When unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson this past August, Americans of all colors raised their voices in sorrow and outrage. Only two years after the death of Trayvon Martin, Brown’s death raised many of the same concerns that Martin’s had about police brutality and the criminalization of blackness in America. Yet the violent protests that ensued called attention to the severity of these issues in a way that the media uproar after Martin’s death had not. As major news networks rushed to cover mounting tension between protesters and Ferguson authorities, race suddenly rose to the forefront of American public consciousness. If, prior to the events in Ferguson, racial prejudice had been dismissed as an issue of the past, it was now impossible to overlook.
Only three months after Brown’s death, the students in Princeton Faith and Action (PFA), the largest student-run Christian ministry on campus, received news that gave a new immediacy to the dialogue sparked by the summer’s events. Christian Union—the nationwide organization through which PFA is funded—proposed that the ministry split along racial lines to form two separate organizations: one catering specifically to black students, the other to whites. Members of the organization were shocked. “It was almost unanimous that students were just outraged,” Marie Brooks ’15, one of PFA’s senior executives, told me.
After a summer marked by racial tensions, the threat of what sounded like forced segregation first confused, then infuriated Princeton’s Christian community. In a nation still reeling from the events in Ferguson, how could any organization believe that systematically enforcing divisions between black and white students would serve anyone’s best interest?
As shocking as this proposal seemed, the concept of a divided ministry is not new. Only three years earlier, in 2011, the community that is now PFA had existed as not one but two distinct organizations under the umbrella of Christian Union. The ministry then called PFA was comprised almost entirely of white students, who had grown up in a predominantly white, evangelical Christian tradition and now worshipped at weekly Friday night meetings called “Encounter.” Black students worshipped in Legacy, a separate group that offered gospel music and less rigidly structured services on Thursday nights. Both groups were run by CU, but they existed in totally independent spheres. “There was very, very little overlap,” said Marie of the groups’ members.
As a freshman, Mariana Bagneris ’15—a black Christian student—was never confused about which group she belonged to. “The perception I had was ‘PFA is for white people, Legacy is for black people,’” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable going to PFA, I didn’t feel comfortable going to Encounter.” As the daughter of a pastor, Mariana had grown up attending what she describes as a “black church,” and when she came to Princeton she missed the energy and passion of her father’s services. “I’m used to black church,” She told me. “I love gospel music, I love the choirs. It makes me worship in a way that I can’t in other ways.” Seeking a similar church community on campus, Mariana was initially drawn to Legacy. The all-black group’s gospel services felt more like home, for her, than the Hillsong (worship music from a traditionally white Christian tradition) at PFA, but she was never “moved” by either group’s services.
The two ministries merged in 2012, while Mariana was a sophomore. This shift was largely the work of student executives, who felt that establishing diversity within PFA was not only important from a social perspective, but also essential to the ministry’s theological mission. “They [the executives] were like ‘this is what students want, this is where the gospel is leading us, we need to do this,’” Marie remembers.
The movement was spearheaded by PFA’s new director, Protim Adhikari, who joined the ministry in 2012. Immediately after his arrival, Adhikari made integrating PFA a primary objective. “Tim arrived at Princeton, and saw that there were segregated ministries, and thought that it was dumb,” recalled Takim Williams ’16, a PFA member. Adhikari’s reasoning, like that of the student leaders, was founded in his religious beliefs. “He’s a pastor,” Takim explained, “and his biggest stress, theologically, is that there needs to be racial reconciliation in the church in order for us to do what God would want us to do in a church environment.”
Christian Union, however, felt differently about the students’ proposal. Adamant that the two-ministry model was in students’ best interest, the organization agreed to permit the merge only after all of PFA’s leaders, including Adhikari, threatened to resign. CU framed their objection in defense of black students, arguing that the merge would alienate students who were only comfortable worshipping in a “black church” setting. According to Marie, one of the chief aims of Legacy had been to maintain a space for black students to worship without “feeling like a minority,” and CU feared that integration would unjustly force them to accept “majority culture.”
This fear was not unfounded. As news of the merge spread, many students within Legacy expressed similar anxieties about losing a place to celebrate black culture. “A lot of people thought that once PFA and Legacy merged, the black community would get kind of swallowed up in PFA,” Mariana told me. “They wouldn’t get the kind of music that they’re used to, and word that they’re used to, and worship that they’re used to.” PFA quelled these fears by adopting Legacy’s Thursday night meeting tradition, hostingweekly “TruThursday” services in addition to their own Friday night “Encounter” meetings. While Encounter continued to draw from a white, Evangelical tradition, “TruThursday” still offered gospel music and a “black church” environment for those who sought it.
