5 Lessons From the Urbana, #BlackLivesMatter, Students for Life Controversy

Activist Michelle Higgins speaks to attendees of the Urbana '15 student missions conference, St. Louis, Missouri, December 28, 2015.
Activist Michelle Higgins speaks to attendees of the Urbana '15 student missions conference, St. Louis, Missouri, December 28, 2015. | (Photo: Screengrab/Vimeo/Urbama '15)

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is facing sharp criticism because it promoted Black Lives Matter at its Urbana 15 student missions conference last week, but specifically excluded two student pro-life groups.

Julie Roys is host of a national talk show on the Moody Radio Network called 'Up For Debate.'
Julie Roys is host of a national talk show on the Moody Radio Network called "Up For Debate."

In an op-ed in the Christian Post, Students For Life President Kristan Hawkins and Rock for Life President Erik Whittington wrote: "While InterVarsity denied Students for Life and Rock for Life an exhibit table, they devoted an entire evening to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a movement which has publicly called for the lynching and hanging of white people and the death of police. One of their Black Lives Matter speakers even took the time to publicly disparage the pro-life movement during her remarks."

In InterVarsity's defense, Vice-President Greg Jao said that the conference excluded Students for Life because the group is a "non-religious organization" and Urbana features only Christian groups. Of course, Black Lives Matter is also a non-religious organization. But, Jao said the Black Lives Matter speaker, Michelle Higgins, "met InterVarsity's requirements due to her involvement with a Presbyterian (PCA) church."

No doubt, InterVarsity had good intentions when it decided to invite Higgins and promote Black Lives Matter. As Ed Stetzer noted in his article on the topic, the 75-year-old organization has a long history of opposing racism and promoting justice. InterVarsity also has an exemplary record of advancing the Gospel and global missions.

That being said, I think the controversy surrounding Urbana 15 raises some valid concerns and should prompt evangelicals to consider if there is a better way to fight racism and injustice.

With that objective, I offer these five suggestions:

1. Don't Be Silent.

Before I offer any criticisms, I want to commend InterVarsity for addressing the issue of race in America. In her address at the conference, Higgins said that shortly after Michael Brown's death, she approached evangelicals to see if they would engage on the race issue. Yet, to a person, these evangelicals said they were not ready to talk about race and injustice. Higgins accurately noted, "Your indifference is not hate, but it is not love." Jesus calls his followers to love all people, and that means engaging with people different from ourselves.

Shortly after Michael Brown's death, I devoted a radio program to how the church should respond to Ferguson. Similarly, I hosted a program on what it takes to forge close black/white relationships. These conversations were messy and difficult, but they were also worthwhile. The church desperately needs to do this more, and I appreciate InterVarsity's resolve to challenge the status quo.

2. Don't Promote One Cause to the Detriment of Another.

Racism is a huge problem in America. So, is abortion. In fact, as Hawkins of Students for Life noted in her op-ed, the two are actually closely related. Though black women comprise 13% of the population, they account for 36% of abortions. In fact, since 1973, abortion has claimed the lives of 16 million black lives — more than heart disease, cancer, strokes, accidents, diabetes, respiratory illness and violence combined!

I am stunned that Higgins used her platform at Urbana to disparage pro-life activists, claiming they're "too busy arguing to have abortion banned" and "to de-fund Planned Parenthood" to care for the living.

Pro-life activists invest untold time and money counseling and caring for pregnant mothers and their babies. And, contrary to Higgins' assertion that they only do "activism that makes (them) comfortable," pro-life activists regularly expose themselves to ridicule and scorn for courageously defending life.

Higgins needs to apologize to the pro-life community for what she said. The pro-life movement and Black Lives Matter should not be enemies, but allies. And, the fact that Higgins disparaged them raises some serious red flags.

3. Be Balanced in Criticism of White Evangelicals.

These days, it's fashionable to vilify white evangelicals — not just among secularists, but Christians, especially those promoting justice. I got a heavy dose of this last spring at World Relief's Justice Conference. The speakers spoke extensively about evangelical white privilege and white supremacy. And, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, an author and professor at North Park University, accused missionaries who don't have sufficient non-white mentors of being nothing more than colonialists.

Higgins echoed similar sentiments at Urbana. She accused evangelicals of "committing adultery with white supremacy," and added: "The evangelical church has taken the dominance and power of Eurocentrism and made it its side-piece or part-time lover, depending on how old you are."

She also excoriated white missionaries.

"What is unseen in our mission fields?" she asked. "It is an understanding that in order to proselytize, civilize and evangelize, you have to love the people ... That's what's missing."

No doubt, some of this criticism is deserved. Evangelicals have a checkered history when it comes to matters of race and justice. Many churches supported slavery and segregation. And, in the past, Western missionaries have exported ethnocentrism and attitudes of superiority.

Yet, evangelicals also spearheaded the abolition of slavery. And despite Higgins narrative, most evangelical missionaries deeply love the people they serve and have done so at great personal cost. Plus, almost all missions organizations today focus on raising up national leadership and in fact, are run by nationals. The kind of ethnocentric missions decried died out decades ago. And, furthering this maligning narrative dishonors the service of Higgins' white brothers and sisters and creates division, not unity.

Julie Roys is a speaker, freelance journalist and blogger at She also is the host of a national radio program on the Moody Radio Network called, Up For Debate. Julie and her husband live in the Chicago suburbs and have three children

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