An Interview with Charlene Brown, Director of InterVarsity’s Black Campus Ministries
Charlene Brown began serving as InterVarsity’s new Black Campus Ministries (BCM) director in July of 2016. In the midst of a challenging cultural climate for Black college students today, she brings theological training, campus staff experience, a bold vision, and real hope rooted in the power of Jesus to change systems and structures as well as individual hearts. Andy Kim, InterVarsity’s Multiethnic Resource Director, sat down with Charlene to hear more about her life, her dreams for Black students and faculty, and current opportunities for BCM.
Andy: What are your hopes and dreams for BCM?
Charlene: When I think about BCM, one of the things that strikes me is that there are over three million Black college students across America, and InterVarsity, like any parachurch, is only reaching about 1 percent of them. So I’m asking, What does it look like to raise up the next generation of student leaders who are aware of God’s redemptive power and their ethnic identity to be women and men who take seriously what it means to be agents of change, reconciliation, and renewal in the world? My desire is to see students who are not just graduating from schools and taking jobs in the world as lawyers and doctors and also Christians, but students who know how to reconcile those things together, so that wherever they are, they are bearers of the good news and seeking the shalom of God’s kingdom.
My hope is that we’ll raise up a generation of students who are “woke” and that we would see universities and campuses transformed because college students are out there praying and protesting and believing that God can intervene and do an amazing work.
Do you ever have people ask you, “Why do we need BCM? What’s the value of having ethnic-specific ministry?” How do you respond to that question?
When I was a student at the University of Virginia, which is a predominantly White institution, I had no interest in Jesus. I wasn’t raised a Christian and had no experience with church. There were over 30 campus ministries and most of them were White Christian organizations.
When a number of racial incidents happened on our campus, though, I met a group of Black Christians who looked like me who were out there praying and protesting. They were being the people God created them to be; they were unapologetic about being Black and they loved God. There was something compelling about that that I didn’t feel when I wandered into predominantly White organizations on campus. I never felt like I could be myself in those places. I needed a place that was contextually relevant to what Black students were dealing with but that also offered hope for a world that was radically different. This community, called Impact, allowed me to understand God and realize that God was calling me, as a Black woman, to be exactly that, and to offer my life to him.
We see all over Scripture where God establishes both ethnic-specific ministry and multiethnic ministry. They both serve as avenues for us to see the kingdom of God even more clearly. I think BCM offers a compelling vision of the gospel to students who are looking for a culturally relevant place to see God.
How would you describe the current culture for Black students on campus? I know it’s a very diverse community, but are there trends you’re observing?
One trend is that we’re seeing an increased diversity in Black students on campus. Traditionally, when we talk about Black students, we think of just African American students. But the diversity on college campuses continues to grow. If we’re not paying attention to our African students, our Afro-Caribbean students, our biracial and multiracial students, we’re missing a whole cross section of Black students. So one of the things that we try to do in BCM is to make sure that we are aware of all students with any kind of lineage to the African diaspora. How we talk about ethnic identity matters.
Over the last two years, another trend we’ve seen is what is being called “the Mizzou effect,” a move for students to seek more just places and spaces on campus. More and more Black students are protesting and making requests for administrators to hire more faculty who look like them, add campus cultural centers, and offer more diverse courses. Students want to make sure there are spaces on campus where they are welcomed—and actually not just particular spaces, but all of campus. Students are doing more organizing, and we’re seeing colleges and universities respond to that, which I think is incredible. It speaks to the power that Black students, or students in general, have—they can bring change and make a difference on the college campus. We often tell young people, “Wait till after college before you seek to change the world.” They can change the world while they’re students, and we’re seeing that with our Black students on campus.
So with this wave of activism and engagement on campus, particularly with Black students, what do you think is the role for BCM and InterVarsity in general and Christian ministries? How do we engage and work with this wave of students? What are some things you’re seeing and ways you envision us coming alongside this movement?