Over the past two years, however, the racial line between these two gatherings has started to blur. Though TruThursday continues to attract a primarily black audience, the community at Encounter has ceased to be the all-white group it once was. “I would say that most students who go to TruThursday also go to Encounter,” Marie told me. “That’s been increasingly true over this past year.” And as the demographic of Encounter’s audience changed, so did the style of its services. As a worship leader her sophomore year, Mariana worked to integrate more gospel music into Encounter’s program, while keeping its tradition of Hillsong. The environment created was neither distinctly black nor distinctly white, but welcoming to all Christian students, regardless of their background.
In the end, Christian Union’s fear—that PFA had eliminated a space for minority culture—had not played out. In fact, what had taken place was precisely the opposite of the dynamic that the umbrella organization had feared. TruThursday’s “black church” remained intact. Far from effacing the minority, a racially diverse PFA was evolving to integrate the very traditions CU feared it would eliminate.
From the students’ perspective, the integration had been a success. So when, earlier this winter, two CU executives—Matt Bennett and Dan Knapke—proposed that the group split, students were shocked and confused. “We were all like, ‘this doesn’t make sense, we’re happy together, so why?’” Takim told me. They did not hesitate to voice their opposition. Upon hearing CU’s plans, Marie sent a survey to gauge the congregation’s sentiments, and was struck by the level of concern students expressed. Of the 150 responses she received, only four students were not adamantly opposed to a split. Moreover, nearly every student had taken the time to justify his or her position in writing. “People wrote essays,” she said. “Like two pages in this little comments box. It was huge. It was obvious.”
Yet the greatest shock to the community came several days later, when students received an email from Adhikari explaining that he had been dismissed by Christian Union and would no longer be serving as their director. The reason, it was soon revealed, had to do with his unwillingness to comply with the organization’s demand to return PFA to the divided ministry that it had been prior to his arrival. “Segregation was not something that he could get behind and have a clear conscience,” Takim explained. “So he refused to do what they asked him to do. And when you refuse to do what your superiors ask you to do, of course you get fired.”
The abrupt dismissal of their leader prompted the students to take a stand against Christian Union’s decision. Over the next few days, Marie worked with the other student executives to draft a petition that called not only for permission to remain unified, but also for increased transparency between Princeton students and the national organization. The petition, which amassed over 170 student signatures, was ultimately a success. Shortly after they sent off the document, Marie and the other execs received an email from Bennett, promising that no structural changes would take place in the organization without the approval of students. The email was quickly forwarded to the rest of the PFA listserv, and many students took Christian Union’s receptiveness as a sign that their battle had been won. “Reason prevailed, and it feels really good,” Takim reflected.
Marie, however, was not quite ready to celebrate. “The original language we got seemed very ambiguous,” she told me. Though Bennett promised no split would take place without students’ consent, she feared that executives might still pressure students into accepting a segregated environment after the current executives have graduated. She believes that Christian Union had accepted the initial proposal to integrate under pressure from students, but had always planned to reinstate the segregated model after the students who had pushed for integration had graduated. “Recently, I’ve heard from staff that, ‘oh, we never intended this to be a permanent thing, we were going to revisit the issue,’” she said. Three years after the two groups were united, all of the student executives involved in the original decision had graduated, and the time—Marie feels—seemed apt to return to what Christian Union had always believed to be the “right model” for their ministry.
In light of the summer’s events, however, other students wondered about the timing of the Christian Union’s decision. It was difficult to ignore the fact that Christian Union’s decision came on the heels of one of the most racially charged events in recent history, and many questioned if this was more than mere coincidence. When I asked Takim if he saw any correlation between Ferguson and Christian Union’s proposal to segregate, he told me that the possibility had crossed his mind. “A lot of us have been wondering that,” he said, “because the timing lines up. It doesn’t seem like it could actually be related at all, but at the same time, it seems like too much of a coincidence to dismiss.” Mariana likewise acknowledged that the timing of the decision was eerie. Stressing that she hopes this is not the case, she proposed Bennett might feel “blacks are angry at whites,” and be more reluctant to worship in an integrated community. If that’s the case, she said, Bennett has totally misread the black community’s activism. “We’re not angry at whites,” she told me. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about wanting equality.”
