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We Want to Belong:

BIPOCs on Brown’s Christian Community

Joseph Delamerced

This past summer, I held conversations surrounding the relationship between race and religion with friends and family. As the semester began, I felt it was necessary to continue and further develop these ideas with Christians at Brown. And so, in September, I embarked on a three-month interview process and spoke to over 40 BIPOC students, staff, and alums who had left, were formerly part of, or were actively involved in Brown’s Christian community. While each interview was one-on-one, the experience felt like an asynchronous discussion. Without even speaking to one another directly, people agreed with each other almost perfectly, while others challenged long-held beliefs.

 

This article focuses on the belief that those in already marginalized communities should not feel further marginalized in their faith. This piece is meant to uplift and encourage believers and non-believers alike with the knowledge that Brown’s Christian community has grown and the promise that it will continue to do better.

 

There are many more facets still that we must examine. What about students at RISD? The many staff and ministers that have come and gone? The sense of community we must develop virtually? These questions are important, and this article is not comprehensive enough to answer all of them.

 

One important question that can be answered: who is the author of this piece? My name is Joseph, and I am a junior at Brown. I am involved in and contribute to Cornerstone Magazine, The Veritas Forum, and The Branch, all of which are affiliated with the Christian faith. I am a child of Filipino immigrants, a boy from the Midwest who knows too many nominal Christians, and someone like you who desperately desires to grow. While I identify as Christian today, I did not grow up that way. I am a student in the truest sense: I want to learn from experiences that are similar to and different from mine. This is a posture I hope that you take as you read this piece.

 

All opinions or thoughts expressed by individuals in this article are not necessarily representative of the groups of which they are part, both at the campus and national level. Upon review, all interviewees have given permission for the content in this piece to be released.

Photograph Jocelyn Salim RISD

When Anthony came to Brown in 2016 and attended Brown’s Activities Fair, he walked through rows of countless student organizations. He felt overwhelmed and wanted to go back to his dorm. Just as he tried to leave, he accidentally came across a religious group: Christian Union.

 

“I figured there would only be one Christian group here,” he recalls. “I signed up to get emails and left.”

 

Anthony grew up as a Christian, and he wanted his faith to grow when he came to Brown. But upon receiving the first email from Christian Union, he realized there wasn’t space in his schedule for the two main events offered: the weekly large group called Anchor and the Freshman Bible Study. 

 

“I couldn’t go to anything,” he says. “I didn’t ask if there were more Christian fellowships because I assumed there weren’t any others. I had this perception that Brown was very secular.”

 

Although Anthony eventually joined a Christian fellowship (The Branch) by the end of his freshman year, many students remain hesitant to join or are willfully ignorant of the Christian groups on campus. Some shared that Christianity was an antique from their parents, and as soon as they left home, they knew that they would stop practicing their faith. Others reported that amidst their uncertainty about Christian life at Brown, they were worried that the space might be insular or narrow-minded. After all, who can blame them? In the Princeton Review’s most recent 2020 rankings, Brown is seventh in least religiously active student bodies. Why should any Brown student expect there to be an active or positive Christian community on campus?

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An example of an entry into Brown University's official listing of Christian Communities on campus. A number of errors and concerns: CU's website link is broken, the meeting times are outdated (CU large group meetings were ended in 2020 pre-pandemic due to complete absence in turnout), there are no Zoom links, and there are only 2 CU staff members currently, not 3.

Finding these Christian groups is not solely a matter of accident, but “accident” still does play a big role. The only formal events that Christian fellowships have to advertise themselves are Brown’s semesterly Activities Fair and the annual A Day on College Hill for prospective first-years. The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life also organizes a Protestant Meet-And-Greet, where students socialize and also hear from Harmonizing Grace, Brown’s Gospel choir. While fellowships invite all students regardless of upbringing and faith tradition, Catholic students do tend to gravitate toward the Brown-RISD Catholic Community (BRCC) (1). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the class of 2024 was unable to properly experience these events.

 

Some students report “doing their homework ahead” and researching Christian groups online. This, too, proves difficult. On Brown University’s official website, 14 Christian communities are listed, although the true number of active ones within any given semester is closer to half of that. Contact information and websites are consistently outdated, leading many to believe that Christianity on Brown’s campus existed at a different time but no longer does. To combat this misinformation, current lists of active Christian communities are provided by students, with varying degrees of success in terms of publicity and sharing. With or without the necessary knowledge, students like Kiana were still enthusiastic about exploring the Christian faith and finding a Christian group.

