When Carmille Akande, a dean at Cedarville University, and I stepped into the Duke Gardens for the opening reception of Duke Divinity School's Summer Institute—a project of Duke's Center for Reconciliation—we sensed we were on holy ground. Our gratitude, awe, and love for Christ and his body only intensified throughout the week in June. Being with such a diverse group was a foretaste of the coming kingdom. And as we worshiped, fellowshipped, and lamented alongside brothers and sisters from all over the world, we were better equipped for our own ministry of reconciliation at Cedarville, a Baptist-affiliated college in Ohio.
We learned of Census projections that ethnic minorities will compose the majority in the U.S. by 2040. That, coupled with the fact that the center of Christianity has tilted toward the Global South, predominantly white Christian colleges and universities like Cedarville have to make changes necessary for institutional survival. But more important, the changes are necessary to faithfully represent Christ and his kingdom in our world.
Cedarville has already taken steps toward this faithful representation. In 2006, university trustees approved a statement on diversity, which includes the following:
Cedarville University actively seeks to attract and serve a diverse group of Christian employees and students who exercise their spiritual calling to be agents of reconciliation; pursuing unity, peace, and community in an atmosphere that recognizes our union in Christ and celebrates the contributions of all who seek to follow Christ.
In fall 2008, we hired Carmille as the Dean of Multi-Cultural and Special Programs. We hold diversity training and have a diversity committee. We are trying to diversify our faculty and staff. Such steps mirror those taking place at most other Christian colleges in the U.S. Thankfully many people on campus "get it." But, like most U.S. Christian colleges and universities, we have a lot to learn—and some institutional sin to overcome.
When we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day each January, hold diversity training, or even mention diversity, I inevitably hear, "Why is diversity being shoved down our throats? I'm tired of it. I love everybody. I am color-blind." After the 2008 presidential election, minority students who supported President Obama told stories of how their salvation was called into question by some on campus. Many felt they couldn't openly celebrate the election of America's first black president without meeting condemnation.
As I talk to colleagues at other Christian colleges, I hear similar stories. And as I've listened to stories from minority Cedarville students, and one from faculty and staff at other Christian schools, I've learned that minority students often report they've been treated worse at Christian institutions than at secular ones. I wonder if, as Christian higher educational institutions, we are seeking cosmetic diversity instead of true reconciliation. A majority of the time, we seem clueless about the inequality, humiliation, and indignity that minority students suffer on Christian campuses.
What do we do? In an institute seminar led by Peter T. Cha, associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and David Black, president of Eastern University, we learned that one step forward is pinpointing the underlying assumptions of our organizational culture. For example, Cedarville has a doctrinal statement and a community covenant, artifacts that outline what we believe and how we strive to behave. These artifacts shape our practice, but they do not tell the whole story. The unwritten and unspoken rules—the underlying assumptions on our Christian campus (and in any church or Christian organization)—are the crux of our identity. They become our implicit theology.
A few examples of the underlying assumptions I've observed: The Republican Party is the Christian Party. Fox News is the preferred news outlet. Raising one's hands and praying expressively in chapel is too charismatic. Of course, none of these are stated in our doctrinal statement or community covenant. And of course it's fine for anyone to vote Republican, watch only Fox News, and have lowered hands and less noisy prayer. But if these underlying assumptions are used to say who's in and who's out, then we alienate many minority students, faculty, staff, and visitors who don't share the same assumptions. Many black Christians vote Democrat; many minorities and whites in the U.S. and worldwide worship expressively. What do we communicate to them when they spend time on our campus?
If evangelical colleges are to become institutions that look and behave increasingly like Christ's body, a helpful first step is to simply name those artifacts, shared values, and assumptions that may be hindering biblical reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). It's not an easy task and not something a few people can do alone. As for myself, as a resident director, I must model a gracious spirit. I want to demonstrate that one can disagree staunchly with a brother or sister while respectfully listening and not slandering him or her. And as a biracial Puerto-Rican, I am keenly aware of the need to integrate minorities into my staff and dorm, to give them a voice, and to encourage their contributions on campus. I seek to model reconciliation through conversation, writing, seminars, and my lifestyle.
What are the underlying assumptions at your institutions and networks? Do these tend to help or hinder reconciliation across ethnic lines?
Marlena Graves (M.Div., Northeastern Seminary) is a resident director at Cedarville. She blogs at His Path Through the Wilderness, and has written for Her.meneutics about safeguarding against adultery, friendship between men and women, the sin of self-promotion, and same-sex attraction.