When Yu-Shuan Tarango-Sho planted an InterVarsity chapter at Mills College in Oakland, California one of her biggest challenges was gaining the trust of the college administrators. Mills is a women’s liberal arts college famous for attracting activist, justice-minded types.
At Mills, Christianity was looked upon with disfavor as an outdated institution. Yu-Shuan experienced a lot of resistance as she tried to start an InterVarsity chapter, and was required to document all of her activities on campus. The campus had a policy against proselytizing. Bible studies and worship services could not be held outside of the chapel area. But Yu-Shuan was not deterred.
“It was exciting to think about how we could regain the reputation of Christianity and build bridges with reconciliation and other commonalities of experience,” she said. “In the six years I was at Mills a lot of that work was to help folks read Scripture through their own lenses and dispel stereotypes that Christianity is oppressive.”
The activist-oriented students were intrigued to see Jesus as an advocate for the marginalized and oppressed, who preached justice as well as salvation. Students decided to organize a campus outreach, a fundraiser for the mothers of Smokey Mountain, a garbage village in the Philippines, it was well received. Other groups on campus started asking to collaborate with the InterVarsity chapter.
As the students read their Bibles and prayed, more changes occurred. A chaplain who had opposed their presence left. Her replacement turned out to be an InterVarsity alumna. “Under her leadership we were able to move out of the chapel and start Bible studies in every dorm,” Yu-Shuan reported. “It was like a movement of God. Our reputation changed, it was an exciting time.” Since then four generations of staff have come out of the Mills College InterVarsity chapter.
Pursuing a Christian faith that is vibrant and life changing has been vitally important to Yu-Shuan ever since she committed her life to Jesus during fall conference the first semester of her freshman year at University of California-Davis. She became a leader in the majority White chapter at her campus. But by her senior year she was impatient with the focus of the group.
“My experience in college was this huge divide between faith and talking about a lot of issues that are relevant in communities of color,” she said. Her faith led her to become involved in racial reconciliation work and justice conversations among Christians on campus. She started a discussion group focused on the intersection of faith, racial reconciliation, and social justice.
After graduation Yu-Shuan began working with a faith-based program assisting low-income refugees from Southeast Asia. The focus on social justice and racial reconciliation was exactly what she was looking for. However she missed something that she had grown to appreciate in InterVarsity: community. “I wanted a ministry where community values were lived out,” she said.
At the same time InterVarsity was looking to expand the ministry model in the East Bay campuses, particularly the University of California-Berkeley. So Yu-Shuan and her husband, Javier, joined InterVarsity staff and were able to start a social justice ministry with some of the UC-Berkeley students. They remain in touch with many of the students they worked with, most of whom are still pursuing justice in their post-graduate careers.
Yu-Shuan stayed at Berkeley two years, and then planted the chapter at Mills College. After six years at Mills she spent two more years as an assistant area director for the East Bay. Then she was invited to become the director of the Bay Area Urban Project (BAYUP), which she has done for the last four years.
Many of the lessons she learned addressing the challenges at Mills College have helped mold the BAYUP program. InterVarsity’s Urban Projects are typically designed for entry-level exposure to the challenges of under-resourced urban neighborhoods. “I wanted to create a program for people who are from neighborhoods like this,” Yu-Shuan said. “So then the question that they ask is not ‘why should I care about social justice?’ but the question is how.”
During each summer’s Urban Project Yu-Shuan leads the student participants in activities that are familiar to most churches: community organizing and providing direct relief services. But she also is teaching them how to advocate for political change. The last two years they have focused on a Bill of Rights for domestic workers and the Trust Act. This past summer they organized around immediate humanitarian responses to the 68,000 migrant children who this year crossed the border from Central America.
Each summer the students have formed a delegation to go to the capitol in Sacramento to talk with their elected representatives. “They talked about their faith and what they’re doing in Oakland, and what their faith has to do with this particular policy,” she said. “For students who come from these neighborhoods, this is the first time they realize their voice matters. Many of these students come from families of low-wage domestic workers and undocumented immigrants. Imagine the empowerment they feel when for the first time they can actually talk to a state senator on behalf of their families.”
Another part of BAYUP is partnering with local community organizers who don’t always have a good relationship with Christians. “They have their prophetic perspective that we need to hear,” Yu-Shuan said. As God has worked in reconciliation with these communities, some powerful times of forgiveness and awakening have occurred.
Having come this far with BAYUP, Yu-Shuan is planning to expand this summer program to a year-round justice institute. Building bridges of reconciliation is a full-time challenge.