With the current campus climate, InterVarsity and BCM have to figure out how to mobilize and train students and form them in such a way that Jesus and justice are not two separate things. To be a Christian isn’t just individualized salvation but something that is also communal. God redeems us for God’s good work. So if we want to be relevant to a group of students who are suffering and seeing the plight of Black America—how the community is suffering—then we need to be folks who are thinking about Jesus and justice.
I’ve been challenged to step up and envision a way forward that helps staff and students connect with the heart of God in the midst of anger, lament, and grief. But also what does it mean to not just sit there and lose hope in who God is? We need to understand that in lament, anger, and grief, there is an invitation from the Lord to go deeper—to move, to be people who are protesting, asking good questions. To be people who are seeking God’s shalom on campus. I feel like this is a good cross section for us, to mobilize and to see good things happen. We can’t just be clustered in our chapter meetings and Bible studies; there’s an invitation from the Lord to seek his heart.
Do you think the role of campus ministry and InterVarsity is changing? Or is it doing the same things in new ways?
I don’t think it’s a change in the way we do campus ministry. InterVarsity has always been about helping students move toward God and toward God’s purposes and mission. So when it comes to something like racial injustice and Black Lives Matter and the things that have been happening in the world today, I don’t think it’s a new way of us forming students; I think it’s about pulling it to the forefront of students’ minds, so that they know that this as well is part of the conversation around justice.
Yeah—it’s responding in your context to Jesus and the good news of the gospel. For this generation of students, there are some different social, political, racial dynamics that may not have been at the forefront of students’ minds ten years ago, and so that is a shift.
How have you navigated, or how do you want to navigate, BCM when, in a lot of evangelical communities, politics and race is so polarizing and it’s often easier to be silent or try to be neutral? How do you envision your leadership and how do you want to see BCM and InterVarsity navigate a really complex conversation?
That’s a great question. There are a number of conversations in our world that are polarizing. We as the church and as believers in Jesus’ redemptive work have a responsibility, a call, to learn to navigate those well—to be people who seek forgiveness when we don’t get it right, but who engage in the conversation as the Spirit leads us. This takes a lot of courage and boldness, but also a lot of humility. So while conversation around race seems polarizing, the Scripture does not ignore this idea of ethnicity. It’s interwoven all throughout Scripture. God calls people of every tribe, every nation, and every tongue to worship him. And God doesn’t erase their ethnicity once they come to him. God actually lifts that up so that people might come to know him more. We want to be people who engage that.
InterVarsity has a core value of ethnic reconciliation and justice. We see ethnicity and we don’t ignore it—we have to engage in these conversations. I desire to help students interact with that well, whether it’s Black students who are growing in their own affirmation of their identity, or other students who are trying to interact cross-culturally with Black students. We have to take a risk and start talking about ethnicity. It’s a learning process.
I would encourage folks to invite a friend or a couple of friends over and say, “This issue around Black lives in America—we need to figure out how to engage it and be people who have some cross-cultural engagement and competency, who ask for forgiveness when we get it wrong but who are also out there learning and seeking and praying.” If it means reading books, which I think it does, about the history of racism in America, then we need to be people who do that. Reading theology books around race is important, but so is the on-the-ground work of moving toward places of discomfort for us.
So who are some of your heroes?
One of my favorite heroes is a child, Ruby Bridges. She was one of the first Black students to integrate a Louisianan school. Federal officers had to escort her to school while people called her the n-word and threw things at her. It’s an incredible act of courage and tenacity for this young Black girl and her parents to say, “Yes, we’re going to take this risk because this will be a step for all Black children everywhere.” She’s always been an inspiration to me of what it means to have courage.
I’m a fan of both King and Malcolm X. I think they both bring very valuable lessons about racism and race in America to us. Ella Baker is one of my favorite Civil Rights people. She was one of the founders of the Freedom School Movement. So when Black kids weren’t allowed to go to school during segregation, she opened up a number of neighborhood schools where Black men and women, grandmothers and grandfathers, would educate the youth so that they could still thrive and get an education where they were, and those programs still exist today. She was also a student leader at Shaw University, a Historically Black College (HBCU), and helped organize a lot of the sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement. So again, another strong Black woman. And then I just love Michelle Obama and Beyoncé.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been someone who has shaped my theology very deeply. He has a book called Letter and Papers from Prison that contains things he wrote to different friends and family members. I am convinced that, in times of despair and great cultural shifts, some of the best letters come from prison, like King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and some of the apostle Paul’s epistles. This immense vision in the midst of despair that God can and will intervene and will bring justice is absolutely incredible, especially for Bonhoeffer during Nazi Germany.
