Reaching Black Students and Faculty: An Interview with Charlene Brown
Interviewed by Nancy Pedulla
I recently had the privilege of meeting with Charlene Brown, a gifted millennial leader and the new Director of Black Campus Ministries for InterVarsity. Charlene brings her passion and skill to the task of reaching black students and to the broader work of the Multiethnic Ministries team. I hope her grit inspires and encourages you as it did me. — Nancy Pedulla
How would you describe the mission of InterVarsity’s Black Campus Ministry?
The vision for BCM is to advance InterVarsity's mission to black students and faculty so that the campus is renewed and black students and faculty grow in their faith and in dynamic leadership and become world changers. What I'm excited about is seeing a generation of black students who are awakened to their call and to their ethnic identity as black men and women, who then become agents of change, renewal, and reconciliation in the community and the world.
When you think about where the ministry is in relation to that mission, what are you the most proud of and what are the biggest upcoming challenges?
In 2017, we will mark the 40th year of BCM. I am proud of the fact that BCM has thrived and grown over the last 40 years. I’m really proud of some of our elder BCM staff, our legacy members who have been around for 30 years, who have continued to fight the good fight, making sure that we see and love black students well — people like Felicia Anderson, Fred Williams, and Tony Warner, who have continued to be prophets and bridge-builders, to show us what's possible with black students. I'm excited that in the last two years we've grown our ministry to black students by 16%. We're serving close to 5,000 black students, and there's so much room for us to grow. There are over 3 million black college students in America, and we're reaching 5,000 — I think that part of my role in this season is to help us think about contextually-relevant discipleship and evangelism and how to empower staff to go out there and reach those we're not reaching.
What has prepared you to serve as Director of Black Campus Ministry for InterVarsity?
A couple things have prepared me. During my first year as a student at the University of Virginia, I became a Christian. My second year, I became the president of InterVarsity, which included about 250 students. We didn't have a campus staff worker, so I was responsible for casting vision and for helping us to grow in both discipleship and evangelism. As a student, I wondered if there was a job similar to what I was doing that I could be paid for. At that time, I wasn't very familiar with InterVarsity. I knew that there were people who hung out on campus with college students, but I wasn't aware that campus ministry could be a full-time job.
My experience at UVA led me to seminary, where I grew in my faith, calling, and leadership. I chose to go to Duke Divinity School because of the Center for Reconciliation there. I care a lot about multiethnicity, exploring what racial justice looks like, and how reconciliation gets lived out practically. At Duke, I served as president of the divinity school student body, helping our seminary to think more about multiethnicity, and working with key administrators there.
During my time in seminary, I helped plant a multiethnic church in Durham and also helped a large all-white church engage issues around race and justice. While I was enjoying my job at church, I spent much of my free time meeting with college students and volunteering at InterVarsity conferences.
And I realized that I loved InterVarsity’s mission and loved working on college campuses. In 2012, I joined InterVarsity staff. My good friend Thurston Benns and I had the opportunity to cast vision for black students to grow as disciples of Christ — through the communities on their campuses, through conferences for black students, and through leadership training.
Through all of these experiences, I've had some great mentors and advocates in my life who have challenged me into new levels of leadership and to say yes to things that I could not have imagined doing. The experiences that have led me here have been foundational to my story and call.
As a leader, what kind of gifts do you bring to the table? What are the gifts you love to use when you're leading?
I consider myself a high-vision leader. I feel like the Lord has given me vision to see what is not and the courage to see it come to pass — to see things that feel impossible and to say, “Alright Lord, we have nothing to lose so we might as well risk it all and go for it.”
I love building teams around a common vision and purpose to help accomplish the task ahead. I’ve had the joy of serving on multiple teams, and often because of the vision, joy, and excitement I bring, I’ve had the opportunity to lead those teams.
I also bring strategy to the work of reaching black students and faculty and understanding of what it means to do racial reconciliation and evangelism in a way that is culturally relevant and makes sense to this community. This is something that gets me really excited.
So here you are, five months into the job. How is God stretching you as a woman who said yes and inviting you to grow?
