In 1992, Belkis Lehmann, a Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, U.S.A. leader on the Eastern Michigan University campus, walked into the school’s food court and noticed that all the black students sat on one side and the white students sat on the other. The self-segregation bothered Lehmann. She knew that wasn’t God’s will for the campus.
Her thoughts turned to the college’s Chi Alpha group, which consisted of almost 100 percent white students. She knew that wasn’t God’s desire either, so she and her husband, Steve, EMU’s Chi Alpha director, prayed, and strategized about ways to change the demographics.
When Lehmann left EMU 14 years later, the share of white Chi Alpha students had dropped to nearly one in three, and participation reflected the overall number of African-American and international students on campus.
Not content to let the issue fade, in 2010 she led a breakout session on diversity at Chi Alpha’s national conference. Out of that session, Lehmann, along with other leaders, created a national task force. Lehmann now is an AG U.S. missionary heading the task force as Chi Alpha’s national diversity specialist.
Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God U.S. Missions ministry on secular college and university campuses, always has been intentional about drawing people to Christ and making disciples. But Lehmann, a Cuban-American, is passionate about creating a community of multiethnic followers, stating that the Scriptures and AG’s heritage mandates such a commitment.
“Any entity that is homogeneous as a group is by its very nature weak,” says Lehmann. She acknowledges that such a worldview and even theology are limited; conversely, a multiethnic community exhibits richness because of a broader range of life experiences and perspectives.
Thankfully, national Chi Alpha leadership is on board.
“We have a responsibility on campus to welcome students who are different from us,” says E. Scott Martin, senior director of Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, U.S.A. “The university is a diverse institution, and Chi Alpha needs to reflect the students on campus. Belkis has done a remarkable job of making sure that the diversity issue is on the forefront of everything we do.”
Martin believes that mirroring the student demographic of a school is a sign of a healthy Chi Alpha group.
There has been great progress in making student groups not so overwhelmingly white. But Martin concedes diversifying Chi Alpha’s missionary staff has been more of a challenge. It’s a leadership dilemma that affects the AG as a whole.
One of the diversity task force’s main goals is to bring more missionaries onto campuses who reflect the demographic makeup there. That’s quite a task, given that the current number of Chi Alpha minority student leaders makes up only little more than 15 percent.
One area in which Chi Alpha is striving to change those statistics is through the Minority Mobilization Fund, which offers grants to minority missionaries going through training.
Another focus is to gain a toehold on historically black colleges (HBCUs), believing that by reaching students there, minority Chi Alpha leaders will follow.
“Forty to 80 percent of black professionals come from HBCUs,” says Lehmann. “For us to not be on those campuses is beyond insane.”
Deanna Ceasar agrees. Ceasar, a member of the task force and a missionary associate at Xavier University, a small, private, Catholic HBCU in New Orleans, specifically became a Chi Alpha leader to encourage other minorities to follow the Great Commission. When she first attended Chi Alpha as a student at Louisiana State University, she recognized there weren’t a whole lot of people who looked like her.
“I wanted other African-American students to experience the life-transforming faith that I had, through the help of Chi Alpha,” she says. Because Ceasar didn’t see a large reflection of that diversity, she decided to instigate the change she wanted to see.
So five years ago, after a one-year internship, Ceasar started an outreach to Xavier students with Chi Alpha New Orleans. During that first year, she and others on the leadership team experienced much opposition, but they persevered. She started a prayer group with some students and focused on building relationships and sharing the vision of Chi Alpha. Each year the group maintained a core of about 10 students. Just last year, Xavier allowed Chi Alpha to do official events on campus. This year, a few weeks into the new school term, the group has connected with more students than ever before, and has a full student leadership team, and one intern.
“Our main question is always, What does God desire?” Lehmann says. That has led them to making radical shifts in how they implement ministry. “In our worship, relationship time, prayer time — on every level we’re aware of the differences and reach out to all students.”