BY SHELLY BARSUHN
Surrounded by woods and water in Midwestern suburbia, University of Northwestern seems an unlikely center for cultural understanding and outreach. But cataclysmic shifts created by immigrant movements to the U.S. and Minnesota are bringing exciting changes to UNW, too.
“Look what is happening, said David Fenrick, Ph.D., director for Northwestern’s Center for Global Reconciliation and Cultural Education. “The world is coming to our neighborhood, and it is a great gift to us.”
Just minutes from neighborhoods that have become a second home to diverse groups of immigrants, the college is blessed by proximity. In the Powderhorn Park community of Minneapolis, for instance, 150 languages are spoken by about 200 distinct groups. It is the most culturally diverse neighborhood in the U.S., according to the most recent U.S. census.
The Twin Cities is the fourth most culturally diverse metro area in the country. A stroll down the street would bring a curious pedestrian in contact with people of many cultures, including Hmong, Somali, Russian, Liberian and Mexican.
Six of the eight largest immigrant groups coming to the Twin Cities are from the 10/40 Window, the region of the Eastern Hemisphere located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator. That region has the highest level of socioeconomic challenges and the least access to the Christian message and Christian resources.
This is a missional opportunity for believers because of where our new neighbors are coming from—areas of the world that are often resistant to the Gospel, where missionaries are restricted or banned, or where there are no or few Christian churches/communities.
Tools for Building Bridges
This changed landscape requires cross-cultural tools and understanding. Bridges must be built both to and from University of Northwestern. All Northwestern students now read A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multicultural World by Patty Lane, a book to help Christians develop relational skills that help build cross-cultural friendships with others—especially those unlike themselves.
On a macro level, Northwestern is thinking about ways to reach out to new students and their families. “Many cultural groups and immigrants think that their kids can’t go to a private Christian college,” said Fenrick, “but scholarships and support services are available.” The staff ask, “How can we learn about your culture so we can be a better institution? How can we serve students from many different cultures and backgrounds?”
Northwestern wants to be as welcoming and aware as possible so Christian students from any background can thrive academically, socially, culturally and spiritually.
This cultural transformation brings blessings to the American Church through:
- A beautiful tapestry of traditions, foods, perspectives and languages
- Unprecedented opportunities for Christians to both learn from and bless their multicultural neighbors
- Chances to share Jesus’ message of grace and peace in communities that may have been closed to missionaries in their countries of origin
- Enrichment of churches and the UNW student body. Most new immigrants who are Christian are conservative evangelicals who share UNW’s theological values. Through their faith and experiences, they have an invaluable impact on our university community and churches.
A Center for Understanding
On campus, the Center for Global Reconciliation and Cultural Education (C-GRACE) is a fulcrum for this cross-cultural understanding. C-GRACE promotes “Christian unity in our university community” in issues of “racial, cultural and ethnic diversity, and biblical reconciliation.”
The center actively pursues ways to make diversity—cultural, ethnic and racial—healthy and better understood, bringing under its wing international and multicultural students, immigrants, and children of missionaries. It coordinates activities that celebrate and nurture students of all backgrounds, and creates educational programs for the entire Northwestern community. The goal is to help everyone on campus—from students to administration—develop cultural competence and understanding for biblical reconciliation, in part by addressing issues of racism and prejudice. To help fulfill the college’s mission, C-GRACE is central to the cultural health of the UNW community.
Part of that task includes working closely with ethnic and multicultural churches to foster partnerships and dialogue. Fenrick cites the Karen (pronounced cur-REN) of Myanmar (formerly Burma) as an example. “We have the largest population of Karen in the U.S. These people have been oppressed and persecuted [in their country], and they bring an incredible perspective of Christianity—a deep understanding of community, family and relationships.”
Fenrick believes the Church is learning how to become more welcoming. “Instead of saying, ‘Welcome to our community; we’re glad you’re here; [now] be like us,’ we can say, ‘Welcome! Be who you are.’ As we get to know each other we’ll become something new.” That’s engaging the world with Christian community.
Choosing Community at Antioch
The Antioch Covenant Community at Northwestern is what Resident Director Andrew Kim calls “an intentional-living community.” It is a program of C-GRACE that lowers the barriers between cultures. In a typical college housing situation, students select compatible people to live with. For Antioch, students fill out an application and have a roommate selected for them. Residents not only learn about issues of race and socioeconomics and how systems and structure continue to divide society and the Christian community, they become part of a living microcosm to experience solutions.
This year, 16 students, who share a passion to understand issues of race, culture and faith, made a covenant to live in harmony and deeper understanding. Some grew up overseas with missionary parents, some are international students, others have immigrant family backgrounds or are from families that have lived in the U.S. for generations. Inside this “fantastic mix of culture and people,” Kim said interaction is both planned (residents meet once each week) and casual (sharing life, swapping stories and learning about cultures).
Rather than being an exclusive club, Antioch is an inclusive community where people value each other’s differences in the Body of Christ.
Just the Beginning
At UNW, students, faculty and staff are seeking intentional, godly attitudes and actions to build relationships, grow in understanding and seek reconciliation with one another and all people in God’s world.