The Common Good
January 2012

A Turning Point on Immigration

by Lisa Sharon Harper | January 2012

A conference at Cedarville University shows new political boundary-crossing in the Christian college world.

“WHAT A MOMENT you have brought me to,” belted a massive gospel choir of nearly 100 mostly white students and faculty at Cedarville University’s G92 Immigration Conference in Ohio in October. Led by several African-American and white students and staff, the choir swayed, clapped, and worshipped, pressing through years of tradition, partisan loyalties, and cultural isolation.

Founded 125 years ago, Cedarville is rooted in a fundamentalist worldview, which is not generally associated with justice efforts in the social sphere. Carl Ruby, Cedarville’s vice president for student life, said in a recent interview: “I grew up hearing about the dangers of the ‘social gospel.’ The social gospel was always presented as something antithetical to sharing the need for personal salvation. I don’t view it that way anymore. In fact, I think if we approach issues of social justice appropriately, it lends credibility to the gospel message that we want to share. I think we need to both tell the gospel and do the gospel.”

At Cedarville, according to Ruby, a transformation was sparked for faculty and students by the 2007 book UnChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. “They outlined the way that people outside of the church tend to view, particularly, conservative evangelicals as being pushy, hateful, disconnected from issues that matter, backward culturally,” Ruby explained. “I want to see us change those perceptions by providing solutions to real-life problems.”

The following year, Ruby tried to bring Shane Claiborne, cofounder of The Simple Way community and author of The Irresistible Revolution, to campus to lecture. The backlash from bloggers and alumni was so great that Ruby canceled the event.

Since 2007, Cedarville students, faculty, and alumni have been on a journey. After much dialogue, this fall the university brought together people from 20 Christian colleges and universities for the G92 Immigration Conference—whose website endorsed immigration reform that, among other things, “establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.” (According to the organizers, G92 is a reference to the 92 times that the Hebrew word ger—which is translated as stranger, sojourner, or alien—occurs in scripture.)

Ruby didn’t know what to expect as the date of G92 approached, but on that first night it was clear it’s a new day at Cedarville—and maybe even in evangelical America.

Speaker after speaker shared from the heart, preached from the Bible, and sifted fact from fiction. Carlos Campos, president of Pat Robertson-founded Regent University, talked about learning to embrace his identity as a son of Cuban immigrants. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis told the crowd, “There are two signs at the border: One says ‘No Trespassing’; the other says ‘Help Wanted’! Now 12 million people, made in the image of God, are stuck between these two signs. What are we going to do about it?” Claiborne—yes, the speaker disinvited by Cedarville a few years earlier—spoke at the conference about what he called the dreams, hearts, and humanity of “the other.”

And get this: G92 is now slated to be an annual conference hosted by a different Christian college each year.

Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, was a speaker at the G92 conference. She is also co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics.

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