For more than 60 years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has been a leader in discussions about race and diversity among evangelicals.
It began after an incident in the late 1940s, according to former InterVarsity president Alec Hill, who stepped down earlier this year after being diagnosed with cancer.
Here’s how Hill tells the story:
“One of my favorite InterVarsity stories involves a Trustee, who in 1945 volunteered to host a Bible study in her home,” Hill wrote in 2003. “Unexpectedly, a staff member invited several Black students. When the Trustee objected and threatened to report the staff member to the entire Board, the latter responded—a la Dirty Harry— ‘please do.’”
As a result of this incident, the Board passed a resolution forbidding racial segregation at InterVarsity events and calling for unity in the body of Christ. This was a gutsy decision, a clarion call for biblical justice in an era when Jim Crow was alive and well.
Today, InterVarsity has become one of the most diverse evangelical ministries in the United States. Of its more than 40,000 students, only 46 percent identify as White Americans.
Conflict Is Inevitable in Conversations About Race
When you wade into conversations on race, conflict and criticism are inevitable. Even if (or because) you are a leader in the conversation—like InterVarsity—you are bound to cause controversy and occasionally to be unclear (or misunderstood).
As I’ve waded into conversations on race and ethnicity recently, hosting about a dozen blogs about racial tension/Ferguson, co-leading a widely-debated conversation on race and justice at the National Civil Rights Museum, and seeking to elevate persons of color, I’ve experienced the criticism that comes with such conversations—at each turn.
And, now, InterVarsity is the focus of much of the criticism, including from many friends of mine.
InterVarsity and Black Lives Matter
At issue, InterVarsity’s public embrace of the #BlackLivesMatter movement during the recent Urbana conference meeting in St. Louis.
Worship leaders at Urbana wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, while featured speaker Michelle Higgins called BlackLivesMatter “a movement on mission in the truth of God.” InterVarsity’s Twitter feed took up the call as well.
Higgins also pointed out that the 16,000 students at Urbana had gathered not far from where an African-American man was burned to death in the 1800s by an angry mob for refusing to help apprehend an escaped slave. They were also not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where the death of Michael Brown set off angry protests and sparked a national conversation about race that continues today.