I think I'm being stretched, first, to grow in confidence about my leadership. I'm on a team where all of my peers are men, even though our team is led by a woman, Paula, a vice president. But I am having to find my voice as the youngest person in the room and as a woman of color. That has been hard but good. I wake up in the morning and I say, “Alright Lord, help me find my voice, help me to be bold about the things that I'm passionate about, about the things that you're stirring in me, about the things that I know I should be speaking out on, even if people might look at me funny.” I have to step into that leadership and to trust that God has called me here for such a time as this. There are ways that I want to question my being in the room, but I also want to trust that God knows exactly what God's doing and that's enough for me.
What happens for you in those moments when you sense that you've got to find your voice?
I wonder: Am I experienced enough? Have I been in the room long enough? Have I read everything that everyone else who's been here longer than I have has read? These worries can undercut my voice, and I have to tell myself that there's a reason why I'm in the room. There's an experience that I bring to this room. There's something that's particular about me being an African American woman that is valuable to this conversation. So I can choose to withhold that, but then I deprive my team of my contribution. Or I share what I’m thinking and we work through it. I'm realizing that there's a particular perspective that I bring into this role. I want to grow in confidence of what God's doing in that moment. It's not about the excellence of my words or what I've done, but being able to participate in the moment and to be a contributor and a team player.
How are you experiencing being a millennial woman in the room?
It's so weird. It feels like InterVarsity is in the middle of a crucial shift, as we go through a leadership transition and welcome a growing number of millennial staff. Stepping into this role as one of a few millennials in national leadership within InterVarsity has been a learning experience. I’m excited about taking big risks to help us advance the mission. I believe that God can do something that's absolutely crazy and different. I believe that God will bring more voices to the table, including women and minorities, and that beautiful things can and will happen. I believe that social media and technology are vital to our work and relevance, that our ability to shed light and give voice to the stories of people like me will bless us. I believe that in the next season of InterVarsity, there is collaboration and learning that need to happen across the field of InterVarsity.
How does your vantage point give you a unique view about what could happen?
As a Ghanaian-American millennial woman, born and raised in America, I have vision for what can be and what God is doing that is rooted in my particular story. My experience of coming to faith in college has been deeply shaped by the intersection of gospel and justice. When I spend time on campuses across the country, I hear a generation of students who are longing to hear what Jesus has to do with our country’s current realities. From #blacklivesmatter to the recent presidential election, from the Dakota Pipeline to immigration — there is a generation of people longing to see how the gospel relates with these issues and hurts. Our students are seeking out ways to be involved in these areas of justice that we just haven't done well historically. So I'm trying to figure out, as a millennial, how we bridge the gap of our love for Jesus and our ability to organize and effect change and to participate in issues of justice on the ground.
When you think about the way you're wired, what's the invitation for growth for you as you face the tasks at hand?
I'm a dreamer. I love new things. I love risky things. I love seeing how far we can push the boundaries and seeing where God will show up. Part of stepping into this role has been asking what it look like to manage the whole and not bring change faster than people are ready for. Millennials love starting new things and dreaming about what’s ahead. While I’m always grateful for this passion, I'm learning, especially in talking with some of the elders in BCM, to view the long game and bring change in small bits that people can receive, especially in a time of lots of transition within InterVarsity. I'm also learning how to slow down and hold the vision before the Lord and to ask him, “Lord where are the places of opportunity for today, for the next month, the next year, the next five years?”
Do you have a favorite Scripture passage that you return to as a leader in seasons of challenge?
As a young leader, I love the passage from Joshua 1:9, this admonishment from God to be strong and courageous. What does that look like for me as a woman, to be strong and courageous, sitting in a room with mostly men who are older than me? What does it mean to have that kind of confidence in God? That's been a big deal.
Then reading Gideon's story in Judges where the Lord says to Gideon, “I need you to pare down your army, again. The things that you thought were going to get you far, they're not actually going to do it. When I bring you success, it's not actually going to be you. People are going to be able to tell that it's me, the Lord, who did this.” In the last five months, those are the two passages of Scripture that have stuck with me: to be strong and courageous and to expect that God will do change in a way that he wants to, so that that success cannot be attributed to me, but would be attributed to him.