The Christian Activist "Borderlands": Christian Colleges and Universities
In last week’s blog post, we introduced the concept of the “Christian-Activist Borderlands.” As Christian activists, we live in between the worlds of institutional/majority culture Christianity, and activism. (Note that I’m saying “institutional Christianity.” God loves the poor and marginalized more than we can ever hope for or imagine, but, for a wide range of historical reasons, institutional Christianity in the U.S. sometimes forgets this clear, biblical truth. There is much hope, however, as millions of Christians throughout the world are now passionately seeking and acting upon God’s heart for justice—see, Jesus for Revolutionaries, the book, chapter 16 (download the free e-book!): http://www.jesusforrevolutionaries.org/free-e-book-and-paperback-version-of-jesus-for-revolutionaries/)
Some folks from institutional Christian circles some times call us “unchristian” and “leftist” because we assert that Jesus cares about immigrants and the poor, and we advocate for these biblical values in the public sphere. For example, check out these many mean-spirited comments about Jesus for Revolutionaries which were made in response to an article in a right-wing college newspaper. The article oversimplified and misrepresented my detailed interview responses and tried to characterize me as a crazy, left-wing, Bible quotin’ professor that all conservative parents should fear: http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/15722/. God is continuing to teach me to bless those who curse me and to love my enemies.
On the other hand, many of our activist friends also tell us that we’re crazy for believing in Jesus. They cite the many historical misrepresentations of Christianity (which we also acknowledge). Many are unaware, however, that Christians have spear-headed some of the most powerful movements of social justice in world history, and that the same is true in the present historical moment (see Jesus for Revolutionaries, chapters 15-16).
As a result, we Christian activists dwell in a lonely spiritual, social, and emotional borderlands. We often times wrestle with our own identity, too—are we Christians or are we activists? Can we be both Christian and an activist? Can we be Christian and Latina/o, Chicana/o, or African American? Organizations like Sojourners, the Justice Conference, the Christian Community Development Association, the Urban Workers Youth Institute, and Jesus for Revolutionaries (if I might dare mention our fledgling organization in the same breath!), are trying to change that by providing meaningful spaces for Christian activists/social justice minded Christians to gather and experience community. In the near future, Jesus for Revolutionaries will be planning a special quarterly gathering in Los Angeles. Stay tuned for more details…Also, check out the Justice Conference which will be happening on February 21-22 in L.A.: http://thejusticeconference.com/
Living in the Christian-activist borderlands takes a heavy toll on thousands of people in the U.S. every year. I meet student “fronteriz@s” (borderlanders) all the time at UCLA and other colleges and universities. It breaks my heart because they often lose their faith or end up barely clinging to their faith by their emotional/spiritual fingertips. Incidentally, that’s the whole purpose of Jesus for Revolutionaries--to provide a social, spiritual, and intellectual space for activists to thrive in their faith with Jesus.
The contours of the problem differ from setting to setting. It looks one way at so-called “secular” universities, another way at “Christian colleges,” and yet another way in community organizing circles. In the next several blog posts I hope to present a variety of perspectives from a variety of institutional settings…
Today, however, I’d like to highlight the struggle that many Christian activists feel at Christian colleges and universities. There are some Christian colleges that have made great headway in this area, such as North Park University in Chicago. I also know of individuals at other Christian colleges who are making a big difference as well. For example, Glen Kinoshita at Biola University and APU friends Ed Baron, Aaron Hinojosa, and Young Lee Hertig.
Here’s a story which I think represents the struggle of many Christian activists at Christian colleges and universities:
Erica and I met José at an annual meeting of the Christian Community Development Association. José is Latino and Middle Eastern and he shared with us that he attended a Christian college in the Midwest. He had a big heart for racial justice issues and had recently experienced persecution for his beliefs. José ran for student body president and his opponent, a white male, warned the student body that if they voted for José José would do all sorts of these things for minorities (which presumably would not be beneficial for the larger student body population). José lost.
José also told me about a chapel session (a service in which students gather for spiritual enrichment—usually a great thing) which made him feel uncomfortable. At this chapel session, one professor gave a talk against the book, Divided by Faith. Divided by Faith is an outstanding book written by world class (Christian) sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. It speaks powerfully into the racial divide within Christianity in America and highlights the fact that white and black evangelical Christians often have very different views towards the prevalence of racial discrimination. Whereas most African Americans surveyed indicated that they felt that racial discrimination was still a big problem, most whites surveyed believed just the opposite—that racial discrimination was a rare occurrence. José was so passionate and concerned about what he heard, that he challenged his professor to a public debate! As God would have it, José was scheduled to meet with one of the author’s of Divided by Faith at the CCDA conference as part of preparation for his upcoming public debate.
Here is a second moving personal testimonial by my friend Jasmine. Jasmine is a black, Guyanese woman and a recent graduate of a Christian college on the east coast. She has wrestled with living in the Christian-Activist borderlands, and especially with the feeling of racism in employment. I asked her to write up her thoughts for this blog post. They are honest and raw, and they express a deep hurt and anger with the church. I think that it is very important to provide a space for people like my friend Jasmine to honestly express their feelings. This is necessary for healing and reconciliation to occur within the church:
“Three bold-eyed women from developing countries graduated with a common goal: to transform our communities. We began applying for jobs at least 4 months prior to graduation--the danger of ambition--regardless, we were eager to do whatever it took to find our place in this world. One year past commencement, we have applied for receptionist jobs, housekeeping, we even cleaned a few cars for an auto shop for food money. I wish I can write this post with peace and acknowledge that a sovereign being will take care of my needs. The truth is, I can still smell the burns on my fingers from a Christian organization we all saw value in. A basic entry-level position, Christian NGO, doing great work in Africa (mind you, my peers have all done outstanding work for their country in this region), so it made sense to apply for an entry-level position. Here's where my frustration steps in: please don't tell me you hire the most qualified when our classmate who so happens to be white, with no connection to the continent besides her study aboard experience, is now a regional manager. It's equally frustrating to witness a company brag about diversity when the only persons who are diverse on your team are the locals.
Some days I am hopeful, I actually stand in the rain and count the drops, I even listen to the success stories of the men and women of color. But like Sherman, the world is patiently waiting for us to drop the towel and remind us: the playing field isn't level and my color does matter, followed by my character--well, that's if we get there.
I cringe every time I read stats of the (un)successful women and men of color who are unemployed. I throw stones, phones and rants, and I think I will continue to, because our jails, gangs and the N word are becoming lose labels for an entire community/color.”
Do you have a story like Jasmine’s from the Christian-Activist borderlands? Please post them as comments to this post, or email them to me: robertchaoromero@gmail. I’d like to share them as part of this series.
Final important note: I have written this post to bring understanding and healing to the Church, God’s beloved community. My goal is not to bring racial division. For true healing and reconciliation to occur, there must be safe spaces for us to share our deepest hurts and anger in an authentic way. Otherwise, we become like a family in denial. One family member is angered and hurt by another based upon real wrongs and mutual misunderstandings, but they never sit down to talk. When they do sit down, neither side listens, and no one owns up to the harm they have caused. This, sadly, is the state of much of the institutional church in America.
I am hopeful because there are wonderful, wonderful exceptions. But, many students like Jasmine and Jose are trapped today in the spiritual borderlands which we have created—and they are hurt, angry, and barely clinging to faith. This breaks my heart.
Please join me in praying for Jasmine, Jose, and the many “borderlanders” at Christian colleges and universities in the United States. Please pray for healing and reconciliation in the Church in America. In the words of Paul,
“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5: 16-19
Robert Chao Romero