2016: My Disappointment In and Future Hopes for InterVarsity

Deep Disappointment

From Much Love to Much Disappointment
I love InterVarsity.

49It changed my life. I have been a part of this ministry in some way since 2001. As a somewhat “old school” IV kid, I truly was grown in the four loves: love for God, God’s word, God’s people of every ethnicity, and God’s purposes in the world. It was InterVarsity’s Atlanta 02 conference that first showed me Black students around the country on fire for God. When racial tensions ran high during my undergrad years at the University of Texas, IV staff and students were there. Urbana 03 gave me my first glimpse of this global God and the eternal diversity of His kingdom. It was InterVarsity that modeled what it meant to have a listening posture, to pursue justice and reconciliation, to seek transformation perhaps as much as information, and so many other biblical principles.

It is because of my history with and deep appreciation for InterVarsity that our recent actions and events in 2016 have been heartbreaking. We have struggled to engage with social justice and racial tension events as they have unfolded in our nation and in the midst of this crises, the strongest statement we have made publicly is on our view of biblical sexuality. We pride ourselves on being the leading evangelical collegiate organization with the diversity at the highest levels of leadership.

While people see our diversity, they also hear our deafening silence on issues that have dominated newspaper headlines and conversations with staff and students of color around the country. Honoring police officers while articulating the realities of police brutality and the never ending cycle of unarmed Black and Latino people being killed by police are real issues that college students are discussing and we are not. We have wavered as an organization from not responding to the issues in real time to lamenting these issues—but never acknowledging the ways in which our organization benefits from the white privilege and white supremacy that saturates Western evangelicalism.

black-lives-matter-going-deeperAs an IV alum and as a staff of color, I watched us lead from a dominant culture perspective that maintains the status quo and marginalizes voices. In other words, our decisions have more aligned with conservative, white male historical, cultural, and theological standpoints than what we see in the teachings of Jesus. Too many of our staff of color are depressed and feel unheard. I know because I am one of them. I know I have a voice at the margins of society. I am a Black man with upper-middle class values that grew up in the hood. I see differently, I think differently, and I care deeply. I have a heart for reconciliation, but God has also anchored the Black community in my heart. It’s been painful to watch the shootings take place around the country and American history repeat itself in dismissing the cries of injustice from my community, vilifying every deceased victim while praising every surviving police officer, using the tragic deaths of police as ammunition to support stereotypes of people of color, and the overwhelming silence of the broad evangelical community, including in InterVarsity.

My friends and former students will tell you, I love a good crisis. Yes, I have a superhero complex (pray for me). As InterVarsity turns 75 in 2017, the hope is that we would reflect a 75-year-old wisdom, one that has learned from previous crises and doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of the past. Yet, we struggle to have an open and honest conversation about these issues. We are asked leading questions and “corrected” when our answers do not align with the narrative we want to be told to donors and universities. While we have produced resources on cross-cultural competency, those resources are largely written from and for a Eurocentric, individualistic, history sanitized, white perspective. It is into to this heightened climate of racial injustice, and cross-cultural conflict, that we produced a paper on Biblical Sexuality.

Biblical Sexuality and InterVarsity
This past October, Time Magazine published a scathing article about InterVarsity and its paper on biblical sexuality in which IV is depicted as an organization that was firing employees that disagreed with same-sex marriage. (This is a heated topic and before I continue, let me say two things. First, please keep reading. I both want to hear people, but I also ask that I would be heard. Second, I know a lot of people are still hurting behind this decision, and for the ways in which I have participated—willingly or not, I am sorry. I try to pride myself on making sure I am never silent or absent in moments of challenge and controversy because who I really am is displaced in those moments, not in moments of peace.)