Christianity was an antique from their parents, and as soon as they left home, they knew that they would stop practicing their faith.

 

“I’ve always understood my faith and my race to be inseparable because of how I was raised, and so I wanted to be part of a Black Christian community. I don’t know why I assumed it would be [at Brown], but I still looked for it.” Like Anthony, Kiana received no information regarding the Christian space before coming to campus. She simply hoped it was there—a hope she credits to God. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t find Black Christian Ministries at the Activities Fair,” she says. “I got to be part of a community that had great insight and could pray for me.”

 

In interviewing both Anthony and Kiana, two Black Christians at Brown, I found that their experiences were not as isolated as they thought. If the two of them, like so many other students, believed that faith is something we all ought to consider and explore, then the religious groups on campus should have inherent appeal. Every student has a spiritual disposition upon arriving on campus, and their unique and different levels of interest in faith draw them closer or further away from wanting to explore religion and spirituality. But those who either wanted to explore Christianity for the first time or grow as already established Christians found it difficult to know what practical steps to take, such as finding a Christian group to join.

Notes and letters from Brown's Christian community. Early 2010s.

Letters and notes from Brown's Christian community received in freshman year. Photograph courtesy of an anonymous alum.

Even when students find these groups, they often ask: “What’s so different about each of them?” Some are special-interest groups, like Cornerstone or Veritas. Most are “fellowships,” which identify with a specific branch or denomination of Christianity and are affiliated with a national organization, such as Cru or InterVarsity. While Christian fellowships on campus have different mission statements and events, they are similar in structure. Each one hosts a weekly or biweekly large group gathering (AIA met on Wednesday nights for “Prime Time”), a weekly small group Bible Study separated by year or gender (RUF met in Family Groups separated by year), and serve the local Providence community in an outreach initiative (BCF prepared meals for a street-church called Church Beyond the Walls).

 

“There’s something for everyone here regardless of where you're coming from,” Jermaine Pearson, who serves as the Associate Chaplain for the Protestant Community, says. “When I first came here, groups used to meet at the same times on the same nights. It’s good we’ve changed that.”

 

While this upward growth is promising, students still report that it’s difficult to make time to visit and learn about every fellowship on campus. Brown students’ schedules are packed, so they often attend one Christian fellowship with zero opportunity to visit any others. And so, if word of mouth is king, then the few students who had the opportunity to visit multiple ministries have the most valuable testimonies to share with others. Julius is one of them—he’s been part of five different fellowships. “I’ve had my toe in everything,” he told me with a smile. “I felt a tug to follow God when I was in college, and it’s been incredible to be part of these groups.”

 

Similarly, Alenette visited many Christian groups in her first year at Brown. Unlike Julius, she had recently converted to Christianity, right before attending college. “As a baby Christian, I think I had higher expectations,” she shared. “At first, I tended to move around [to different fellowships] because I felt like some of the ones I was part of were more worried about who attended or how many people attended rather than trying to have robust conversations about righteousness and purity and things like that.”

 

The collective insights and experiences from students like Julius, Alenette, and many more shape the Christian space. Fellow students can guide one another to fellowships that best suit their schedules, but with limited information at everyone’s disposal, it’s impossible to avoid being wrong or misleading. Many students I interviewed gave overall positive impressions of the Christian space at Brown, yet they also provided incorrect and even negative perceptions of other groups.

 

One student that I spoke to claimed that their group had the only POC minister on campus, a statement that troubled me because it was untrue. An alum told me that their fellowship was the only one that promoted interfellowship, even when interfellowship groups like Cornerstone and Veritas have been around for years. One student told me she felt her identity would be unwelcome in a particular Christian group. We talked as two believers, as two people of color, as two students of a marginalized group who did not want to feel further marginalized in their faith. “I agree that conversations surrounding race and ethnicity as it relates to Christianity must be prioritized,” I told her. “I may not be the one you want to talk to about all this, but there’s someone I know with a similar background to yours who may be able to share her experience.”

Christianity at Brown and at many other campuses is not a monolith of any singular background; rather, it is a dynamic mosaic of believers.

These conversations, however uncomfortable, need to take place if the Christian space here is to improve. It is not my place, nor is it anyone’s—student, minister, or otherwise—to invalidate these experiences, but it is our responsibility to challenge ourselves to grow and do better.

