Be Ready to Blaze a Trail

NOTE: This is the seventh part in our 8-part Black to School series which highlights African-American voices and experiences at Christian colleges. Please read Part 1 for context. Today’s post comes to us from Jelani Greenidge, who graduated from North Park University in 2004.  Jelani is a multimedia communicator with a desire to inform, inflame, and inspire. A writer, speaker, and worship musician, he lives in leafy Portland, Ore.with his wife Holly, an XBOX 360, and no pets.

Jelani

For college, I picked North Park University... mostly because it was in Chicago.

Growing up in the melanin-starved Pacific Northwest, I yearned to be surrounded by Christians who were people of color, and who shared many of my passions and interests (chief among them, by the way, was an insatiable appetite for Christian hip-hop, which had yet to develop into a widely appreciated artform). I tried not to let it betray my carefully-honed persona of teenaged detachment, but inside I was bubbling with glee over the possibilities. Chicago, man! This is gonna be way cooler than square-old Portland.

What I didn't know was that Chicago, though a city containing multitudes of various ethnicities and cultures, is heavily segregated. Chicago's diversity looks dazzling on paper, but most of the neighborhoods consist of heavily concentrated pockets of ethnic groups that, despite (or in some cases, because of) their close proximity to others with different backgrounds, rarely intermingled outside their group context.

So rather than being the oasis of community for which I had so naively hoped, North Park was, demographically speaking, a microcosm of the city at large. There was diversity, but most of it was surface-level. For the most part, Black students sat on one side of the cafeteria, White students sat on the other. Our Mason-Dixon line was a salad bar.

During my first semester, I was constantly answering the ubiquitous question, "so what do you play?" by a mostly-White student body that had been socialized to expect any Black male of more-than-slight physique to be attending on a sports scholarship. Since, at that time, I had yet to develop any real skills on the piano, I learned to quip, "I play my stereo real loud."

(And thank God I had a musical background, because according to the dictates of campus stereotypes, Black males with neither athletic nor musical ability might as well not even exist. If your answer to what-do-you-play did not include an instrument or a sport, the next question might be from campus security.)

What I didn't realize at the time was that quip was emblematic of the mentality that I had subconsciously adopted. Just like my hometown basketball team, I had become a trailblazer. Not only did I need to learn how to adapt to the school's culture, I needed to help them learn how to adapt to mine. Not just Black culture, but MY culture, my particular combination of values, influences, and passions... the subtle things that went past the superficial similarities I shared with my African-American peers.

Consequently, learning how to fit into my collegiate community, which -- let's be honest, is already a difficult, confusing and painful process -- was overlaid with additional racialized complexity. I had to tread a fine line between connecting well enough to be part of student clubs and such, but not so much that I couldn't stay connected to the ideas, issues and concerns of other Black students, lest I be labeled as a sellout. (As an RA, this was a particularly difficult dance to pull off.)

However, fitting in did have its privileges, and one of them was earning the right to speak openly and frankly to people in power. In my case, it was to several of the staff and student leaders of our campus worship ministry, which hosted a weekly student-led gathering on Sunday nights. I was pushing to get a gospel group on the program, instead of the normal acoustic-guitar rock fare. One White student didn't understand why it wasn't enough to have one gospel choir concert per semester, why did we insist on more? I countered by saying I didn't understand why giving up the regular format for one week was such a problem.

I could tell that I'd touched a sensitive spot. The hostility in his tone seemed to suggest that he was irritated that I wasn't staying in my lane. What followed was a tense conversation that touched on priorities, assumptions about student involvement, and the cultural priorities that drove decision-making. It was painful, and necessary.

And it wasn't just me, either. I was part of a vocal group of students, led by a few staff, who constantly leveraged our participation in the community in exchange for its progression toward becoming a bigger, wider tent of Christ followers. And we didn't just complain, we were proactive. We organized concerts, went on Sankofa trips, and hosted forums and symposia. And despite the hardships - maybe even because of them? - we had a great time.

As a result, the worship ministry at North Park looks a lot different now. The continual matriculation of a diverse student body, faculty, and support staff has made an indelible mark on campus culture. Christian colleges like North Park that reside in major metro areas continue to draw students who place a premium on diversity in their collegiate experience. Not only that, but there are programs like the Act Six Leadership & Scholarship Initiative that recruit diverse, high-impact students for Christian colleges and group then into cadres, for support along the journey together.

So in many ways, things at North Park are better for students of color than they've ever been.

Nonetheless, a trailblazing mentality is still required for students of color to be successful.

Why? Because most Christian colleges are NOT in urban areas. North Park has been considered something of a black sheep among Christian colleges, in part because students are not required to sign a profession of faith to attend. So the demographic shifts toward diversity that took place in urban institutions like North Park during the late 90s and early 00s -- with all the growing pains  -- have only recently begun in some of the more isolated suburban or rural school communities. Students of color entering those schools now should expect to fight many of those same battles.

But there's an even more important reason.

Even if we were to assume that, strictly by virtue of a liberal arts educational methodology, all colleges (Christian or otherwise) can be assumed to be paragons of acceptance that embrace students of color with a 100% success rate, even successful students will eventually leave that bubble and run smack into the real world.

As a worship musician, this has been part of my journey. In Chicago, I regularly participated in denominational worship gatherings that placed a high emphasis and diversity and inclusion. But when I moved away from Chicago, my denomination's national hub, and back to the whitest city in America, I wasn't ready for the disconnect I would experience. Even while serving in a multiethnic church, I regularly had to combat the subtle notions of White superiority that have come to define modern evangelical worship culture. For example, I've had several conversations with church leaders about their problematic hiring practices. (If your ad says you're looking for a worship leader whose style is like Chris Tomlin or David Crowder, what you're saying is, "we won't hire anyone who isn't a White male guitarist.")

Over the years, I've come to realize that it takes time for cultural norms established by denominational leaders to trickle down into individual churches and congregations. And by the way, this is just as true for Black church culture as it is for White evangelicals. African-American church planters from diverse seminaries probably run into just as many cultural roadblocks in traditionally-Black churches as they would in White churches, they're just different issues. So no matter the context, if you want your college experience to set you up for ministry success outside of college, you have to learn to blaze a trail wherever you go.

So to students of color in predominantly White Christian colleges, I salute you. Go with God and walk fearlessly into your destiny.

But make sure you wear some comfortable shoes, because to paraphrase Langston Hughes, it ain't gon' be no crystal stair.

Follow Jelani on Twitter and/or check out his website!