Black Lives Matter and college ministry

by Tracy Howe Wispelwey 

In 2012 I took a pilgrimage to Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown. I went with fellow faith leaders and activists to listen and learn the context of what was unfolding. These protests were not going away. In fact, by the time I arrived in early December, four months after it all began, it had become the longest sustained protest in U.S. history. These young people were starting a movement.

11096530_438388779653918_1928070866402142963_oAt the time, our media was offering caricatures of events and people: black people burning things and looting, white people justifiably scared. Indignant police. Chaos and reaction. Since then, however, the movement has galvanized in many different forms and recently the collective Movement for Black Lives released a comprehensive platform composed by a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of black people from across the country.

“Black humanity and dignity requires black political will and power. In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

— Platform of the Movement for Black Lives

The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has endorsed the platform in its entirety. The PC(USA) has been working to address and dismantle racism for decades and, at this year’s General Assembly, voted to revise the denomination’s anti-racism policy naming for the first time “white supremacy” as the system keeping racism intact despite emancipation and despite desegregation and the policy gains achieved by the Civil Rights Movement.

As a campus minister serving the University of Virginia, I have also been deeply engaged in the conversations around race. U.Va. has a troubled history and legacy including slavery, memorializing confederate soldiers, actively fighting integration in the 1950s and objecting the enrollment of women in the 1960s. Like many universities in this country, continuing bias and racism is reflected in the lack of faculty members of color, declining black student enrollment, racist epithets and rhetoric wielded by students, and a lack of support for multicultural academic programs and departments. In 2003, a student council president candidate was attacked, her assailant slamming her head into a car while telling her, “no one wants a nigger to be president.” In 2014, “UVA Hates Blacks” appeared on a university sign and, during the 2015 spring semester, honor society member Martese Johnson was violently arrested without cause.

“When Martese Johnson was arrested I was completely horrified and unnerved, but what I found to be even more unnerving were some of the responses from my peers, that Martese was ‘making it about race.’ Not only was it such a violent local reminder of a national crisis, but a reminder of how often racial violence in this country is made invisible or invalidated.”

— Hope Atkins, U.Va. class of 2018, Poetry & psychology

1959627_354299378101172_4931808520513574447_nThe university is addressing these things through institutional efforts to repair the biased historical record and memorialize enslaved persons as well as to address the lack of multicultural programing and faculty. The students of color at U.Va. and white student activists are organized and articulate. The Black Student Alliance released a comprehensive document, “Towards a Better University,” detailing abuses and continuing racism as well as constructive mandates a year before protests broke out on university campuses across the country, from Mizzou to Yale to Princeton, elevating a similar dialogue nationally.

“We must hold each other and ourselves accountable for the current state of affairs. Building a sustainable culture of truth demands that we grapple with our complex racial history.”

— U.Va. Black Student Alliance, “Towards a Better University”

Our UKirk Presbyterian Student Fellowship ministry here at U.Va. is small and mostly white. However, we, along with some of the other small protestant campus ministries, started conversations with our students about the Movement for Black Lives and what we might do at U.Va. in solidarity with students of color. Our students’ responses were encouraging and hopeful. They wanted to talk about these challenging realities, but didn’t necessarily know how to start. Contextualizing the work of dismantling racism inside of our Christian faith and the call of the Gospels was energizing and empowering. Dealing with contemporary, explicit racism is one thing, but reaching deep inside to address subconscious bias — or reaching far back in history to address the roots of injustice — is hard, deep work. However, our faith equips us to do just that. The depths that we are willing to bring before God are the depths of redemption possible in Christ. Practicing this with my students is not only necessary in our present day, but I believe it will equip them to live faith filled lives well beyond college.

“Talking about Black Lives Matter on Tuesday nights at UKirk has helped me step out of my ordinary routine and comfort zone; if members of my community are suffering, then I shouldn’t remain complacent in my ignorance and idly sit by. I want to remain informed so that I can help spread the awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout our college campus, and do my part to fight systemic inequality.”

— Renée Ritchie, U.Va. class of 2017, Architecture

11070276_437646986394764_2287190485484756889_oIn the wake of the arrest of Martese Johnson and U.Va.’s students of color telling story after story of their painful experiences in our community because of racism and implicit bias, some of us started imagining how we might facilitate this sort of deep reflection and lament and point towards our connections to one another. It led to a diverse gathering of pastors, faith leaders and students that was hosted at our campus ministry house, Common Grounds. We designed a public campaign of laments aimed towards acknowledging the historical and present racism in our community and affirming the experiences of our students of color. We organized everything under the banner #PassionWeekUVA. We realized the campaign through social media as well as postering the university grounds each night and eventually painting the beta bridge, a public university landmark.

