It is hard to get whiter than Campus Outreach was in the late 1970s.
The interdenominational campus ministry originated in Birmingham, dubbed by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Campus Outreach was started by the predominately white Briarwood Presbyterian Church on the campus of Samford University, a Baptist affiliate that resisted integration until the American Bar Association pressured Samford’s Cumberland School of Law to admit the university’s first black student in 1967. The rest of the university followed; however, in a city nearly three-quarters African American, the school is still more than 80 percent white.
So it’s no wonder that in the beginning, Campus Outreach ministered primarily to white students.
But within the last decade, the ministry has undergone a remarkable change. The Campus Outreach franchise in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is about half black. So is ministry at the University of Memphis. And across the 87 American campuses, the share of black students has reached 13 percent, which matches the overall percentage of black students at schools where Campus Outreach is working.
Moving to a multiethnic Campus Outreach hasn’t been an easy process; to those working at Campus Outreach, it also seems frustratingly slow. But what they’re doing—shifting gears mentally to steward students of every shade—is proving enormously effective.
And the students they’re ministering to are better positioned to someday build multiethnic churches or do mission work in different cultures.
Campus Outreach started in 1978 with a single rebellious teenager.
“I was disgusted with him,” said Briarwood pastor Frank Barker of Tom Caradine with a small, self-deprecating smile. “But my wife really cared for him.”
Barbara would buy handkerchiefs once a month from the clothing store where the teen worked; he’d call her to talk about girlfriend problems.
“Only problem was, it would be 2 a.m. in the morning and he’d be drunk,” Barker remembered.
“When are you going to quit wasting time with that no-good bum?” Barker asked his wife.
“He’s going to become a Christian,” she told him.
“No, he’s not.”
“I’m praying for him.”
“That one will not be answered,” Barker said, chuckling at himself. “How’s that for spiritual attitude?”
Caradine did become a Christian—and let the Barkers know with a late-night phone call. His senior year, he began reaching out to his classmates at Samford. After graduation, he and classmate Curtis Tanner came on staff at Briarwood as pastors to the campus.
The two branched out to other schools in Alabama; in 1988, they left the state and started a franchise in Georgia. Now Campus Outreach is as far north as Minneapolis and as far west as San Diego.
“We look like a parachurch, but we’re not,” said Seth Terrell, assistant director of Campus Outreach in Birmingham. Each franchise is under the headship and sponsorship of a local church; that connection played a part in keeping the organization monochromatic for so long. Campus Outreach encourages its students to attend those churches, but unless they’re multiethnic, that’s not a comfortable experience for many minority students.
“When I came on staff in 2000, it was rare to see a sprinkling of black guys,” Terrell said. “In 2010, we evaluated ourselves, and one of the glaring things was that we didn’t represent the diversity of our campuses.”
Making It Work
“We prayed a lot,” Terrell said. They also listened a lot.
Tony Dentman, now one of the highest-ranking African Americans in Campus Outreach, remembers Memphis executive director Brian Lewis crying in a restaurant with him and five other black students, heartbroken over the isolation they felt.
“We wanted to reach as many people as possible, and we realized we’ve been excluding some people,” said Dentman, now an area director.
Instead of thinking of reaching minority students as a challenge, the staff began seeing it as a gospel requirement, said Lewis, who also serves on the Campus Outreach senior leadership team. “God has called us to this by virtue of the enrollment of the campus and the students in front of us.”
So they started hanging out where the African-American students gathered, pursuing them the same way they did groups of white students. They began hiring African-American staff, moving from three in 2008 to 53 in 2016. They clued in to the fact that their social mixers, their summer projects, and even the music they played skewed white.
So Campus Outreach staff adjusted their programming, putting more black speakers and worship leaders on stage. They added summer projects at Universal Studios and SeaWorld that had a broader appeal.
And in seven years, they’ve seen clear movement. On the ministry’s 10-week summer projects, which disciple college students as they live and work together during the break, the difference is stark.
“In 2010, we maybe had four to five black students” from Birmingham, Terrell said. “This past year, we had about 350 students attend. Fifty were minority students.”
Nationally, Campus Ministry sent 73 African-American students in the summer of 2008. In 2016, they sent 345.
“When we decide it is stewardship, there are no barriers too great,” Lewis said. “We are staying in this until we find solutions.”
One of the biggest problems they began to solve was staffing.
While studies suggest a room needs to be at least 20 percent minority for a minority student to feel comfortable in it, Campus Outreach found having multiethnic staff goes a long way toward creating diversity.
“There is usually a correlation between the type of students and the type of leader up front leading,” said W. C. Garrett, an African American and campus director of the University of North Texas (UNT) Campus Outreach. (One exception: Campus Outreach at Middle Tennessee State University has an African-American campus director and draws about 100 white students each week.)
At last count, 85 people were coming to Garrett’s weekly meetings; roughly half were black. (Garrett’s two campus ministers are white and Hispanic.) Of the 36 professions of faith last semester at UNT, 23 were African American.
But it’s not as simple as recruiting minority staff.
“Part of the ugly history is the feedback from African-American brothers and sisters that they feel like we get ramped up, get them on board with the vision, and then leave them alone to figure out challenges when things get tough,” Lewis said. “We had to repent of a lot of things. It wasn’t just mistakes. We were not considering others’ interests.”
Chief among those challenges was—and continues to be—finances.