 

The interviews I conducted revealed another fundamental issue beyond the lack of widespread information and poor communication: the Christian space is not nearly collaborative enough. Seeing all Christian groups work together in interfellowship movements was an idea that every single person I interviewed brought up. They told me interfellowship edified them, that it was important for students to meet people in different Christian groups, and that it was a spiritually empowering movement. Yet even ministers like Jeremy Ogunba, the former campus minister for BCF, felt that the actual impetus to collaborate is small, at best. “Ministry leaders and ministry groups beyond campus were hesitant to engage in more interfellowship events, even if students wanted it to happen.”

 

Shortcomings in information, communication, and collaboration prime the Christian space at Brown to fail. In Brown’s history, Christian groups like Romans 8 (a fellowship that served Black students before BCM) and the Latino Christian Fellowship have formed and disappeared quickly. Each existing fellowship is also not perfect, as there are issues within them that even student leaders are quick to point out. Adding onto the fact that this campus has a reputation of being secular and non-spiritual, it would be easy to conclude that Christian groups here should not function well, let alone even exist.

 

And, yet, they do. Not only do they work; they thrive. But let us not become complacent. In a time of virtual community, it is essential that we work to improve our space for the future, especially as many new students join the Brown community. What practical steps might we take?

 

Staff, campus ministers, and student leaders need to provide up-to-date and easily accessible information on Christian life to new students. Moreover, it is essential that fellowships regularly communicate with one another. Both student leaders and campus ministers need to learn specifically how each group serves this campus. In collaborating more, interfellowship should be viewed as a logical and natural outpouring of our faith instead of extra work and time lost in our schedules. Further, if we claim to prioritize faith and understand its importance, then why do so many students notice their leaders are absent? Students in leadership positions must commit to their roles, else we face a pattern of Christian groups dropping out from our campus. In building up the Christian space here, we also need to prioritize intersectionality and cross-cultural awareness. Christianity at Brown and at many other campuses is not a monolith of any singular background; rather, it is a dynamic mosaic of believers.

 

Every student, every alum, every minister I spoke to told me that the Christian community at Brown changed them for the better. Their relationships with fellow believers were some of the most meaningful ones they’ve had in life. The stories they shared, the experiences they had, the testimonies they told—God was moving in their lives, and I was honored to hear how each one of them had grown.

 

“It feels like having a family,” Mamaswatsi, a student at the BRCC, told me as she reflected on her experience with Brown’s Christian space. “There’s a sense of community, of belonging. You present these very different aspects of your identity with your faith, but you also interact with people from different walks of life.”

She stopped, as if to reminisce on sweet memories from long ago. She then asked me: “You know what I’m saying?”

I smiled, unmuted my microphone, and agreed. I thought of my friends that I missed so much, the ones I will not be able to see until next year, or now only through a screen. I spoke of what it meant to gather together as a Christian community, where discussion is rich, love is tangible, and joy is bountiful. I remembered why I decided to care about faith in the first place: someone took the time to ask, simply, “What’s on your mind?”

 

Perhaps that is why I love the Christian groups here. They reflect the Christian attitude that is integral to so many of us: we want to grow. We want to belong. We want to believe. In a family like this, I am confident we can.

(1) A glossary of terms and acronyms:

  • AIA: Athletes in Action. Part of Cru Ministries. Interdenominational.

  • Alabaster Group: Part of Alabaster Church in New York.

  • BCF: Brown Christian Fellowship. Part of InterVarsity. Evangelical (trans-denominational).

  • BCM: Black Christian Ministries. Formerly part of InterVarsity. Nondenominational.

  • BRCC: Brown-RISD Catholic Community.

  • Branch: The Branch at Brown & RISD. Part of Chi Alpha. Protestant.

  • Cornerstone: Brown and RISD’s Christian literary arts magazine. Part of the Augustine Collective.

  • CU: Christian Union Libertas. Part of Christian Union National. Interdenominational.

  • HG: Harmonizing Grace. Brown University’s only Gospel choir.

  • RUF: Reformed University Fellowship. Part of RUF National. Presbyterian. Closed in 2020. Note: This fellowship is active again and recognized as Hands of Providence Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational group.

  • Veritas: A Christian interfellowship initiative that hosts discussions centered on the exploration of truth and its relevance in human life. Part of The Veritas Forum National.

Authors Note: A special thanks to Cornerstone—the people staffing this magazine are close to my heart. I’m more than confident I’ll be able to discuss topics like these and many more with them in the future, as I have already done in the past.

For more information on Brown’s Christian groups, visit bit.ly/BRChristianGroups, a pamphlet frequently updated by students at the start of every semester.

Joseph Delamerced is a junior at Brown studying Education (Cognitive Development).

Photos by Jocelyn Salim, RISD '23.

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