In the early 1990s, during my first years of ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I worked with a thoroughly multiethnic campus ministry team in New York City. We had two to three members from each of several major American racial and ethnic groups—black, Latino, Asian, and white. Our team believed that God loves people of every ethnicity and culture. Frankly, if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had much of a student ministry in New York City. And during our city-wide conferences, when students gathered in worship, we looked like that picture of the new creation in Revelation 7: every nation, tribe, people, and language gathered in praise.
As a Chinese American who grew up in Hawaii, I deeply appreciated InterVarsity’s commitment to multiethnicity and racial reconciliation. In InterVarsity, my ethnic background felt like an asset, not a path to being a somewhat abnormal would-be white person. InterVarsity, some said, was the most multiethnic campus ministry in the country, and we were the most multiethnic team in InterVarsity.
One of the ways our ministry embraced a multiethnic vision was sponsoring ethnic student conferences—opportunities for black, Latino, Asian, and white students to work through issues of ethnic identity, community, and faith in a safe environment. The first year we ran all the conferences at the same time in the fall, the students at my predominantly Asian American Columbia University fellowship promptly delved so deeply into their ethnic journey, especially what I call the “angry stage,” that they forgot to welcome new students. Obviously, this didn’t help the growth of our fellowship.
I spoke with my colleagues of color who ran the other ethnic conferences about how it would be more helpful to have a discipleship conference in the fall where we could all focus on our unified identity and growth in Jesus, and host our ethnic student conferences in the spring—after all the new students had been welcomed. They agreed.
However, the leaders of our ministry team, all white at the time, decided the fall worked best for the region’s ministry as a whole. I felt frustrated, but more than that, exploited—being asked to run conferences that actually hurt the chapters that hosted most of our students of color.
So I brought it up with my supervisors. There’s nothing like a person of color using words like “exploited” in InterVarsity to get a meeting organized!
Not long into our meeting, I realized I was talking far more than my teammates of color. Not only was I talking more, I was saying things they had said privately, but weren’t voicing publicly.
I finally called them on it, and we started having a different and more important conversation: about what prevented them from speaking up. And in the course of that conversation, I believe God gave me a picture, one that has continued to be helpful in the many years of multiethnic partnership since.
Owning the House
InterVarsity was like a house with all sorts of staff living in it. Most of the white staff felt like they owned the house. They felt free to move the furniture, decorate the walls, put their feet up, and cook the foods they liked to eat. But others on our team, though they “lived” in the house, were just guests. As a guest, it’s impolite to move the furniture or criticize the decor, and if you don’t like the food served, you don’t complain—because if you complain, you’re not invited back.