How did you end up in this role?
When I was a student at the University of Virginia (UVA), I became a Christian my first semester of college because of Black students who were praying and protesting and seeking the welfare of other Black students but also the campus. That was incredible to me, and I became a student leader in that ministry and then led it. It had around 300 Black students who were worshiping every week, every Friday night, and to me that was crazy. I was like, Why do they need this God? They’re smart! They’re awesome! And then I became a Christian and realized, Man, God is doing this incredible work on campus.
That led me to seminary at Duke Divinity School, where I got a Master’s of Divinity with an emphasis on race, theology, and ethics. I knew that, whatever I did, I wanted to be thinking about the Black community but also about what multiethnicity means for the church and the community, and what God’s doing. I worked at different churches, and then when I came on staff with InterVarsity back at UVA, I realized that my heart was really for college students—that if we want to see change happen in our world and in our culture, college students will serve a big piece of that pie. I saw that if we could help college students dream about how the world could be different in light of who Jesus is, then we could see great renewal happen in our country. As I worked with these Black students, I also realized that we needed to see more ministries that were raising up a generation of students like them and seeing their leadership, because Black student leaders are a key demographic that we’re missing on college campuses.
So I and some other colleagues of mine sought to raise up new Black staff who we could hire to begin to plant other ministries across our region. And in the process of doing that, I moved to plant at an HBCU, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham, and fell in love with that. I realized that Historically Black Colleges are key for our ministry and work. There are ways in which Black students at HBCUs have been told that perhaps they’re not as good as students at predominantly White institutions, that they’re not the leader types that our country needs, that their influence won’t be much. And so I found that God was calling me to challenge these NCCU students and tell them, “God can use students just like you to bring about his work and his kingdom on campus and after.”
As my vision continued to grow, going from a predominantly White institution to an HBCU, I started to ask, What about our Black students on various campuses in other parts of the country? We need to raise up more Black staff to reach this need. God is doing a great thing in our community, but we need more laborers to come into the field. So that’s when I started asking the Lord, “How would you have me influence both InterVarsity but also Black students and staff across the country?” And that drew me to this position; as I continued to pray and discern, I felt like God just kept giving me more vision for this. I didn’t know what it would look like; I just knew that God was speaking, and I wanted to say yes to what he was asking of me.
What are some of your biggest opportunities as BCM Director?
I think one opportunity is just advancing the mission toward Black students, whether that is in ethnic-specific ministries where we’re reaching primarily Black students or multiethnic ministries that could reach more Black students on our campuses. I think the fact that, across the board in any parachurch ministry, we’re only reaching 1 percent of Black college students is sad but also a profound opportunity for us. How do we engage with that generation of Black students and offer them a vision of the gospel that says, Yes, God can and will use you and all of who you are to bring his kingdom here?So that’s the first opportunity.
Second, I think we have some of the most gifted Black staff I’ve known and met, and I look forward to partnering with them but also to figuring out what kinds of resources we need to reach this generation. What are the things we can do to invest in our Black students and faculty that invite them to become followers of Jesus, but also form them to be men and women for whom Jesus interacts with every single part of their lives and their heart, so that they can be the world changers that God’s calling them to be?
And then third, I think as we engage in issues like Black Lives Matter and #BlackonCampus that we are helping to affirm the identity of Black men and women who are created in the image of God. When we say “Black lives matter,” we’re not just saying only Black lives matter, but we’re saying that this is a community that has historically been undervalued and devalued, and that their images have been marred, but we say, yes, their lives matter because they are created in the image of God. We have an opportunity to help affirm that, but to also say that the value of multiethnicity still exists with that—that God is inviting us to reach Black students but also that he calls all people to him. So we get to help envision a compelling vision of reconciliation that takes into account God’s justice and invitation to us that isn’t merely, “Let’s just get together,” but that says “Black lives matter.”