Campus Outreach requires its staff to fund themselves. When young white men and women get hired, they ask for donations from their relatives and friends’ parents and parents’ friends. Their church might take an offering for them or allow them to ask for support publicly.
“I remember being asked to brainstorm 100 contacts I could ask for support and to turn it in after two weeks,” Garrett said. “I can tell you right now I didn’t know 100 people, and if I did, they weren’t in the position to support me. I don’t know doctors or lawyers or businessmen. Everyone I know is living paycheck to paycheck.”
“I could only come up with 20 names,” said Dentman, who became a Christian in college. He didn’t have a church back home he could ask for money. “I was literally the richest guy in my family. That’s common for many African-American college graduates at that point in their lives.”
Even if they could afford to support him—Garrett’s parents had both been to college—they didn’t understand why they’d need to.
“The conversation [with my parents] is, ‘W. C., you graduated from college. And now you’re going around asking people for money to do ministry?’” he said. “They couldn’t reconcile the two.” (Today Garrett’s mother is one of his biggest financial supporters.)
Campus Outreach had to do some thinking. “We couldn’t take our typical support-raising method and press that down on someone who didn’t have the same playing field,” Lewis said.
So Campus Outreach leaders sent African-American staff recruits to local churches, those that would be the most interested in a nearby college ministry. Several gave “substantial amounts of money”; some even tossed in housing expenses or meal plans, Terrell said. Hearing Dentman “didn’t have anybody else,” the church he attended during college pulled together 85 percent of his salary.
Then Campus Outreach asked its white staff to consider donating some of their support to a minority fund. “Almost all our staff did this,” Terrell said. “We had $25,000 and change annually committed.”
Finally, Campus Outreach leaders took more responsibility to oversee and network their minority staffers. “Historically, in support raising, you kind of protect your own supporters,” Terrell said. “Now if I’ve got a [minority] guy I hope we hire, I’ll send him to half my supporters to ask for money. We must be willing to have a corporate mindset. I believe many of our own supporters would love the opportunity to give to these men and women.”
(So far, Campus Outreach operates on campuses with significant populations of African Americans. At their newest location in Chicago, they’re finding a sizable Hispanic population. “We haven’t answered the question of how Hispanic people raise support,” said Dentman, who is leading the team that includes Filipino, Hispanic, and African-American members.)
Campus Outreach also worked to make church attendance more comfortable for minority students, at least for one franchise.
Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis is 173 years old, predominately white, and perfectly positioned across the street from the University of Memphis.
“We want to be a multiethnic church,” Lewis said. “We have adapted our evening worship service intentionally to be more comfortable for the multiethnic crowd. We are on that trajectory. But we recognize we are not going to grow at the same pace as the campus ministry.”
So Second Presbyterian’s Campus Outreach franchise partnered with the multiethnic church, Fellowship Memphis. Minority students attend Second Presbyterian’s Sunday school, then choose whether to attend service there or at Fellowship. Some choose both, Dentman said.
“Campus Outreach is not going to follow them out into the world after graduation,” Lewis said. “The long-term health and strength and growth of these students that graduate will be determined by their involvement in the local church.”
Campus Outreach now keeps an eye to diversity when expanding, both at new schools (the University of North Texas is 49 percent white, the University of Houston 28 percent, and San Diego State University 34 percent) and at congregations that might partner with them.
At the University of Memphis, Campus Outreach swung multiethnic fast—and almost too far. The ministry of about 200 students rocketed to 70 percent black in six years; now it hovers around the 50 percent mark.
“For the first time in the history of our ministry, we have white students bring up the fact that this feels more like an African-American culture,” Lewis said.
Dentman used to encourage his black Christian students to head to Campus Outreach events by telling them, “This is the family God has blessed you with. You have the same Father, the same Holy Spirit.”
Now he’s telling that to the white students.
The same pendulum swing can happen at the staff level, “when the African-American guy is pushing back on African-American things like, ‘Hey, we need to look out for our white brothers,’” Dentman said. “It’s always going to be give and take, with everybody thinking about the greater family.”
Hands down, the most effective way Campus Outreach has achieved real success is with its 10-week summer projects. Campus Outreach staff guide students as they learn to live and work together. By the end of the summer, racial barriers are softer.
“At first, I didn’t know if I could do it,” one of Terrell’s black student-athletes told him. “But these guys all care about me. They just want to know me and love me.”
That love “covers a multitude of sins,” Terrell quoted from 1 Peter 4:8. It holds together when the endeavor feels fragile, “like if you say something stupid you might blow the whole thing.”
“I can deal with [the white culture] because they love me,” Terrell’s student told him.
The benefits from those relationships are enormous.
“When you build a multiethnic ministry, it forces sanctification at a much deeper level than anything else I can think of,” Lewis said. “It forces humility and sensitivity and understanding. . . . Students who come out of multiethnic ministries like this are better positioned for moving the kingdom into a multicultural world.”
They’re also uniquely set up to be effective missionaries, better able to see another person’s point of view, said Dentman, who is praying that Campus Outreach can be a catalyst for raising up hundreds of black missionaries.
Dentman’s best advice: “Preach God’s Word and love people.”
He came to Jesus through the witness of a white man; Garrett was discipled by one.
“Do whatever it takes to reach black people,” he said. “But also do whatever it takes to reach everyone else.”