Since 1946, Urbana has changed the way students see the world, God’s mission, and their own part in it. But, Urbana also has a history of changing people’s perceptions of the “other”—whether that’s a neighbor, an Urbana roommate, or a people group around the world—especially those of different ethnicities.
Divisions between people groups emerged as soon as the first people noticed differences amongst themselves. And since then, we’ve tended to stick with those who are similar to us—who look like us, eat the same foods as us, communicate like us. It’s more comfortable that way. But over time, when we stick with those like us, the gap widens, and the assumptions about the “other” become more entrenched.
We've tended to stick with those who are similar to us—who look like us, eat the same foods as us, communicate like us. It’s more comfortable that way. But over time, when we stick with those like us, the gap widens, and the assumptions about the “other” become more entrenched.
The people who lead and participate in Urbana conferences are not immune to this tendency, of course. Participants at early Urbana conferences were largely White and male (except for the first conference in 1946, which was half women, given that so many men were off to war). One or two missionaries of color were invited onto the main stage in the late forties and in the fifties, but, in a largely still racially segregated U.S., there was little awareness of or intention around multiethnicity.
In the sixties, however, issues of race were hard to ignore. A hard Urbana 67 for Black participants led to a more intentional recruitment of Black students for Urbana 70, as well as an invitation for Tom Skinner, a Black prophet and evangelist, to speak on the main stage. The mostly White auditorium sat spellbound as Skinner declared racism a sin and Christ the great liberator.
But perhaps just as significant were two spontaneous gatherings that happened over the course of Urbana 70—one of Black participants, where they could pray, lament, and process in safety, and one in which Black participants invited concerned White students in to ask their questions, listen, and learn from the suffering of their African American brothers and sisters. In For Christ and the University, Keith and Gladys Hunt write of that night: “Whether the frequent laughter and banter indicated a relaxed atmosphere or nervousness is unimportant. They were meeting together and talking.” Was there another such gathering of White and Black students listening to each other in 1970? It seems unlikely. It wasn’t a night of reconciliation, but it was an incredibly important first step of two groups encountering the “other” and learning truths that broke down stereotypes.
Logistical details at Urbana 70 also brought together unlikely groups of people. When a housing mishap left late registrants without a room, improvisations were made. Tom Bowers, a participant from Michigan State, recalled that getting people settled and cots set up brought on so much laughter and bonding that when he and the four others assigned to his room—two Americans, two Canadians, and one Nigerian—were offered better housing, they declined so that they could stay together. A photo was taken of the five of them with their arms around each other during the last night, and Tom said he kept it taped to his desk for a long time, to remind himself of “the fellowship of these men I had come to love in Christ.”
These were steps—important ones—but it would take a lot of work, a deep commitment to multiethnicity, and many years before Urbana would consistently start to bring together increasing numbers from different ethnic groups and a wider range of speakers.
At Urbana 90, the worship team and plenary speakers were more diverse and the program challenged participants with different kinds of music and communication than many were used to. The Urbana leadership team intentionally set about building relationships with leaders from a variety of ethnic communities. Men and women like Mary Fisher, Dan Harrison, and Paula Harris made bridge-building across barriers a priority. Dan invited Korean leaders to Urbana for a number of years at a time when there were almost no Asian participants. By 1996, nearly a quarter of the registrants were of Asian ethnicity. Paula similarly invested in relationships with African Americans, Latinos (including the COMHINA network), and Native Americans, through NAIITS.
The hard work and vision of those leaders significantly contributed to the multiethnic experience that you are experiencing at Urbana today. God has been faithful to continue to bring people from diverse backgrounds to Urbana to learn from each other. In a small way, what we experience here helps us begin to understand what it means to engage in cross-cultural relationships.
God has been faithful to continue to bring people from diverse backgrounds to Urbana to learn from each other. In a small way, what we experience here helps us begin to understand what it means to engage in cross-cultural relationships.
Urbana has also been a place where the Holy Spirit has brought people to places of deep humility and repentance for the sins of racism in the past and present. For example, at Urbana 2000, Brenda Salter McNeil gave a powerful talk to participants, in which she mentioned her Black friend, Ricky Byrdsong, who had been killed. She later went back up on stage to apologize for not naming Won-Joon Yoon, a Korean graduate student who was killed by the same gunmen who shot her friend. It was a powerful moment of affirmation of the value of Asian lives, as well as a moment of identification for her with White people. “I now understand what it feels like to be White—to try so hard to get it right but feel like you always get it wrong,” she said in her apology. In an article she wrote later for Fuller Magazine, she said, “That was the first time that I honestly identified and empathized with White people.”
Participants also began to hear more from Native people and gain a glimpse into the pain they’ve experienced. After Ray Aldred, a status Cree man, gave his address in Urbana 03, a White participant cut her hair at his feet, weeping. Gifts have been given and apologies made to Native peoples at past Urbanas, and Natives, in turn, have gifted participants with pieces of their culture.
And in 2006, a worship evening for international students turned into a remarkable hour of reconciliation between Japanese and Korean students—people groups with deep historical barriers of anger and hatred between them. In what could only have been the prompting of the Holy Spirit, one of the Japanese worship leaders suddenly apologized to the Koreans for the period of time when Japan had occupied Korea. Touched by his genuine humility, Korean students apologized for the hatred they’d harbored toward Japan and its people through the years. The evening ended with students breaking into groups and praying for each other.
Given our history, what will God do at Urbana 15, where over half of us gathered are people of color? What will he do as we engage in worship songs gifted to us from other cultures and ethnicities? What will he do as we hear from speakers and seminar leaders who work with those we consider the “other”—or who themselves are the “other” to us? How will we engage with the roommate or Bible study table partner or dinner table comrade who is different from us?
Given our history, what will God do at Urbana 15, where over half of us gathered are people of color? What will he do as we engage in worship songs gifted to us from other cultures and ethnicities?
These simple (but difficult!) principles and postures can help:
- Listen with a desire to understand. Be curious. Ask questions. And then really listen.
- Display humility. Don’t assume you know anything about the person. Get to know them on an individual level. Admit that you’re not sure what to say or how to understand their experience.
- Don’t discount the small steps. Cross-cultural communication—and, even more, genuine reconciliation—takes time. It doesn’t happen in five days. But every small step we take to engage with others matters.
- Let your posture here influence your engagement with those different from you on your campuses and in your communities. Make developing genuine, cross-cultural relationships a lifelong commitment.
- Take a risk today, out of obedience to Christ. Every time we take the step to engage with someone different from us, our capacity to take the risk again grows.