Some of the posters read like this:

I lament that despite application rates remaining constant, African American enrollment has declined over the last decade and now sits at only 6% and that U.Va. has been ineffective at retaining black faculty. #LamentRacialDisparity#PassionWeekUVA

I lament that acting honorably does not include economic justice and paying workers of the university a living wage. #LamentHypocrisy #PassionWeekUVA

I lament the legacy of white supremacy that remains in many fraternities and goes unchallenged and unrecognized. #LamentInstitutionalizedRacism#PassionWeekUVA

Then, on Easter Sunday, the posters and social media changed and read: #CommitToTruth.

I commit to advocating for people of color and proclaiming truth about racism within my community. #CommitToTruth#PassionWeekUVA

11080831_437298836429579_4496823551665786523_oThere were 14 of us in the original meeting. By the end of the week, the web page we had established explaining what we were doing and its relation to Holy Week had over 10,000 views. Thousands more encountered the campaign through social media and the posters on grounds.

Though this did not mark the end of racism at U.Va., it demonstrated deep community reflection and that many are deeply engaged and that we are ready and mobilized and working for transformation.

“We created Passion Week UVA during an especially tense time at the University of Virginia. Long existing undercurrents of racism, homophobia, misogyny, rape culture and white privilege were being dredged to the surface, attracting national media attention. Day after day I would edge by television reporters on my way to class. I felt helpless talking to friends who seemed to be more concerned with the image of the university than human dignity. I was frustrated at student leaders, in the complex system of student self governance, for ending rallies about systematic oppression with the Good Ole Song, UVA’s fight song, in a time when the institution of UVA in no way “cheered my heart” and was definitely not a “bright and gay” place.

11099180_437298863096243_7128103774699306536_o“As a small ecumenical group, we developed a list of lamentations about our university and community, and shared these lamentations as posters taped up around university grounds during passion week. There was an anonymity about putting up posters, exclaiming in bold letters things like “I lament the culture of privilege and white silence at UVA” that I found especially empowering. It wasn’t about permission or getting credit, but about finding the Third Way to work against unjust systems.

“My hope for Passion Week UVA was that whoever needed to see the posters would see them, whether that be a faculty member oblivious to our concerns or a student feeling alone in their convictions. At a time when the loudest voices were protecting institutions and tradition over justice and truth, Passion Week UVA gave me a way to feel empowered answer God’s call, to fight against systems of oppression, and to seek justice without pride or fear.”

— Maggie Rogers, U.Va. class of 2016, Architecture

11112997_437646983061431_6654974978864321543_oWe are three years into a movement led by young people of color in this country. It is a movement to end violence and state-sanctioned racism. It is a movement for black lives, but it is working to liberate us all: black, white, undocumented, LGBTQ, all of us. Our Christian faith uniquely equips us for the deep reflection, courage and perseverance to transform society and culture, to dismantle racism and build the beloved community. Engaging this movement and issues of race is critical for campus ministry groups and also presents a unique opportunity for deep Christian discipleship and community building.

 “My hope for the U.Va. community is that all students feel welcome, valued and safe. I believe talking about race and the Black Lives Matter movement at UKirk is important because we need to be engaged in combating messages of hate at our university and the maltreatment black U.Va. students face.”

— Martha Fulp-Eickstaedt, U.Va. class of 2017, Creative writing & sociology

I do not know exactly what resurrection in the aftermath of slavery and racism will look like. I know that its confluence with violence and guns in our world will continue to be devastating and fatal. I think we have a long way to go to heal. But the possibility of life is in all things through Christ Jesus. We testify to this resurrection life when we enter into the wounds of the world with that same life and possibility.

Four suggestions for practical engagement
#1: Look at the intersections
If your ministry group is already engaged in issues of faith and justice – from ending hunger to creation care – introduce race by looking at the intersections. Last month the collective Movement for Black Lives released a comprehensive platform that includes everything from education to the protection of natural resources. As a ministry group, have everyone identify some of the issues they either are passionate about or already engaged in. Break everyone into groups and have each group explore one of the six “demands” details of the platform. How do these demands intersect with what people are already doing? Each demand has a section for local action. What kind of groups could you partner with to pursue some of the local goals?

#2: Watch and discuss the Mizzou protest
One of best discussions our campus ministry group had last year was about the nonviolent direct action that students staged during the homecoming parade. The hostility and backlash this action caused fueled further protests at Mizzou and similar protests and actions at universities around the country.

As a group, we watched the cell phone video of the full 10-minute planned action. Though the video is shaky at times, have the students write out the historical timeline and the grievances the students call out. Reflect on your own university. How many of those grievances and historical events would apply? Notice the bystanders. Who is hostile to the action and what are they doing? Who is joining the action at the end? What is a nonviolent direct action? When is it called for?

#3: Organize at Holy Week
As a group, read the statement of the students that started #PassionWeekUVA. Reflect on your own context, your university and what Holy Week means. Identify a theme and specific laments around that theme. Organize students to publically share those laments throughout Holy Week.

#4: Go through the 6-week PC(USA) Anti-Racism Study Guides.
They include scriptural reflections, contemporary examples of bias and systemic racism and community discussion questions.

Tracy Howe WispelweyTRACY HOWE WISPELWEY is associate pastor of campus ministry and mission at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.