What does your job entail, and what are some of the different roles you play within BCM and InterVarsity nationally?
I’m still trying to figure that out! As BCM director, I get to work alongside our Black staff in the movement to help bring resources to further their work on campus. I get to partner with them and to hear both what’s working and the challenges they’re facing so that we can help create a better way of serving our students and faculty on the ground. I also get to work with the BCM Leading Servants Team, a team of seven really talented Black staff who are working on things like Ministry Partnership Development, resource development, and contextualization. They’re helping us celebrate 40 years of BCM in InterVarsity, which is exciting, and creating infrastructure for the department. I also serve on the Multiethnic Ministries Team, which means we get to help dream and envision what reconciliation looks like, how Black staff and students and faculty can contribute to that overarching vision. As part of that team, I get to partner with other ethnic directors as we seek best practices for caring for staff as well as challenging our students to have a vision for what God’s doing on campus.
Do you have a story of a BCM staff and chapter in the last year or so that represents what BCM is all about?
Olayinka Obasanya, who’s been working at Baylor University, has been doing a phenomenal job to reach Black students. I believe he’s a Baylor graduate, and in his first three large group gatherings they saw I think over 17 people come to faith. The name of their BCM chapter is Facetime with God, and folks were so stirred by what was happening in this ministry that the campus newspaper wrote an article about how students were being drawn toward God because of this thing called Facetime with God.
I think what I love about what he’s doing is that it is contextually relevant for students—he is preaching the gospel and unashamed of what it means to be Black and Christian and what it means to impact the campus. So much so that when we talk about campus renewal, people are paying attention. The campus is being changed and transformed because of his ability, and the Holy Spirit’s work through him, to have courage and excitement and boldness to share the gospel, and to have a vision for the fact that God is calling Black men and women to respond to his invitation to be a follower. So I think that that’s a great example.
I’m also excited about the work that Jamal Morris is doing in Chattanooga with his students. One of the opportunities he’s seen is the importance for Black students in doing community service, so he’s partnered with local churches in Chattanooga to mobilize students to disciple and tutor young elementary kids and middle-schoolers in the neighborhoods. It has been a great partnership that is causing a lot of good stir in the city. His students at the university are excited because they also get to give back and see the renewal of neighborhoods. I love that there’s a work that is happening on campus and that students are thinking missionally, not just about the campus but also about their neighbors—men and women who look like them who don’t have access to the kinds of resources that neighborhoods typically have.
How can readers support your work as BCM Director and support BCM around the country?
One way is just to pray for the climate on college campuses toward Black students. Pray that Black students thrive on the campus, that they find opportunities for community and fellowship. I want the establishment of InterVarsity chapters to serve Black students—for them to become the place where Black students thrive and say, “Yes, I’m choosing to stay at such-and-such college because I believe that God’s called me here, I have the vision for what he’s calling me to do here, and that even amidst some of the tension or issues that I face, I have a certainty that I can do this because God is with me.”
I also want our ministries to be places that preach the invitation to be followers of Jesus and say yes to God’s invitation to be there and to see the renewal of campus. So you can pray for that.
I also would love prayer for the ministry as we seek to hire and develop more Black staff, so that we can advance what God’s doing across the country. There are college campuses where there is nothing for Black students to go to. We want to see that change. There is so much more for us to do, so pray that we’re able to hire staff, develop staff, and send staff to these campuses where Black students need to hear that message. And I think that that’s all of those campuses.
Another way that people can actively help us is to give to the Black Staff Flourishing account. Many of our Black staff see challenges with fundraising and building ministry partner teams, and we want to help alleviate some of that stress. So we’ve established this account to help our staff flourish, to help meet some of the financial need of fundraising so that they can actively be on campus full time and see and develop a generation of Black students so that the gospel might be advanced on the college campus.
Go here to find out more about BCM and to see which campuses currently have BCM chapters.