Open Letter to the Leadership of #Urbana15 and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

By Lisa Sharon Harper 1-05-2016
Michelle Higgins speaks at Urbana15.

People across the evangelical world were stunned after Michelle Higgins’ prophetic talk at Urbana15. On the last day of the conference, InterVarsity issued this board approved statement in support of the message of Black Lives Matter.

We chose to address #BlackLivesMatter at Urbana 15, InterVarsity’s Student Missions Conference, because it is a language and experience of many college students. Many Black InterVarsity staff and students report that they are physically and emotionally at risk in their communities and on campus. About one-half of those at Urbana 15 are people of color, including more than 1,200 Black participants. InterVarsity chose to participate in this conversation because we believe that Christians have something distinctive to contribute in order to advance the gospel.

I, along with my colleagues Leroy Barber, Dominique D. Gilliard, Mae Cannon, Micky Jones, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, and Dr. Brian Bantum, were struck that InterVarsity had made a bold and unique move among modern evangelical non-advocacy-based parachurch organizations. I served on staff with InterVarsity for 10 years from 1995-2005. For five of those years, I served as director of racial reconciliation in Greater Los Angeles. In my last year, I served as racial reconciliation specialist for Southern California. In all those years, most of the organization’s focus was on the reconciliation of cultures within their own communities. In some instances, InterVarsity even dared to address the structural and systemic injustices within its own organization. Occasionally, a campus chapter would respond to a racist incident that occurred on campus. But never before had InterVarsity issued a public statement in support of structural and systemic racial justice in the broader society.

Watch Michelle Higgins' Urbana15 talk:

Many of the friends who join me in this statement have connection to InterVarsity. We are former staff, former student leaders, attending the church of former student leader, or in relationship with current InterVarsity staff. We have witnessed firsthand the tears and struggle of students of color as they navigate the racially hostile waters of the evangelical world and the university campus. We wanted to thank InterVarsity for its faith and courage. And we decided to make the letter an open letter for others to sign.

Here we share with you an Open Letter to the Leadership of Urbana15 and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, signed by the following principal signatories and open to be signed by all who agree.

SIGN ON TO ADD YOUR VOICE.

 

Dear Leadership of Urbana15 and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,

Thank you for taking a stand.

As the first major evangelical parachurch organization to take a strong stand in support of the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, you – the leadership of InterVarsity’s Urbana Missions Conference – demonstrated courageous alignment with the Legacy of the Urbana Conference, as well as profound commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Since Urbana 1967 when 200 black students filled a back room and organized to protest the lack of representation of their voice from the main stage in a similar time of unrest, to Tom Skinner’s prophetic Urbana 1970 speech, to the decision to see and address the plank of racial division in the eyes of evangelicals in the 1990s, to Brenda Salter McNeil’s call to be the reconciling generation in 2000, to the moment First Nations people first spoke and danced on Urbana 2003’s main stage the Urbana Missions Conference has been used in the hands of God to confront the colonizing impulse within the white evangelical church—the impulse to ignore or denigrate the image of God within some while assuming its full presence in others—the impulse that has led missionaries to unwittingly exercise spiritual, cultural, and economic colonization and subjugation of the image of God around the world. Since 1967 Urbana has served as a key platform where God has called out that impulse, called it sin, and lifted up the full humanity of all peoples and their capacity to lead.

The Urbana 2015 Conference took place in the heart of downtown, St. Louis, blocks away from key moments of protest in the Ferguson/Black Lives Matter movement. Ferguson—ground zero of the Black Lives Matter movement—is fifteen minutes up the road from the America’s Center. Ferguson was the first place where the rising generation (young people the same age as many Urbana attendees) stood up, organized, and pushed back against oppression on a scale unseen since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.

Furthermore, we recognize that you, the leadership of Urbana 2015, demonstrated tremendous courage to display an unpopular, but central tenet of Christian faith, that the bodies of the poor and oppressed are central to God’s work in the world. Contrary to the idea that our souls are divorced from our bodily lives, support of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates the truth that the Word became flesh, that the beloved kingdom is a place where we live and breathe in community with God and with one another. In supporting Black Lives Matter, the Urbana Conference participates in a centuries old evangelical legacy. A legacy that participated in abolition, prohibition, suffrage and worker’s rights. It is a legacy that is grounded in the belief that Jesus’ life and work restores our humanity and that to follow Jesus we must also participate in that restoration in the lives of those who are perpetually dehumanized in our contemporary society.

Jesus’ life opened the possibility for others to see women in new ways, to acknowledge and heal those wounded by systemic injustice, to challenge and change structures that subjugate, and to re-imagine new modes of ethnic identity. The people named in Matthew 25—the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrants, the imprisoned, the impoverished, and the sick—were not politically correct causes. These were people, made in the image of God, with whom Jesus identified. In a sense, "the least" embody the very miracle of the incarnation and the substance of his redemptive mission in the world. We affirm your choice to enter into the bodily substance of Christ’s mission; the restoration of the image of God in those who are repeatedly robbed of their lives and dignity each day. We also affirm that your support of Black Lives Matter does not diminish your commitment to individual sin. Rather it names the sins that those in power wish to hide or somehow veil under the rhetoric of ‘law.’

