A vision for multiethnicity

For StudentSoul.org's IV-060908.

Paula Fuller, Director of InterVarsity's Multiethnic Ministries, has a big and broad vision for multiethnicity. InterVarsity has long been committed to becoming a multiethnic movement on college campuses. Our vision is to build witnessing communities that reflect the diversity of the surrounding university community.

StudentSoul.org: Paula, how would you briefly describe your vision for multiethnicity?

Paula: We want to communicate our intentionality in weaving the three strands of growth, evangelism, and multiethnicity together. The phrase “planting and building ethnically diverse witnessing communities” is one way to say it. Although that’s not a replacement for our purpose statement, it makes a good platform for modeling the integration of our national initiatives.

StudentSoul.org: Tell us a little about your background and what draws you to this kind of ministry.

Paula: I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although I was raised in the church and had made a decision to follow Christ as a child, I didn’t have a strong spiritual foundation to help me with the issues I faced as a college student. I wasn’t aware of InterVarsity when I was an undergraduate student at U.C. Berkeley. I can remember vividly many of my struggles: adjusting to a much more rigorous level of study, wrestling with career decisions, struggling with my ethnic identity as an African American, and worrying about dating and making good decisions about friendships and relationships.

Looking back, I would have benefited from a college fellowship to provide me with a safe space to share my struggles. I would have enjoyed building lifelong relationships, growing in my knowledge of God through worship meetings, small group discussions, scripture study, global projects, and on-campus events. Instead, I stopped attending church after my first semester during my freshman year.

In my junior year, I met a friend who was a strong Christian. She asked me some challenging questions about what it meant to be a Christian and how I lived out my faith. I started attending church again, and one weekend attended a young adult conference sponsored by a local church. As I was walking along the beach, I fell in love with Jesus. I continued to have many of the same struggles, but I found new strength and perspective as my faith grew.

After college, I got involved in a number of leadership roles in the church and I’ve continued to grow in my relationship with God and what it means to live as a woman of faith over the years.

StudentSoul.org: Sounds like you can relate to students coming from a variety of backgrounds, then.

Paula: I know what it’s like to be a student at different stages of life. I have an undergraduate degree (B.S.) in finance from U.C. Berkeley, an MBA from Stanford University, and a Masters of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Before joining InterVarsity last year, I spent a number of years working in corporate America and four years working as an associate pastor at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, a large, multiethnic congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before taking on this role, I served for six years on InterVarsity’s Board of Trustees.

StudentSoul.org: Six years? So you not only relate to student life, you know InterVarsity fairly well, too.

Paula: Yes, I was very familiar with the organization and truly impressed with the mission of InterVarsity, which is to establish and advance witnessing communities of students and faculty on college and university campuses. To put it simply, InterVarsity really loves college students and wants to see Christ transform their lives. I believe that God is raising up a generation of Christian leaders who will change the world and InterVarsity is one of the Christian campus ministries that is equipping students to deal with the global challenges and crises in our world today.

StudentSoul.org: How would you describe InterVarsity’s passion for multiethnic community?

Paula: InterVarsity has a long and rich history of multiethnic ministry. In the late 1940s our Board of Trustees made policies in support of integrated student events and we brought on our first part-time African American and Asian American staff members. In the 1960s and 1970s, InterVarsity challenged the culture and brought together students across the deep racial divides in this country long before it was considered popular or even safe. We brought on our first long-term Latino staff person in the early 1970s. From 1970-1985, we began to recognize the importance of affirming the ethnic identity of our students of color, and in the mid-1980s we started to celebrate the blessing of being a multiethnic student movement. In the late 1990s we moved from celebrating multiethnicity to pursuing racial reconciliation.

There is a long and painful history in our country of racism and injustice and part of our mandate as Christians is to serve as agents of reconciliation. True racial reconciliation is only possible through the work of Christ on the cross. The world celebrates diversity, but Jesus died for reconciliation.

StudentSoul.org: What are the makings of a multiethnic witnessing community on campus these days?

Paula: We want to join hands with students and faculty and create an environment where people from every ethnic group can come and experience the love of God and meet people who are followers of Jesus. How do we help make that happen? Recently, I attended a diversity training workshop and learned that any time a person is in a new environment, they ask themselves three questions:

  1. Can I be myself here?
  2. Can I develop meaningful relationships with people in this room?
  3. Will I and others in this room be treated fairly?

Now, if the answers to those questions are “Yes,” the person will come back. If they can’t answer yes, even to one of those, they are not likely to return. I would love InterVarsity campus fellowships to be the kind of places where a person can come in and answer “Yes” to those questions.

One of the challenges in building this kind of chapter is that we often don’t take into account the role our own ethnic identity and culture play in our experience of God. Our worship, our style of prayer, the way we encounter God through studying scripture and even our ideas about what is important to God are shaped by our ethnic identity and culture. Many students in college wrestle with the question of what it means to be a Christian and a person from a distinct ethnic community. So it can be challenging to create a space where people can come together from different backgrounds and form a community that is welcoming for everyone.

College is a critical time for people to grow in their ethnic identity and culture, so we want to create multiethnic fellowships where students are growing in their ethnic identity and sharing the giftings and unique aspects of their culture to enrich the fellowship as a whole. We also have campus fellowships that are ethnic specific, and in those fellowships, whether the group is predominantly Asian American, Black, Latino, Native American, or White, we want to create an environment where anyone is welcome to attend, and we want to cultivate an appreciation for spending time in multiethnic gatherings. We hold before us the vision of Revelation 7:9, where there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” We are excited that we will one day be a part of that multitude, but we don’t want to wait until heaven to get the fellowship started!

StudentSoul.org: Paula, is there any encouragement you’d like to offer first-year students this fall?

Paula: Yes. Understand that college is one of the greatest transitional spaces in your life. You will not only make decisions about your career, you will also exercise newfound freedom and make choices that can be life-changing in other areas. You will assess the values that you learned while you were growing up and select the principles that will govern your life.

College is a time of growth and discovery. Make the choice to discover your gifts and passions. Make the choice to seek healing from places of pain in your past. Regardless of the difficulties of your past, you can create new patterns for life. One of the greatest decisions you can make is investing in your spiritual growth and allowing your faith in God to inform the decisions you will make and the people that you will choose to invest your time with. While there are many opportunities and activities that you can get involved with, remember that you are in college to get an education, so get one — a good one.

Make opportunities to serve others and invest in improving society as a whole. Don’t narrow your focus to decisions that only benefit yourself. We need leaders who will emerge from your generation and become stewards of the economic, political, religious and social systems that sustain life and improve life. If there’s an InterVarsity chapter on your campus, visit the fellowship and give other students an opportunity to get to know you. Make a commitment to your spiritual growth and live as part of a community of faith. If there isn’t an InterVarsity chapter, perhaps you can be the person who will get one started!