anger toward. Her mother reminded her to pray before taking action saying, “Have you asked God what you should do about it?"
After heeding her mother’s advice, Kyhlia shared with the group, "That prayer led me (with a few other students) to organize the demonstration on campus that we had a few weeks ago. And that demonstration had led us to meet with administration and start implementing serious changes to our campus.”
Before taking action here are some questions you should seek God’s wisdom on:
- Where in our ministry structure can we begin to pray and listen to God together? Perhaps it is in our small groups or morning prayer meetings or leadership gatherings?
- What actions does God want us to take that will lean into our strengths, goals, and initiatives for campus outreach?
- If we take action, are we willing to have a long-term presence that speaks to our commitment to see real change take place? (Counting the Cost, Luke 4)
- Who are some of the people (pastors, Christian professors, chaplains etc.…) we should consult for wisdom and discernment before taking action?
2. Create Margins for Action
If there is one thing we can be assured of on any campus is that a racial incident will blow up at some point nearly every school year. Yet I am dismayed that Christian students and campus ministry leaders are often caught off guard. Because we are not anticipating racial injustices on campus, we are not ready to respond in any way that could speak to the power of the Gospel in addressing systemic sin.
Because we are not anticipating racial injustices on campus, we are not ready to respond in any way that could speak to the power of the Gospel in addressing systemic sin.
We pride ourselves in being so prepared for every weekly meeting, small group meeting and leadership gathering that we rarely leave ourselves any margins in our event calendar that will give us the flexibility to address racism when it springs up— and believe me it springs up on nearly every campus every school year. We want to be relevant and timely, but our own strength in over planning works to our disadvantage in these crisis moments.
We must become attuned to the signs of the times and then give ourselves the space and availability to do justice when the opportune moment presents itself.
To create margins, make sure that you leave a few weekly group meetings in the schedule unplanned.
And as leaders you can rehearse what plan of action you will take if a racial incident on campus breaks out. Use these questions to get started:
- Which clubs we are willing to partner with?
- What are other campus leaders do we already have a relationship with?
- How much of our budget are we willing to allocate toward important justice actions each semester?
- Who are our strongest leaders with cross-cultural skills who can serve as spokespersons?
3. Become Good Allies With Others in Our Actions
It is easy to presume that we have to be good at everything we do on campus. However, there are other campus groups and clubs that not only have a heart for justice but also are better at organizing than we are. This calls for a humble spirit on our part to become good allies and allow them to lead us in an area that many of our chapters are still not competent in—addressing racial and systemic injustice.
We must be willing to accept that we do not have to be in agreement on every theological, historical and political point in order to work effectively with others. This is a real tension we have to be willing to live with even if it means that we may end up being misunderstood by other Christians. Nevertheless, our greatest evangelistic witness often comes when we stand with the unbelievers and begin to dispel their false stereotypes about Christians as being irrelevant and slow to act for justice.
When we stand with unbelievers, we regain their respect and eventually their interest in understanding the meaning of our presence. What a perfect moment to share our role as God’s ambassadors of reconciliation with Him and each other!
We must be willing to accept that we do not have to be in agreement on every theological, historical and political point in order to work effectively with others. This is a real tension we have to be willing to live with even if it means that we may end up being misunderstood by other Christians.
During my student ministry years as the campus staff worker at Hunter College in Manhattan, we felt convicted that God wanted us to have a real presence on a justice issue on campus. We soon discovered that the Disabled Student Union (as they were called then) were experiencing massive budget cuts. We decided to protest and partner with them in every way we could for two years. We tutored and read to students. We wrote letters of protest to the administration. Some of our computer-savvy students repaired their computers. To help them raise money we had an Ethnic Food Fair and collected over $600 in a matter of 3 hours.
The Director, who was Atheist, was shocked that we gave them all the money from the food sale. She began to ask us questions about our faith. One of their students, Jennifer, even became a follower of Christ. We were ecstatic and helped her grow in her faith.
Later that year as Jennifer crossed a busy Manhattan street she fell out of her wheelchair and died from a head injury. No other Christian groups were invited to the memorial service but our group. In fact, two of our student leaders were invited to speak and our gospel choir was invited to sing at her memorial service held on campus. Even the administration took note of our commitment to the Disabled Student Union and gave us an award in recognition of our service to the campus.
These were very important lessons for me as a young staff worker trying to lead students in doing justice and mercy that spoke to the power of the gospel to deliver us from sin and evil.
To become good allies on our campuses we can:
- Join a campus group or local activist organization that isn’t at odds with our biblical worldview.
- Prayerfully and generously give our time and energy to support an important cause we care about.
- Pray for divine appointments to love, serve and share our faith as we partner with other organizations that have come to trust and believe in our leadership.
4. Use Symbols That Will Speak Prophetically in Our Actions
One of my favorite people is activist and author Alexia Salvatiera who co-wrote Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing The Church in Service to the World. In one of her chapters entitled Prophetic Advocacy in Public Witness she writes about the prophetic power of symbols.
She states that in the Christian faith community we have a treasure trove of symbols that point to the power of our message of the gospel and that we need to make better use of them in our public communication and witness. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, took a jug and shattered it on the ground before the leaders of Israel. Moses turned a staff into a snake before the unjust Pharaoh. These are just a few examples of ways God communicated prophetic messages through powerful symbols.
Salvatierra also gives an example of when she worked with the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and tried to get several hotel owners to negotiate a contract in good faith. To those who were negotiating in good faith they brought milk and honey during Holy Week. To the owners who were trying to break the union of hotel workers they brought bitter herbs. This symbolic act awakened one hotel owner to see his management choices as a moral issue and soon he too became convicted to negotiate in good faith. We need to pray to gain this kind of clarity regarding the prophetic symbols we are to use that will soften hearts and open closed minds.
What is particularly powerful about prophetic symbols is that not only do they convict those whose hearts must change but also, if done well, can transform those we stand with in our fight for justice and open them up to an encounter with the love of Jesus Christ. It presents to them a fuller and more powerful biblical approach that goes beyond disruption and dismantling of evil systems and moves toward restoration, healing and the biblical concept of Shalom—the way things are supposed to be.
Here are a few examples of prophetic symbols that can go a long way toward bringing clarity, conviction and repentance:
- Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days to symbolize the 390 years that Israel sinned. On campuses throughout the country students have participated in die-ins, also known as lie-ins, to symbolize the unjust deaths of Blacks and Latinos.
- Ezekiel was also told to walk in every direction in a valley full of dry human bones and then to prophesy to them as a way to symbolize God bringing the Israelites out of death. We can use many different kinds of actions to symbolize a campus coming back to life after a racial incident that has created distrust, anger and division.
- InterVarsity chapters around the country have used an interactive and provocative approach to artwork, called Proxe Stations, to present a biblical worldview using scripture and images to attract attention and stimulate conversation that points to biblical truth, reconciliation, justice and shalom. The Hope Campaign (pictured above left) is a Proxe Station specifically designed to engage issues of race and reconciliation. You can use browse the entire list of Proxe Stations of InterVarsity Evangelism and prayerfully consider which themes, images and symbols you might use to engage your campus.
As Christ followers what an opportune moment we have been given to engage in racial and systemic justice on campus as prophetic witnesses. May God fill us with the courage to stand with others for the sake of biblical justice that reconciles and restores communities and brings the true Shalom of God and His son Jesus Christ!