When Michelle Higgins addressed a gathering of 16,000 evangelical students meeting in St. Louis this week for a missions conference, she brought the same intensity and fervor she’s often displayed as a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ms. Higgins, a St. Louis native and director of Faith for Justice, a protest group devoted to “Biblical activism,” minced no words when she told the crowd what happened after Michael Brown was killed last year in Ferguson, Mo.
“When I first heard that our brother had been killed, we began looking for churches to host discussion groups,” said Higgins, also the director of worship and outreach at a local congregation. “All of our evangelical partners said, 'We’re not ready to talk about race and justice; we’re not ready to talk about police brutality and mass incarceration; we’re not ready to talk about the fact that black bodies are grotesque to us – we don’t want to admit that.' ”
Her provocative words at the 2015 Urbana conference, a student gathering co-hosted by the conservative campus ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, not only laid bare some of the deep racial divisions in the United States after the killings of Mr. Brown and other black men over the past year and half, but they also went directly to the fact that, as a whole, evangelical Christians remain among the least likely to have sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement.
But at the Urbana conference this week, many evangelical student leaders and others have expressed full solidarity with the emergence of the protest movement. Worship leaders onstage, a diverse group leading worship with the kind of praise music that many evangelical churches are known for, wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts and sang songs in Spanish, French, Korean, and Swahili, as well as English.
The evening devoted to the cause has produced a stir on social media, and many have noted how unexpected it was that a major conservative evangelical ministry would include a speaker like Higgins in such a prime spot.
It wasn't accidental.
“Part of what drove our decision to engage Black Lives Matter more directly was, obviously, we’re meeting in St. Louis, 12 miles from Ferguson,” says Greg Jao, a vice president and the director of campus engagement for InterVarsity USA. “The idea that evangelical Christians would be that close to the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and not engage it, seemed wrong.
“This is a conference focused on Jesus’ call to engage in the worldwide mission of the church,” Mr. Jao continues. “To us that means proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed. And so to have a part of the body of Christ, the black church, in deep pain and not acknowledge that – it seemed implausible.”
Indeed, the five-day conference this week includes numerous topics relating to the Christian mission to spread the Gospel. There have been “altar calls,” invitations for students to accept Jesus into their lives, and exhortations for students to consider traveling overseas to engage in Christian evangelism, even in difficult and dangerous places.
But the evening on Black Lives Matter is in many ways another indication of the changes happening within American Evangelicalism, one of the most conservative subcultures in the nation. Led by the Millennial generation, many are seeing social issues in new ways.
White evangelical Protestants remain the most opposed to same-sex marriage by far in the US, with more than 75 percent against its legalization this year, according to the Pew Research Center. But more than half of Millennial Evangelicals say homosexuality should be accepted by society, Pew found.
“Evangelical students are much more socially engaged than they were a generation ago,” Jao notes. “Social media has made the world immediate and relevant to them: They’re aware of suffering and pain elsewhere, and they are more eager to do things.”
InterVarsity ministers to more than 40,000 students in campus chapters across the country, and today 53 percent of them are students of color or international students.
True, not all the students at the Urbana conference were in full support of the Black Lives Matter session – and some conservative white students struggled with the ideas presented by Higgins and others, Jao says. “This was the first time many of them heard a message like this, and they were really wrestling with the implications: What does white complicity look like? What’s my responsibility as a member of the majority culture, and how do I know that what they’re saying is true?”
But on that night, full-throated support from many students and leaders was on display.
“Black Lives Matter is not something black folks need to say to each other,” said one of the worship leaders who roused the crowd after Higgins spoke of her experiences in the protest movement. “Black Lives Matter is something that folks who are not black need to be saying. So I, as a nonblack person, what I want to say is, yes, I believe what you are saying, I hear your story, I trust you, and I stand with you.”