5 Minutes with Christena Cleveland

Urbana sat down with Christena Cleveland as she prepares for Urbana 15 to get to know her a little more beyond what’s listed in her bio. Here’s what she had to say:

How do you describe missions?

I describe mission as aligning my life with the family of God and with the work of the family of God. Missions is not so much what you do but who you’re doing it for. And it involves a submission to God and a submission to God’s people.

It’s certainly important for us to love God and to be in relationship with God. But a lot of what’s going to shape our mission is the people of God, the people around us, the people we are called to be in relationship with. Not just physically around us but psychologically, the global family of God. What’s the need? What is God doing? And how can I be a part of that?

I really think of missions as much bigger than just going to another country. I think that that’s part of it but I would like more Christians to be on mission in the everyday things that we’re doing and really surrendering them to God and letting God do amazing things through them.

Given all that’s happening in the world right now, what do you think North American students need to pay attention to?

Right now, I think the Black Lives Matter moment is saying so much about what God wants our world to be like. I think that as North Americans and Westerners and as educated people it’s so easy for us to step beyond the United States and think, We’re a great country; we have democracy; it’s everyone else who needs us. And we’re not willing to look at our own glaring deficiencies and sins—not just historically, but what’s happening now. So many Christians are numb to the reality of other Americans in our midst.

This is a kairos moment. This is a moment where we’re being called to go deeper into the heart of God. And that’s going to affect how we see everything globally too, right? If we are able to see that there is a connection between low-income, Black people being treated a certain way, and the way Christians in Syria are being treated and the way Palestinians are being treated. It’s all connected. MLK said that so well himself. He said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

And I think it is especially important for those of us who are Christian to be able to look inward and say, How are some of these injustices perpetrated by us, by Western Christianity? I think this is an opportunity for us to take a much more holistic view of what God is doing in terms of making things right. This is an opportunity to allow him to change us from the inside out. And we’ll be better at doing mission when we are clean about what is happening with us.

This is an opportunity to allow him to change us from the inside out. And we’ll be better at doing mission when we are clean about what is happening with us.

I also think there’s a pretty significant opportunity for North American Christians to develop mutuality with the Global South. I mean, if you look at the average person in the world right now, the average person in the world is a woman of color who does not live in the West. And the average Christian is a Nigerian woman or a Guatemalan woman. We have an opportunity to admit that there has been an idolatry of the West in Christianity, where we’ve been central to everything that has been going on. We are not the center of Christianity. We have a lot to learn from the marginalized in our midst and we have a lot to learn from the Global South. It’s time for us to be humble.

What do you say to those non-Westerners who have internalized a sense of inferiority to the West?

I’m starting to define humility differently. In the West, we often think of humility as Servant Leader. Like, “I’m going to be less-than!” Like, humble brag. And I think for Westerners we need to come down and admit we don’t have the answers.

I think that for people who have basically internalized the inferiority that the West has thrown at them, humility to them is rising up. I’m starting to define humility as seeing myself the way God sees me. For those of us who have an internalized negative self-image, to be humble is to rise up and say “I refuse to value Western culture over what God is saying about me. I refuse to value Western creatures over my own creatures that God has put in my midst, who God has anointed to lead me. I refuse to say that the way the West defines me is the way I’m going to end up defining myself.”

I’m starting to define humility as seeing myself the way God sees me. For those of us who have an internalized negative self-image, to be humble is to rise up and say “I refuse to value Western culture over what God is saying about me.”

If we are all a body and the arm isn’t valued, than we are in trouble as an entire body. We don’t need 18 legs. And that’s how it looks now. Because one view gets all the power, right? We all owe it to our allegiance to Christ, and our allegiance to others, to work to make that right, to bring the balance, and sometimes it just requires pressure from the marginalized to tell the powerful people Enough is enough, we are just not going to do it anymore. And I also think it’s important for powerful people to say enough is enough, too. We’re realizing we are lacking the perspectives that are needed. It requires a different type of humility on both sides to come together.

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Comments

"Given all that’s happening in the world right now, what do you think North American students need to pay attention to?" As a student who's excited to be going to Urbana this year, it saddens me that Ms. Cleveland's answer to this question is solely the Black Lives Matter movement. While this has some importance, the fact that people of color are being slaughtered by Boko Haram in Nigeria strikes me as more urgent and dire than any situation we face in North America. We need to be thinking globally of ourselves as world Christians and not so parochially. What about Syrian and Iraqi lives matter? Urbana is the premier evangelical conference in North America for framing a global perspective of mission priorities... Let's think expansively.

If you read further, you'd see how she connects the BLM movement and the marginalization of African Americans to apethetic attitudes towards global issues. If a person devalues lives in the front yard, what would drive them to care any more about lives beyond borders? I urge you to revisit the interview in its entirety.

The person who left the 12/19 comment missed Ms. Cleveland's point. She was not saying one life is more valuable than another. She wasn't minimizing the horrible pain of others in the world. She wasn't even saying #BlackLivesMatter is the most important thing on the planet. Her point, which I think she said pretty well, is that we have ignored our Western "deficiencies and sins" and behaved as though injustice only takes place overseas. It's hypocritical to turn a blind eye to injustice at home and pretend it only exists overseas. To make Urbana '15 students aware of this short-sightedness is crucial. We have to model here what we intend to model overseas. Many of our missions efforts smack of hypocrisy in which we, like the priest and Levite, neglect what is right in front of our face because we are on mission--overseas--for God. Let's keep our zeal for the nations. Let's long for the day Christ is named among the unreached. But, let us also be salt and light right where we are.

I did read the entire interview, and I agree that the Black Lives Matter movement is important. My point was that the persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ is far more urgent. Many North American students, about whom the question was asked, are currently more preoccupied with the BLM movement than they are with what's going on around the globe. I understand her response, but it's sad that she implies an equivalency between the injustice here and the atrocities happening overseas. We don't need the BLM movement to shed light on the rest of the world or to give us a kairos moment. We have reports of ISIS beheadings and crucifixions and disembowelments and rape to give us those moments. BLM is important, but we don't need to make paying attention to BLM a top priority in order to understand injustice, which seems to be her implication. Thanks for your responses, I look forward to hearing more from Ms. Cleveland at the conference!

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