Ohio State University (OSU) abounds in diversity. It’s the largest university campus in the country. And figuring out how to engage diversity among 55,000 students has been a challenge for InterVarsity’s team leader on campus, Ram Sridharan.
Four years ago Ram joined InterVarsity as a full-time employee. For nine years before that he was an InterVarsity volunteer while at the same time pursuing graduate studies and working as associate director of career services on the OSU campus. As a volunteer he’d nurtured a Bible study for commuter students that became a chapter and when he joined staff full-time he turned his attention to the undergrad fellowship.
Five years ago OSU’s undergrad fellowship was predominantly composed of Asian students. Because InterVarsity values multiethnicity and desires to reach the whole campus with the gospel, Ram set out to study whether the fellowship might operate more successfully as an intentional multiethnic chapter, several ethnic specific chapters, or a combination of the two.
Decision time culminated in a week of Bible study and prayer with chapter leaders at InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus on Lake Huron. “We decided to become multiethnic in our expression with multiple small groups,” he said. “We gave it a two-year run.”
It didn’t work as well as he’d hoped. Even though evangelistic outreach was bringing 80-100 conversions each year, chapter attendance seemed stuck on 80. Ram perceived that cultural comfort was inhibiting the growth of the chapter.
Ram returned to Cedar Campus in the summer of 2008 with 30 chapter leaders for another week of discernment. “We spent a lot of time in prayer and having hard conversations about where we’re going, and what God is calling us to do,” he said. “We decided to incubate three small groups as chapters. We now have an Asian American chapter, a Black Campus Ministries chapter and a multiethnic chapter. Each now averages over 30 students.”
The three chapter leaders worked together to write a seven-page covenant. “We have an outline of how we will live together, what we will do separately, and how we’ll resolve conflict together,” he said. The chapter leaders continue to meet together on a regular, weekly basis. The chapters meet and worship together once every quarter and work together on larger campus-wide projects.
Ram describes himself as a third-culture kid. He grew up in Tanzania and Kenya, where his father worked in international finance. He became a Christian during high school at a Hindu boarding school in his home country of India, through the witness of a fellow student.
Being a south Asian with a multi-cultural background helps Ram communicate well with each of the different ethnic chapters. He was invited to be one of the speakers at Black Campus Ministry’s national conference in Atlanta last December.
Ram is also a trained mediator, and he offers his mediation services to small claims court in Columbus, Ohio. He likes to work in conflict resolution and takes his lead from the patriarch Abraham, who was active in resolving conflicts in his later years.
Keen Insight in Multiethnicity
Marc Papai, Ram’s supervisor, says Ram is gifted as an evangelist and a Bible teacher. Marc frequently receives requests to have Ram make speaking appearances elsewhere in the country. “He has innovated again and again at OSU to promote ethnic identity training and racial reconciliation,” Marc said. “He has served me by regularly helping me to think through ethnicity issues that we face in our division. He has keen insight into the Scriptures around this issue.”
Engaging a campus as large as Ohio State is a daunting task, but Ram says InterVarsity is making it work. “We were one of the few student groups to respond on the oval after the Virginia Tech shooting,” he said. “The university still remembers us as a result of that.”
He says that InterVarsity also is remembered for flooding the campus with 2,500 students wearing orange T-shirts during an AIDS awareness outreach with World Vision.
“The students did a great job on that. Professors were stopping classes and devoting attention to the AIDS issue because they saw the sea of orange shirts everywhere. Every person became an activist. We’re still known as the organization that organized that event.”
Ram sees a season of growth underway at OSU. Campus ministry has been fruitful. Planning is now underway for a cooperative, campus-wide evangelism outreach focusing on social justice. It is called The Price of Life Invitational and will take place on the OSU campus next spring.
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