Amid racial tensions, black students find refuge in religious groups

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Tori Zackery

Bible Study Leader and senior Saisha Johnson listens intently to the week's lesson.

Q&A: Student organization doubles as a safe haven for minority students at MSU

The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of the outpouring of grief and frustration following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 – a young, unarmed black man who was shot while walking in a gated neighborhood – and the subsequent acquittal of the man who killed him.

In the five years since Martin’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, driven by the killings of Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and other black people at the hands of the police. The movement has grown into an international network of more than 30 chapters.

College campuses across the country have used various platforms to respond to and/or participate in efforts led by Black Lives Matter.

At Michigan State University, a student-run Christian organization encourages students to use religious faith as a tool to combat racial tension. Founded by the national Christian ministry InterVarsity, “Collegiate Black and Christian” is an all-inclusive campus organization that caters to minority students. MSU’s chapter routinely hosts Bible studies, campus events and socials.

I spoke with Bible study leader and MSU Applied Engineering Sciences Senior Saisha Johnson and Faculty Chapter Leader Brandi Brown about how the black church intermingles with the black community on campus, and what the group’s role is during racial unrest.

Tori Zackery

Bible Study Leader and Senior Saisha Johnson listens intently to the week’s lesson.

Q: What is the role of MSU Collegiate Black and Christian on campus?

Brandi Brown: Our organization’s role on campus is to create a safe place on campus for black students to meet Jesus or ask questions about spirituality within their own cultural context. We host social events, weekly Bible studies and facilitate discussions that explore the intersections of faith and issues such as justice, race and mental health.

Q: What is your role?

Saisha Johnson: My role is that of a small group leader, which is a Bible study leader. Me and a few others hold Bible studies weekly for the students. We split it up by [dorm] neighborhoods and days so that we can reach everyone.

Q: How do you interact with the black community?

Johnson: We are open to everyone interested, but we are mainly focused on African-American individuals.

Brown: CBC loves serving the campus in a variety of ways. We pray for this campus and black students regularly, we attend events and we give away small gifts, like tissues, water and hot chocolate to show the black community we care.

Q: How do you encourage students to become a part of your organization?

Johnson: We do what most organizations do and recruit at Sparticipation and Spartan Remix, trying to make people aware that this sort of outlet exists and gain their interest in leadership and evangelism. After we get their contact, our first priority is to follow-up with them, see if they are truly interested and where they would see themselves in our [organization] and invite them out to our events. In the first month of school, we have our new outreach. For those weeks, instead of Bible studies, we have social events, such as movie night, game night and soul food night.”

Q: In light of increasing racial tensions and the Black Lives Matter movement, how involved is the church on social justice issues?

Johnson: Black Lives Matter is especially important to the organization because most of our members are black. Also, we go to a school where a lot of these issues are not spoken about. During a lot of the police shootings last semester, we were just open to everyone and anyone who needed prayer or who wanted a quiet place to go. Building up our black students and letting them know their voices are heard is very important to us.

Brown: There are so many factors to consider when analyzing the role of the church in the Black Lives Matter Movement of today. Historically, the church has always been a pillar of security and power during the civil rights movements. I believe the church’s role is to be the tangible hands and feet of Jesus. And to speak out on issues of injustice, to preach the true meaning of Jesus that includes freedom and redemption for the marginalized, and to tangibly serve the communities that they inhabit. Additionally, I think the church needs to be facilitating real discussions on race, justice and social issues. As far as CBC’s role on campus in light of [Black Lives Matter], we believe our role is to be a place of refuge and hope for students on campus. We want to preach the message of Jesus that includes and loves the marginalized. We want to talk and facilitate discussion about the issues that affect our community and support our campus/community in prayer, service and any way we can.

Q: Do you collaborate with other black organizations? Why or why not?

Saisha Johnson: [Collaborations] are important to us, letting students know that it is okay to be a Christian in college and that Christianity doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or be involved in multiple other organizations. I feel like more people are coming to understand that a relationship with God is an important way to balance your life.

Q: Do you feel like a church presence is increasing or decreasing in the black community? Why?

Saisha Johnson: With social media and the world we live in, it feels like we are moving further and further away from the church. This could also be because some churches are corrupt, and people feel judged. That’s a main thing that we [ as a student organization] understand, and we try to make people feel as comfortable and welcomed as possible.

Brandi Brown: Unfortunately, going further into the history of Christianity, the stains of white supremacy and abusive theology have made it hard for black people to see Christ’s heart for the oppressed and the marginalized. I do believe the church has some work to do in terms of reclaiming the stories of the Bible and preaching them in context. There are so many stories about oppression and Jesus’ view of people being taken advantage of.


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