Is This Jesus’ model?
Let me be very clear. I [mostly] agree with the theology of the paper in marriage being defined as between a man and a woman. However, I disagree completely with the rollout of the paper and the way in which we have handled the fallout of the paper. I have worked with staff and students who identify as LGBTQIA, I have watched students who do not identify that way cry with unrelenting tears as they witness students who do decide to reject Jesus because they previously marginalized by the church. I have friends and family members who identify as LGBTQIA—and I love them for who they are. Many of them are Christians and our differences in theology does not produce in me the urge to remove them from my presence or confront them on their “identity.” I don’t do that for two reasons. First, it is not what Jesus modeled for us. In the New Testament, all the people who were obsessed with creating and maintaining the Law (Pharisees), Jesus argued with and rebuked. Every person the law and society labeled a sinner, Jesus ate with, spent time with. He healed, loved, and restored.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-Silence-QuotesIf the broader evangelical world is absolutely correct, that LGBTQIA people are living a lifestyle in direct opposition to the way God intended, then we should be going to them to love them and care for them in the manner that Jesus did. In Romans 2:4, Paul writes to the legalistic Christians reminding them that it is God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience that leads us to repentance. The gospel does not tell the story of placing shame on and dismissal from the community people we view as sinners. Jesus takes the condemnation and shame society places on all us sinners and puts it on himself in order to restore us to God, right relationship with each other, and as a model for how to exist as a community—unified, not polarized. There are tremendous wounds that have been inflicted on the LGBTQIA community from the church and from Christians in the name of theological accuracy. My friends, in trying to honor Paul, we can dishonor Jesus.

Are We Practicing Hubris or Humility?
The second reason I am not one to confront the LGBTQIA community is because I want to take a posture of humility. Philippians 2:3 calls us to this. History records Christians for centuries have assumed they had the correct or “orthodox” view of Scripture—only to find out a few decades later: slavery was bad, women should be allowed to vote, we actually should care for immigrants and orphans, heaven won’t be assimilated to Western culture or colorblind, etc. On sheer principle, even if we are right, there should a posture of humility we take because the church has broken just as much trust as it has built, maybe more. In other words, as I stated before, if we are right, we just broke tremendous trust with the mission field Jesus called us to. But what if we are wrong? What if we are partially wrong? What if there is something God is attempting to say us through this community? What if the beautiful people that make up the LGBTQIA community are on the earth in this generation to reveal the character of our hearts, our compassion for people different than us, and to discover what it means to love someone unconditionally the way Christ loves us? Humility invites a listening posture constantly. It protects us from legalism, harshness, and brutality. Humility guards the truth in love. I wrote extensively about going to Ferguson and discovering many people within the Black Lives Matter movement identify as LGBTQIA. I have watched evangelicals ask me to pray about racial injustices while nothing changes, and the LGBTQIA community that has been kicked out of evangelical circles is championing social justice as their first point in what it means to live out the gospel.

For just a moment, can I stand in the middle of InterVarsity and the LGBTQIA community and say can we not vilify everyone and everything in InterVarsity as though no good has ever come from the organization? Can we not condemn and further ostracize the LGBTQIA community because that’s easier than staying at the table to do the dirty work of ministry—talking to someone who thinks and lives differently than us? There are no easy answers and I dare not attempt to speak to the theology, the broken trust and broken relationships that have emerged from this, but I do know not everyone in IV is evil nor are our brothers and sisters from the LGBTQIA community.

I have heard people in and outside of IV mention that to be in partnership with LGBTQIA people would contaminate our theology and compromise our witness. I like sea bass. It is REALLY good. I like it baked, fried, seared, every way. When you cook or when you eat it, you have to add salt to bring out the flavor. It’s interesting that a sea bass can swim in salt water all its life and never become salty. If we are so concerned with one group compromising our theology and our witness, I question the strength of that theology and witness.

