You may wonder if you will ever change the world, but if you’re involved in a Christian group on campus, you have more influence that you think.
My black identity: a multiethnic journey
Culture shock. That’s what I experienced as a freshman at a rural, mostly white university. In my classes, I was often the only minority — a drastic contrast to my diverse, urban upbringing and tight-knit community at home. I felt alone, my identity and self-esteem under attack. I eagerly sought out a Christian group on campus where I could feel comfortable, but my sense of isolation only increased.
When I got to college, I was excited about growing in my relationship with Jesus. Right away I attended meetings of all the different Christian organizations on campus. Yet it was very hard to find a campus fellowship where I could feel comfortable, a place where we could talk about Jesus and relate honestly to each other about our faith journeys.
I knew that these Christian students loved the Lord, yet I never felt welcomed at their meetings and put up with a lot of strange looks. I was never blatantly shunned. I was always greeted when I attended meetings. However, there was also a strong feeling that people didn’t really know what to do with me. Many people seemed standoffish and conversations felt forced. It was painfully obvious that no one looked like me. And it seemed as if no one understood me, either.
I told myself to stick it out and try to bond with Christians in these groups. I went to the Bible studies, campfires and retreats. However, when people finally got comfortable seeing me there, it seemed that I was the resident black girl, the one that others looked at whenever we talked about “diversity.” People would ask me if I would make them soul food — and I’m not even a good cook! Even the more harmless questions started to wear and tear on me, such as, “How do you get your hair like that? Do you wash it that way?”
I tried to connect with some young women in the group and I felt like they tried, but didn’t necessarily connect with my experience or background. Our talks were superficial: the best way to make s’mores, or the guys they liked, or the classes they hated. I saw them growing closer and closer to each other; opening up about their struggles and journeys with Christ. However, I always sat on the outside of the circle. I was tired. I was tired of explaining myself everywhere I went, in the classroom, in the dorms, and in Bible study.
One day I met with a young woman from a campus fellowship who admitted that she didn’t know how to relate to black people. Whoa! Yet, she’d made up her mind to talk to me about how she and her Christian group could reach more people. Bless her heart! I was glad that at least someone was being honest about their struggles, and cared enough to change. It was the first time that I’d talked to someone on such a practical level.
Although this conversation was enlightening and challenging, I eventually made the decision to drop out of the campus Bible studies altogether. Thankfully, I found a wonderful church where I didn’t have to explain myself. As a predominantly Black church, it offered culturally relevant talks and a worship style I was used to. I started going to a Bible study there, but the church just seemed to draw all of the Black students together, and I just couldn’t feel completely comfortable with that either. Something was still missing. I prayed for a multi-cultural group of people that would really help me spiritually on campus. I knew I couldn’t make it alone.
A healing journey
My self-esteem was at an all-time low as I struggled to adjust to college and the culture shock of a mostly white community. Other pressures came from my academic workload, dorm living and a bad break-up with a boyfriend. Self-doubt and childhood insecurities surfaced and I didn’t have the safety net of my home community to deal with them. All these stresses caused me to doubt my core identity as a student, a Christian, and a black woman. I needed someone to talk to and pray with. I needed someone to listen and just give me a hug!
However, in the midst of all this, God was changing me. The chaos in my soul forced me to seek the face of God like never before. While I was praying for community, God was also healing me of low self-esteem. God’s healing came through dark nights of prayer when my roomies were sleeping, long walks on campus with tears streaming down my face, people I began to meet, and hard, honest talks with him.
I see now that all of my hardships worked for God’s glory and for my good. I was developing a new sense of identity as his precious daughter. My growing awareness of his love redefined my self-image and confidence. God was changing me deep within my soul. I experienced his comfort in new ways. Before college, I had my family, friends and community to comfort and reassure me. Now, in this desert place, I found myself deeply vulnerable — but all the more desperate to run to the Cross of Christ. He answered when I called, and I was aware of his guidance throughout each day. I completely depended on the new mercies the Lord offered me, his strength being made perfect in my weakness and his love casting out every fear and insecurity.
A healing community
Since I loved to sing, I joined the gospel choir and connected with some of the members. It was mixed group of people, both ethnically and spiritually. Gradually it transformed into more than just a place to sing gospel music. We shared what God was doing in our lives and learned to pray for each other, but this wasn’t a peachy-keen Bible study. I saw members fight — then seek restoration, forgiveness and reconciliation. I rejoiced when members passed tests, obtained financial aid and graduated. I grieved when members had family issues, financial hardships or stressful situations. Finally I had found the community I was seeking.
In my junior year, I became the choir director and talked to our leadership team about my vision for the gospel choir. I desperately wanted us to growâmusically and spiritually. More people joined from different backgrounds and I dreamed of expanding beyond our comfort zone to sing at different venues. Sure, we could sing at churches and at Black Greek Life events. But could we sing at the basketball games, or at non-Christian events, or at venues where the majority of people were not African American? These new sacred and secular venues challenged us to become more missional. Our relationships with each other deepened in the Lord and we expressed our joy in him whenever and wherever we sang.
A healing mission
I started college struggling and hurting deeply, praying that God would provide a community of believers to understand who I am in all of my human complexities and help me grow spiritually. Now I see how God wanted me to be in community for other people. As I became tightly meshed with these people, we encouraged and sharpened each other — fights and all! As we shared our struggles, God used our multiethnic community of the gospel choir to help all of us grow exponentially in our faith and become intimate friends. I am still invested in the lives of these people, and they are still invested in mine. We have seen each other in various seasons of life, always reminding each other to seek God’s face, to trust, to sing and to worship!
Through all of the highs, lows, and life experiences, I have seen firsthand that when the Body of Christ shows unity in Jesus and builds community with other believers in a multiethnic context, it is nothing short of powerful!
—by Jade Taryn Perry
Is racial identity an issue for people of color only? Here’s how one student, Carolyn, struggled to answer that question: My white identity: a multiethnic journey.
- It’s Not About You—It’s About God (IVP) by Rebecca Florence Osaigbovo who shows how black women can find God’s strength in the midst of weakness to become the keys to change in their homes, churches and communities.
- Multiethnicity is Worth the Effort is an interview with Nikki Toyama-Szeto who urges Christian churches and campus groups to go beyond superficial dialogue and create space for true transformation in Christ.
- A Transforming Vision: Multiethnic fellowship in college and in the Church by Paul Sorrentino (Doorlight Publications) demonstrates why Christian communities should be multiethnic and provides a practical vision of how that can take place.
- Multicultural Ministry Handbook (IVP), edited by Dr. David A. Anderson and Margarita R. Cabellon, offers practical tips to connect creatively in a diverse world.
- More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel (IVP) by Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, describes their journey of racial healing for the sake of the gospel.