“One of the greatest skills I learned in InterVarsity was how to relate with people. This skill cannot be overstated, as it will determine your effectiveness in whatever ministry you choose for the rest of your life,” says InterVarsity alumnus Nic Bekaert. Relating to people is exactly what Nic has done since graduating from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 1993.
Nic Bekaert became a Christian through InterVarsity while a freshman at the University of California – Santa Cruz. His InterVarsity experience helped him mature as a Christian and began fostering a passion for living as a disciple of Christ. After graduating, Nic moved into one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, CA. Nic and his wife currently work in Guatemala with Students International.
InterVarsity recently interviewed Nic about his experience transitioning from college to life after college and the lessons he’s learned from living intentionally as a Christian in East Oakland, Ca.
How did you become a believer?
My parents, who are development workers in Cameroon, are not believers and raised me and my brother with no religious instruction whatsoever. However, my brother became a believer just before he went to college at UCSC. When I graduated a few years later, he convinced me to attend UCSC instead of a university in France.
My brother arranged for me to meet and live with some InterVarsity members and staff, and I was immediately struck by these Christians’ lifestyle. They actually loved their neighbors. They shared their possessions, including their cars, and they occasionally invited homeless people over for dinner. I felt I was discovering what being a Christian looked like for the first time.
When the school year began, I promptly joined an InterVarsity Bible study and began attending Large Group every week. As an atheist, however, it was difficult for me to go beyond an allegiance to the historical Jesus. I simply couldn’t bring myself to conceive of the existence of an all-powerful God. However, as I debated my InterVarsity friends and read through more Scripture, I realized I would be a hypocrite to believe in Jesus and His authority, but not believe, as He had stated, that He had come from God, His Father.
It was during a Large Group worship time, surrounded by over 100 InterVarsity students, that I realized they all had a relationship with a living God – a God who I didn’t know. The emptiness and sadness I felt at having lived a life ignoring God’s existence (and mocking His followers) came crashing down on me, and I wept in sorrowful repentance.
How did you first get involved in the East Oakland community?
As I became involved with InterVarsity, I found that my childhood convictions about social injustice in our world were reflected in Scripture (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, Micah 6:8, Zechariah 7:9). I had witnessed injustice and poverty growing up in Cameroon, but became convicted as a college student about the injustice I saw in America’s inner cities. I felt God calling me to witness to His truth within an inner city context.
After doing some research, I decided to move into East Oakland, where I did a year-long internship in a Christian parachurch organization called Harbor House.
How would you define what it means to live incarnationally?
While interning at Harbor House I met some like-minded Christians who also wanted to live out their convictions in the inner city. We had all read John Perkins’ With Justice for All, and agreed that a commitment to relocation was necessary to transform inner cities. We felt we could not simply commute daily to the mission field of the inner city, but that we needed to live and establish ourselves there.
So just like Jesus literally “incarnated” and became a man, living and walking among His people, those of us in the Harbor House community felt we would be most effective if we ministered by actually living in the East Oakland area.
What did it look like for you to live intentionally as a Christian in East Oakland?
My wife and I were married in 1997 and bought a house a few years later in the neighborhood. The house was two blocks from the church we founded, called New Hope Covenant Church. (Read more about the impact of InterVarsity alums through New Hope in the SFGate Newspaper.) The house was a triplex, and we felt that since we had been blessed with the means to purchase a house, we wanted it to be a blessing to others. We made one unit available for other church members who still couldn’t afford their own, and made the third unit affordable housing (through the Section 8 program).
We knew that when our kids began reaching school age there would be some difficult choices to make. Oakland public schools are notoriously dismal in regards to test scores, but we were committed and made the decision to send our adopted son to the neighborhood public school. Overall we were ecstatic to be able to send our son to a school just two blocks away. We were the only White parents in the entire school, but we felt at home.
Choosing to buy a house in East Oakland and send our kids to the neighborhood public school was for us an act of choosing to dwell in this particular neighborhood. Thankfully, the school was a wonderful place for any child, with strong leadership and vision, and great academic results.
While in East Oakland, you chose to “dwell among” your neighbors in a rather unique way – through a blog. Can you explain a bit about this blog and its impact?
In late 2006, I began to wrestle with the tragedy of a young man who was murdered on our street. Every year over a hundred people are murdered in East Oakland. Sadly these murders have become an acceptable part of life for most people here. So I decided to go to the location of every single murder for an entire year, photograph the site and whatever makeshift memorial might be found there, and then post the photo on a blog.
Three days into 2007, Oakland had its first homicide. I went, took some pictures, and posted them. At first, I wanted the photos and the blog to speak for itself, so I refrained from posting any comments other than the mere facts of the homicide: name, age, location, and weapon used. But eventually, I began sharing a few thoughts as well.
To my complete surprise, relatives of the victims began finding the blog and commenting – mostly posting about their pain and sorrow. The blog became a public memorial wall of sorts, and people still post to this day. After 2007 was over, I didn’t have it in me to continue. I had hoped someone else would pick it up and run with it, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.
What were some of the lessons you and your wife learned in East Oakland?
When moving into a difficult situation, whether it’s in the ghetto, in the suburbs, or in another country, you need to have partnership. I believe we are meant to live and minister in community, that the Gospel is proclaimed most powerfully and effectively in the context of community. The early church in the Book of Acts is a powerful model.
But even before making such a move, you need to be able to articulate to yourself and to others how your convictions are rooted in Scripture. Because the storms will come, and unless you “know that you know” why you are doing what you’re doing, or living where you’re living, you will fail.
Jesus does not promise us happiness and comfort if we follow Him. But He promises us reward and His presence. Christians are not guaranteed freedom from suffering. But it is precisely through suffering that we can most powerfully experience and reflect God’s presence in our lives.
What are you doing now?
Our family moved to Guatemala in September 2008 with Students International (SI). My wife helps run the Students International makeshift clinic, providing basic public health services to indigenous patients, and I provide a broad spectrum of social services, from counseling to resource coordination, in a small refugee resettlement community. One of the main reasons we chose SI is because of their dual mission: to work among the poor and to influence students in their understanding of the Gospel as it relates to issues of poverty and justice. We absolutely love being able to do our two favorite things not only together, but in a way that complements each other.
What advice would you give to other alumni as they look to impact the world around them?
Perhaps the most basic piece of advice I could give would be to identify the one thing that most upsets you. Is it economic injustice, the death penalty, poor health care, starvation, AIDS, abortion, the foster care system, child sex trafficking, people who do not know Christ yet, etc?
Then, find like-minded people that are doing something about it. Lastly, figure out how to care for the poor and make disciples of Christ within that context. Our community in East Oakland includes attorneys, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, web designers, artists, architects, lab researchers, program administrators, fundraisers, etc, all of whom are using their skills, training, and careers in some way in sharing the good news about Jesus Christ.