Though Mariana says she will give Bennett the “benefit of the doubt” and assume the decision’s timing is a coincidence, she is nevertheless skeptical about the organization’s motives for segregating the ministry. “I think this is more of a business move,” she told me, “and it’s hard for me to reconcile that.” She explained that she believes Bennett was “afraid” that, if Christian Union did not provide an all-black worship group, black students who felt uncomfortable worshipping in an integrated setting would launch their own ministry— and that this new group would then siphon black students from PFA.
Mariana’s theory is not unreasonable, especially given the lack of communication between students and CU executives—a dynamic that made it difficult for students to believe the organization genuinely had their best interest at heart. While Christian Union’s literature emphasizes that its ministries are “student run, staff resourced,” no students were consulted about the decision to segregate. When Marie first heard about the possibility of a split last spring, she immediately reached out to Adhikari to ask if there was anything she could do to sway Christian Union’s decision. The national organization, however, was uninterested in students’ input. “He [Adhikari] said, ‘honestly, management just wants to handle this; you don’t have a voice yet,’” she remembers.
For black students, however, this lack of transparency was particularly concerning. Unlike PFA, the executive board of Christian Union is almost entirely white, and many students were disturbed that such a racially charged decision had been made, without their say, by leaders who did not share their racial and cultural identity. “There was no student input; this was a completely top-down decision,” Mariana told me. “[Bennett] also didn’t ask for our opinion, and so it kind of felt like he didn’t care, like this was just what he thought.”
In the weeks to come, Marie says she will continue to work with Bennett to improve transparency between Christian Union and PFA. “From a structural standpoint, we’re making progress,” she said. She has persuaded Bennett to commit to “staying out of the conversation,” regarding dividing the ministry, and has heard from students at a number of other Universities who are taking similar initiative. Though she and the other executives have been successful, thus far, in keeping the ministry unified, she nevertheless feels that the next few months will be a healing process. “There’s just a lot of broken trust,” she told me. And though Adhikari’s vision—an integrated ministry—will remain intact, PFA has still lost one of its most influential leaders. This has been a major point of controversy since the petition was accepted. “There are a lot of questions like, if you were wrong, and you’re not bringing this [segregation] back, then why is he still fired?” Marie said.
Though moving on without Adhikari will be a challenge, Marie is optimistic for the future of PFA, saying, “PFA is stronger now than it’s ever been, in many ways.” By standing together against their parent organization, students came to realize how much they have come to value the diverse community they now share. What Christian Union didn’t realize, she told me, was that “students of every race, ethnicity, culture, background have become convinced that this is the best way to do it— to have a black cultural expression of Christianity here, but not have it be a separate name, a separate branding, a ‘you aren’t us.’”
The integration has not been perfect. In fighting to remain unified, students have also had to acknowledge up-front the racial divisions that continue to exist both within and outside of the ministry. Though the community at Encounter is becoming increasingly diverse, Takim noted that the social groups within PFA still tend to form around racial lines. Moreover, when I asked Mariana if any black students had, as Christian Union feared, been alienated by the merge, she responded that some had. “I think there’s a good chunk of them,” she said. “I just don’t think that condones dis-integrating the ministry.” She continued on to note that should these students opt to form their own group, outside of Christian Union, that was their prerogative. Yet for such segregation to be systematically imposed by a predominantly white, largely out of touch board of executives was not only inappropriate but also offensive. “The whole reason there’s a black church is because during slavery, they gave blacks Christianity but told them to worship in their own church, while whites worshipped in a different church,” Mariana explained. “And it kind of carried into now, and we have our own reasons to justify it now, but that’s where it started.”
Before leaving his students, Adhikari attended one final Encounter. In his parting address to the ministry, he said he had nothing bad to say about Christian Union—he had simply done what he believed was right, and others had supported him in it. Mariana led the worship. “I was able to look into the crowd, and I asked people to link arms,” she said. “And every type of color was there—I’ve never seen that before, because where I grew up it was only just black people or white people and I’ve never seen them worshipping together. And the music was different—it wasn’t like choirs, and it wasn’t like Hillsong, it was like an interesting mix in between and it really forced you to listen to what it’s saying.” Marie described the service as one of “the most powerful experiences” she has had at Princeton. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “People are really gathering together to pray together, so good things are absolutely happening. But there’s still a lot of hurt.”