I spent a chunk of my winter break hanging out with 17,000 college students at Urbana, the triennial conference hosted by the organization that I studied in my dissertation, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The conference was held in Urbana, IL from the 1940s to 2003 and is now in St. Louis. Unlike other parachurch groups, IV has had a relatively decentralized leadership structure for most of its existence, allowing for a lot of regional variation. Thus, IV in one part of the country can look very different in another part of the country. (For example, the IV chapter in my dissertation is pretty different from the one Paul Bramadat studied in his book, The Church on the World’s Turf) As a rare IV “national” (+Canada) event, Urbana is a site where IV presents its visions and values–a time to get on the same page, or at least represent the organization’s mission/values. In essence, it’s a good place to observe what IV is all about.
During the majority of its existence, the majority of Urbana attendees and speakers were White, but there have been notable shifts over the decades that parallel broader demographic shifts in higher ed. Quoting the IV website, “200 Black students attended Urbana 67. After an all night prayer meeting by a group of these Black students, they presented a petition to IV leaders. The list of demands called for changes in IVCF if it was to touch the lives of Black American college students. It was a scary time for IVCF leadership.” Asian American attendance began to rise in the late 80s and 90s. Alongside this, in the last decade or so, IV began to communicate a value for multiethnicity more explicitly through Urbana programming. [As my dissertation argues, demographic changes don’t go very far without changes in organizational culture] At the core of it, the changes in Urbana over the years parallel a fundamental question I ask about the IV chapter in my dissertation: What happens when a group that was founded without any sort of mission or purpose related to race begins to take on race?
[This question is further complicated by Urbana’s identity as a missions conference. Supposedly 1/3 of U.S. missionaries have attended an Urbana conference and said it influenced their decision to become a missionary. That’s kind of insane when you think about it. Complicated in the way U.S. evangelicalism thinks about missions, and complicated in who attends Urbana and what they encounter there.]
So anyway, hanging out at Urbana was a researcher’s goldmine–I thought a lot about Allport/intergroup relations, made some valuable contacts, and had a lot of interesting conversations with people from around the country. I also practiced giving my “elevator story” about my research about 4,000 times, which was good. In a spirit of reciprocity, I also volunteered at a general info booth administering random directions to bewildered undergraduates–lots of fun, and shoutout to the Drury Inn by the arch for their awesome, free hot breakfast.