Race Panels: Discussions that Transform

When our InterVarsity chapter hosted panel discussions about race, it radically transformed our chapter, our campus, and our missional vision for God’s reconciling work among us.

Four years ago, I was the new InterVarsity staff worker at University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The chapter had a total of seven students and was declining. Seven. But God gave a remarkable vision to three of those students for a racial-reconciling chapter so all people may know Jesus.

Our journey started with Tiya, a black woman, and with Cameron and Marli, two white women. We wanted to develop a strategy to reach out to the different ethnic groups at UNCW. That’s when we came up with the Race Panels, a place for honest conversations about race on our campus.

This helped our chapter grow to about 50-60 students today. It is 48% Black, 47% white, and 5% a combination of biracial, multi-racial and Hispanic. We have seen 70 people make decisions to follow Jesus over the past four years.

A Place to Dwell

We began by asking every student in the chapter to join a non-white cultural group on campus to develop relationships by dwelling among them, attending their events and advertising their events in the chapter meetings. This built trust between the chapter and these communities.

Trust created an open door for hosting a Race Panel and curiosity about Jesus. There were spiritual conversations on why InterVarsity was taking such an interest in supporting their activities. We believed that without good relationships with different cultural groups, they wouldn’t come to our Race Panel. For white students, we had cross-cultural training to address cultural humility and how to apologize quickly, as well as what tensions they might feel being in these groups.

We were genuine in this pursuit and sacrificed our time to create space to build these authentic relationships. We listened to their stories, went to their events, and became part of their community to demonstrate we were there for them. We focused on the well-being of the students and invested in their lives, hoping they would see and know Jesus, not join InterVarsity. This helped us build genuine relationships which led to conversations which led to integration of the chapter which led to people coming to faith.

The Race Panels

For our panelists, we invited the presidents from all the different cultural student groups on campus as well as the two cultural office directors. Cameron (the chapter president) and I were also on the panel. Tiya was the host. She introduced the event with a short vision statement of who we are and why we were hosting this panel discussion, which was a brief summary of the gospel that race matters to God.

Tiya asked the panelists a series of questions and then opened the dialogue to the audience after each one. Some of the questions included: 

  • How do you define racism?
  • How do you define diversity?
  • How do you define reconciliation as it pertains to race?
  • What are race relations like on campus?
  • Describe a time when you felt isolated because of your ethnicity.
  • What are ways to pursue authentic cross-cultural and cross-ethnic relationships on campus?

At the end, we again related issues of race to the gospel of Jesus. Because race matters to God, it matters to us as InterVarsity on campus. We issued an invitation to come to our large group event the next night. Our two Race Panels were called "Sexy Racism" and "Racy Racism."

Fruit for Kingdom 

There were 70-80 students who attended each panel discussion, with 80% non-InterVarsity people. Each panel discussion was a huge trust-builder between the chapter and the different ethnic groups on campus. This contributed significantly to the first black students coming into the chapter. Many of them became Christians for the first time.

The Race Panel was the first time the collective student body cried out for something to be done about the race relations on campus. We invited several administrators and faculty to attend, including the Vice Provost of student affairs. They clearly heard students asking, “Who do we go to in the administration to address our racial grievances?”

This led to the creation of a new position, the Chief Diversity Officer, the first of its kind in our school’s history. It also led to new recruitment programs to reach black and Asian American high school students.

The cultural offices have named InterVarsity as a safe space for minority students on campus. Our group has a high regard in the black communities.

When two racist events occurred on campus, our chapter was well-positioned to respond. One involved a leader in our chapter, Brent Campbell, who experienced racial taunts from a malicious group of white males, and he wondered what to do about it. “Hate, bitterness, and anger grow in the dark,” he concluded.

Instead, Brent wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the university—one filled with grace and love for his attackers without diminishing the hurtfulness of their attack. Later Brent said, “Being loved by Jesus makes you love like Jesus.” See Brent’s story and video testimony.

Race matters to God. Race matters to us as God’s people. Let’s talk about it on our campuses and transform the conversation with grace and truth.

--Andrew Givens, InterVarsity campus staff member

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Connect with InterVarsity’s Multiethnic Ministries which serves students and faculty of every ethnicity and culture with passion and effectiveness.