InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (InterVarsity) is an evangelical college ministry that is no stranger to social justice movements. Still, it was surprising for InterVarsity to devote an evening at its Urbana missions conference to #BlackLivesMatter. InterVarsity unabashedly called on 16,000 students to support the movement.
What InterVarsity did last night was more than a nod to current events or the need to oppose racism. It was a full-throated, unapologetic call to support #BlackLivesMatter.
In the U.S., there are just over 41,000 college students involved in InterVarsity chapters. Since the 1940s, InterVarsity's Urbana missions conference has brought together thousands of its students for four days of seminars, worship services, and meetings.
While the name of the conference still references its long-time location at the University of Illinois, the conference is now located in St. Louis, Missouri.
The location is just miles from Ferguson, Missouri. Given the location, InterVarsity's commitment to both social justice, and the diversity of its students (over a third of its students are ethnic or racial minorities), it was not surprising that there was some mention of racial inequality. But InterVarsity went far beyond acknowledging racism.
The first sign that the evening was going to be different was the worship team. The music featured gospel songs, and the worship team leading the music wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
Michelle Higgins was the main speaker for the evening. Higgins is the director of Faith for Justice, a Christian advocacy group in St. Louis (she also serves as worship director at South City Church). Higgins is active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the St. Louis area, and she challenged the students to listen to the stories of the movement and to be involved.
She noted that Christians have been willing to be political and activist on issues like abortion, but not on issues like racism and inequality that are more uncomfortable to address.
Higgins did more than promote a message that racism is sinful. She placed support of #BlackLivesMatter squarely in the mission of God.
“Black Lives Matter is not a mission of hate. It is a not a mission to bring about incredible anti-Christian values and reforms to the world,” Higgins said. “Black Lives Matter is a movement on mission in the truth of God.”
Higgins concluded by leading the students with the #BlackLivesMatter chant, “I believe that we will win!” She used the chant as call and response showing their faith in a God whose mission will win in the end.
This was the boldest statement from InterVarsity on the Black Lives Matter movement, but it not the first time it has made a public statement of support.
Joe Ho, director of InterVarsity's Asian American ministries wrote in October that Christians should support #BlackLivesMatter despite evangelicals' resistance to support political causes, particularly those with liberal politics. InterVarsity tweeted a portion of Ho's statement after the session last night:
InterVarsity is an evangelical ministry that has long championed both evangelism and social justice. It's session last night at Urbana 15 may be its boldest move to link the two together into one mission. The result could be a watershed moment in American evangelicalism.
Update: One sign of the impact of the session last night is that InterVarsity's Black Lives Matter T-shirts (worn by the worship team) are reportedly sold out at the conference.