Embracing Racial Tensions During NSO

There is Geography to the Call of God
where am i16 years ago, I arrived at the University of Texas at Austin as a proud freshman. I came for a number of reasons: UT has an excellent law school and I wanted to attend it after undergrad, a number of friends from my high school were already at UT, and I wanted to get away from my parents and my high school ex-girlfriend who were all in Houston. While I came to Austin for those reasons, it has taken some time to realize God called me to Austin for very different ones. I had no idea a BCM chapter would be planted the week of 9/11 during my sophomore year. I had no idea I would become a Christian in that chapter. I definitely did not think I would come on staff with InterVarsity and serve in some type of staff capacity since 2004. What I did not realize at 17 and am just starting to see at 33, is that there is a geography to the call of God.

  • Jesus had to go through Samaria. (John 4:4)
  • Abraham had to “leave his country, his family, and his father’s household and go to a land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)
  • Jonah–begrudgingly–had to go Nineveh. (1:3, 3:3)
  • Moses had to go back to Egypt. (Ex. 3-4)


The Content
what-is-the-gospelLike all of us, students arriving on campus will be swarmed with messages from every direction. There will be study groups, party flyers, social media invitations, Greek fraternity/sorority interest meetings, the list goes on. In that ocean of messages will be our NSO tables, proxy stations, grocery store runs, church tours, and other tools we use to attract students to Jesus and our InterVarsity chapters. We will challenge students to wrestle with Scripture, God’s call on their lives both in college and beyond, and to surrender to a full obedience to Him–to go wherever He calls us to go and do whatever He calls to do. At the heart of that invitation is a crucified and resurrected Savior who has bridged the gap between God and people and who is restoring our broken world even as you read this blog post. We offer the hope of Jesus through His gospel to any and everyone who is willing to receive Him without exception.

The Context
The context in which we give that call, however, cannot be glossed over or diminished as irrelevant. It is no secret racial tensions are incredibly high our country and on our college campuses. If that is doubted, all we need to do is turn on the news, scroll through trending hashtags, or simply talk to students, faculty, or staff of color on any campus and that reality will be made clear. Social media has not only raised awareness, but it has provided a megaphone for the unheard. Ongoing deadly encounters with law enforcement have reopened wounds and broken cross-cultural trust in Black and Latino communities, increased assaults on police officers, fear of Muslim communities and people who appear to be of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent, we are all wondering how/where to engage.

content-is-king-context-is-queen-2As a Black man living in the United States, racial tensions in this country are not new to me. I have been aware of them for most of my life. I am also aware that the temperature of those tensions may vary depending on where we live. This means our awareness and experiences with racial tensions, cross-cultural conflicts, and injustice based on ethnicity, can either be informed or minimal. Many historical and theological resources we use today are silent on issues of race and ethnicity. Their silence is not because our ethnicity is insignificant in the kingdom of God. We see ethnic and cultural relevance throughout Scripture up to Rev. 7:9. Historical knowledge and biblical understanding of race and ethnicity are often omitted primarily because of generations of legal and systemic racism existed in our country and one controlled the narrative. For decades we have worked diligently to perfect our language and communication of the gospel of Jesus without acknowledging what has happened in the city, the streets, or on the campuses we were sent to. In other words, as Christian missionaries we focused greatly on our gospel-centered content–but we neglected context.

Today, many Christians throughout the country are calling for reconciliation (content). For reconciliation to be true, authentic, and lasting, we must ask first what caused the division. For most ethnic communities, reconciliation means acknowledging both injustice and damage to the relationship (context). Our words are not enough. It is our words, accompanied by action, in the places where action is needed–that is what we are looking for. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu once remarked, “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’’t say, “Now is that political, or social?” He said: “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you.”

As we start NSO, let’s not merely look at the hungry, the thirsty, the wounded, the marginalized, the unheard and tell them “We are one at the foot of the cross.” Let’s show them. Don’t just dictate Good News. Demonstrate it.

The App – Making It Practical
To be clear, if we omit the context, millennial students will reject our content. Students are discussing these issues whether we are willing to or not. An openness to our chapters, the brilliance of our light, will be determined by our willingness to step into this Samaria, to face the Goliath of racism and injustice. I would even suggest a gospel that cannot speak to context is not the gospel. Peter quoted the OT in his sermon in Acts 2 because his context was Jewish people while Paul in Acts 17 doesn’t reference the OT because his context was a Greek community. Omit the context, we compromise the content.

Let me offer three simple suggestions: Awareness. Action. Advocacy.

  1. Awareness – Raise your awareness by listening to the unheard.
    1. As a leadership team, take a cultural studies class as an elective together, and discuss how you will apply what you’ve learned to your chapter.
    2. Read/follow/listen to students on social media without correcting them.
    3. Do an inductive study of your campus, it’s previous history and present climate around race and ethnicity issues.  
  2. Action – It is not enough to learn something new. It must be applied.
    1. Use Proxe Stations. If you’re just starting the conversation, check out our Hope Proxy. If your chapter is largely aware of the issues, your chapter is prayed up, and your campus can handle a next level conversation on systemic issues, use the Better World Proxe.
    2. Invite staff/speakers of color and/or staff with tested cross-cultural experience to speak at large group. (I say “tested” because you want a speaker to come who will build the bridge, not burn it. Too often speakers are invited who we think we help the conversation, only later to discover they wound more than help. If you’re not sure, ask a staff or student group with cross-cultural experience to help vet people.)
    3. Consider having an open large group where you invite student group of a particular ethnicity to share what their experiences have been like on campus.
  3. Advocacy – Speak up for the unheard.
    1. Don’t settle for not being racist. Become anti-racist.
    2. As you’re learning, bring someone with you so growth and change can happen in community and not isolation to one person.
    3. Ask yourselves, “Who is not in the room? Who can we not keep in the room when to do come? Where do we need to make before they come that demonstrates we care about content and context?”

Let me close with two examples:

I didn’t get involved with ministries at UT my freshman year, not because they didn’t attempt to. Many communicated the gospel well, but they never spoke to my context. They spoke to my head, but not my heart. I didn’t see a leader who looked like, songs that sounded like where I was from, or speakers who gave an application that I could take immediately to my context. My conclusion was that “this wasn’t the place for me.” Content, no context.

Soong-ChanRahTallI first met Soong-Chan Rah in 2014 at a conference on racial reconciliation. He presented lots of data and statistics on diversity in cities and on university campuses. To conclude his message, he did something that I wasn’t prepared for. He told an illustration about what it was like to be Black in America. He walked away from his notes, and spoke from his memory and his heart–and the story he told was matched my life. It was the first time I ever saw/heard someone who was not Black tell my story with intimate knowledge. He knew the content of the gospel, but he knew my context. He loved me enough to know me before he met me.

My friends, know the content of the gospel and know the context of your chapter, your campus, your country. When we know the content and the context and hold them in tension, then we will see students and faculty transformed, the campus will be renewed, and world changers will be genuinely be developed.


Sean M. Watkins

1 thought on “Embracing Racial Tensions During NSO

  1. Thanks for this. I’ll be praying for chapters all around the country to embrace both context and content as they begin this year’s ministry.

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