Michelle Higgins, director of Faith for Justice, a Christian advocacy group in St. Louis, exposed a central lie at work in the church and society through her Urbana15 keynote address. The lie is this: White people were created to rule and everyone else was created to be ruled. This lie is the foundation upon which unjust American structures, systems, and policies rest. Michelle explained to the assembly that “Black lives matter” is a statement of tension that disrupts the status quo, a declaration of hope for the full redemption of our broken world, and a movement on mission with God’s global purposes.

We thank you for exercising courage to allow a true prophet to address the church. And we thank you for exercising leadership in the way the worship team, arts team, and 2100 production team supported Michelle’s message throughout the night. Those of us who are evangelicals of color look to you and say thank you. Those of us who are evangelicals of the lighter hue look to you and say thank you. We believe history will look on InterVarsity and the Urbana 2015 leadership team and will say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Your brothers and sisters in Christ,

Dr. Lawrence A. Q. Burnley
Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Assistant Professor of History at Whitworth University

Paul Alexander, Ph.D.
President, Evangelicals for Social Action

Onleilove Alston, 
Executive Director, Faith in New York, A member of the PICO National Network

David Bailey
Founder and Director, Arrabon

Dr. Brian Bantum
Associate Professor of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

Rev. Leroy Barber
Founder and Director of The Voices Project and Board Chair of the Christian Community Development Association

Stephan Bauman
President and CEO, World Relief

Cheryl K. Brandsen
Provost, Calvin College

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
Author, Social Justice Handbook, Just Spirituality, & Forgive Us

Rev. Noel Castellanos
CEO and President, Christian Community Development Association

Dr. Rick Chamiec-Case, PhD, MSW, MAR
Executive Director, North American Association of Christians in Social Work

Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
Professor of Theology & Ethics, North Park Theological Seminary

Rev. Eugene Cho
Senior Pastor, Quest Church

Shane Claiborne
Author and Activist, Red Letter Christians and The Simple Way

Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Diversity & Inclusion, Calvin College

Christina Edmondson, PhD
Dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College and Professor of Social Ethics and Public Policy at Eastern University

Rev. Dominique Gilliard
Executive Pastor, New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, CA

Rev. Aaron Graham
Lead Pastor, The District Church

Dr. Mimi Haddad
President, Christians for Biblical Equality

Lisa Sharon Harper
Chief Church Engagement Officer, Sojourners

Rev. Drew G. I. Hart
Part-time Professor, Biblical Theological Seminary

Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch
Senior Pastor, New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church

Brandon Hatmaker
Founder, Legacy Collective

Jen Hatmaker
Author and Speaker

Christopher L. Heuertz
Author and Founding Partner, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism

Dr. Mike Higgins
Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor of South City Church

Lynne Hybels
Advocate for Global Engagement, Willow Creek Community Church

Dr. Troy Jackson
Director, The AMOS Project

Joseph Kuilema
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Calvin College

Terry LeBlanc, PhD, D.D.
Executive Director Indigenous Pathways and Founding Chair, Director, NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community*

Dr. Rick Love
President, Peace Catalyst International

Michelle R. Loyd-Paige, PhD
Executive Associate to the President for Diversity and Inclusion, Calvin College

Jo Anne Lyon
General Superintendent, The Wesleyan Church

Rev. Carlos Malavé
Executive Director, Christian Churches Together in the USA

Jimmy McGee
CEO & President, The Impact Movement

Rev. Dr. Terry McGonigal
Director of Church Engagement, Whitworth University

David Neff
Editor-in-Chief (retired), Christianity Today

Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah
Professor, North Park Theological Seminary

Mark Reddy
CEO, The Justice Conference

JR Rozko
Co-Director, Missio Alliance

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra
Author and Founder, Faith-Rooted Organizing UnNetwork

Micky ScottBey Jones
Associate Fellow for Racial Justice at Evangelicals for Social Action and Leadership Team of Transform Network

Dr. Phillis Isabella Sheppard
Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Ron Sider
President Emeritus, Evangelicals for Social Action

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson
Author, Mentor for Life

Dr. Andrea Smith
Board Member, North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies

Harold Spooner, Jr.
Vice President, Community Impact

Dr. Doug Strong
Dean, School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

Dr. Al Tizon
Executive Minister of Serve Globally, Evangelical Covenant Church

Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear
National Director at Healing Communities USA and Associate Professor of Applied Theology, Howard University School of Divinity

Rev. Sandra Maria Van Opstal
Pastor at Grace and Peace Community and Former Worship Director, Urbana 2012

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes
Associate Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling, McAfee School of Theology and Christian Community Development Association

Michelle Warren
Advocacy & Policy Engagement Director, Christian Community Development Association

Rev. Jim Wallis
Founder and President, Sojourners, and author of America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America

Rev. Gary Walter
President, Evangelical Covenant Church

Dr. Daniel White Hodge
Director of Center for Youth Ministry Studies, North Park University

Cecilia Williams
Executive Minister, Love Mercy Do Justice, The Evangelical Church

Dr. Barbara Williams Skinner
Co-Chair, National African American Clergy Network

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Director, School for Conversion

Organizations are listed for identification purposes only. They do not necessarily indicate the opinion of the institution.

Lisa Sharon Harper (@lisasharper) is a speaker, trainer, writer, activist, and author. Her newest book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, was published in June 2016.

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