I cannot stress this enough: the decision to produce this paper at this time, in the midst of crisis after crisis, has broken substantial trust. A 20-page theological paper on anything is a clear statement. That the paper was produced in the midst of theological ambiguity around justice and reconciliation and the same year as the Orlando nightclub shooting, breaks multiple levels of trust with LGBTQIA peoples and broader marginalized communities. We can pray, lament, write blogs, read books, take surveys, and dialogue for days. This decision reflects a change in the organization from the one that I fell in love with as a student to one that, if I am honest, I am increasingly becoming ashamed of. The decision to create and publish this paper was not done lightly. I know for certain it was created by God-fearing people who had and have the best of intentions at heart. I recognize that.

But that is precisely the point. This paper was the best thing and one of the worst things that could have happen to us. It demonstrates our leaders are capable of producing a national mandate to communicate and galvanize our organization in a particular direction. It also reveals we pick and choose what we want to address. I don’t believe anyone, past or present, in IV was naïve enough to believe there wouldn’t be consequences for this. Those consequences were, however, most likely deemed collateral damage. That speaks to a major issue that we need to discuss. We cannot continue to make decisions that affect the margins of our organization and be surprised or dismissive of the consequences of those decisions. People who live at the margins continue to be the sacrificial ram in the bush, suffering tremendous wounds for the purposes of educating the unaware or misinformed. If we are going to move forward, it will not be because the margins have simply placed this too in the fault of painful decisions from the last few years. Something will need to change. As Mufasa said to Simba, “Look inside yourself. You are more than what you have become.” We can be better than this. We have to be.

Hopes for the Future
changesAs 2017 approaches, I am reminded there is always hope. Scripture tells us the Lord’s mercies are new every single morning. The Bible is full of people who were human and imperfect, yet somehow, were able to accomplish God’s purposes in their generation. Despite all of our flaws, shortcomings, and trust-breaking mistakes, I still believe InterVarsity can be one of the vehicles God uses to change the college campus. I have a few hopes for IV:

      Action over an apology. I cannot accept another apology and request for forgiveness or more time that does not result in action. There must be a timetable of future decisions that will be made that demonstrate a change in thinking, sensitivity to the diversity of needs in the room, and humility that produces a willingness for leaders to be held accountable for their promises. It also means the humility to ask the people who have been wounded what it will take for trust to be rebuilt. Too often is the case in our history, those in power inaccurately dictate to the oppressed when their healing is complete.

      We will practice true reconciliation. Reconciliation is not “your joys are my joys and your problems are your own.” True reconciliation means, “Your joys are my joys, and your problems are my problems.” My hope is that IV would see the parts of its body that are hurting and it would pursue healing within the organization, no matter the cost.

      Our leaders would seek to rebuild trust before moving forward. Too many times in the West there is a return to business as usual after decisions are made that break trust with marginalized groups. My hope is that steps would be taken to rebuild trust within InterVarsity because trust has been broken. Trust will need to be rebuilt as dictated by the wounded, not the wounder. Our creation and implementation of national cross-cultural competency resources must reflect the diversity of our organization, not simply provide education for our white staff.

      We would learn from our mistakes. I would like to close out 2017 being proud again of the stances IV takes on the major issues that occur next year that align with our values.  

      We would demonstrate significant love, appreciation, and respect to the LGBTQIA Community. Right now, all they have heard is that IV hates them. I know we issued a statement in Christianity Today, but marginalized voices don’t read CT, so the words from Time are the only ones that are still ringing.

There are no easy solutions to these difficult problems, but I do believe God has placed us all in this generation at this time to work together to help move the conversation forward. T.D. Jakes said a few years ago, he wants his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to kiss his picture. He wants them to look at his photo after he is gone and say, “We don’t know where this man came from, but he changed our family.”

May the same be said of us. The same Goliath has haunted our country, our churches, and organization for long enough. I pray we have the courage to do the hard work of listening to people we do not agree with, changing policy and culture and not just behavior, for the sake of living out the call of God on our lives.

We have a calling, InterVarsity. I hope in 2017, we start to walk in it again.

Sean M Watkins


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