Seen Not Heard: Black students carve out space in Cru, fight for autonomy within the ministry

Cassidy Jackson, Reporter

CASSIDY JACKSON: In December 2018, Weinberg junior Nadia Hundley flew to Atlanta for the Impact National Conference. Impact is an organization dedicated to service and work in cooperation with the African American church. Every year, it hosts programming for its members, and Nadia had plans to attend. On the day of her flight, the weather was bad. Her flight got cancelled. And when Nadia finally arrived at the venue, her worst fear came true: her conference ticket was not paid for.  

NADIA HUNDLEY: The entire time leading up to this moment, I was super nervous that they were going to be like, “You have a balance,” and lo and behold, I get there and I had a balance. What if I didn’t have money to pay for the conference? What if I didn’t have the money? What if my parents didn’t have that money and I was truly, truly reliant on this scholarship? No one should be put in a position like that. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Nadia thought she received a scholarship from Cru, an interdenominational Christian organization with a chapter at Northwestern, that was supposed to pay for her ticket. But when she got to the conference, she had a $200 balance. To Nadia, it wasn’t a simple mistake. Months earlier, she had spoken up against Cru, and to her, this was punishment. 

NADIA HUNDLEY: It kind of felt like I was hated by Cru staff.

CASSIDY JACKSON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Cassidy Jackson, and you’re listening to part one of the Seen Not Heard series. For the past three years, Impact had been a subsidiary of Cru at Northwestern. But on a national level, the two groups work in partnership with one another. Unlike Impact, whose members are black, Cru’s members are mostly white. After growing tensions, those ties ended this past summer when the two chapters parted ways on Northwestern’s campus. Nadia’s story is one of many that shows how tensions between Impact and Cru at Northwestern grew up to their eventual split. Over the following months, meetings between members of the groups would go awry, students would feel manipulated by full-time staff members, and communication would go from strained to nearly nonexistent. Before we get into the split, I should mention that I was a member of Cru on and off during 2018. I witnessed the tensions within Cru firsthand and still have personal connections with some students in the organizations. When you attend a Cru event at Northwestern, most of the students there are white. Out of all the religious organizations on Northwestern’s campus, it has the largest full-time staff — 12 people, all white. But Cru’s bigger than Northwestern. It’s a national organization founded in 1951 by Bill Bright. When he was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, Bill received a “calling from God” to spread the Gospel. Originally named “Campus Crusade for Christ,” Cru started out on UCLA’s campus and now operates on over 5,000 campuses worldwide. Sarabi Woods joined Cru her freshman year in 2014. When Sarabi attended Cru’s weekly service, Real Life, for the first time, she was disillusioned and shocked by Cru’s lack of racial diversity.

SARABI WOODS: I just felt like huddling toward the back because I felt so thrown off. I was just like, “Oh, I thought y’all were more diverse. Y’all had people of color coming to meet with me.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Early freshman year, Sarabi was meeting regularly with two students of color in Cru. Those meetings created an unrealistic expectation for Cru’s diversity and cultural awareness. At Sarabi’s first Real Life meeting, the bubble burst. 

SARABI WOODS: They had one of the black girls and one of Asian girls come and meet with me. But then when I got to their large group meetings like Real Life, I’m just like, “Yeah, there’s no one really in here who looks like me.” I remember afterwards, I wanted to meet with some of the white students, but it’s just like they seemed uncomfortable talking to me, really getting to know me, and that just kind of continued carrying over the rest of the school year, kind of feeling really unknown, but just being this black girl who comes to things, but no one is really getting to know her.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Throughout her freshman and sophomore year, Sarabi felt isolated from the larger Cru community and clung to the three other black students in the organization: Jah, Sedoo and Zoe. But Sarabi wanted more for Cru. She wanted to build a strong, black community. At a Real Life meeting her sophomore year, she found a way to do it. 

SARABI WOODS: Sophomore year, we had a guest speaker come in. His name is Jermayne Chapman. He came in and he was talking about racial reconciliation and the church. So then, afterwards, it’s like, “Oh, man, this is a black man involved with Cru. Let’s go meet with him.” So then we were talking to him, and he had mentioned how 10 years before, there was an Impact chapter here at Northwestern, how they were flourishing, how they had a partnership with Cru. I turned to my friends, like, “Yo, let’s do this. Like, let’s make this happen.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Fall quarter of 2016 was planning season. Sarabi and the three other black students in Cru developed Impact’s structure, gauged student interest and met with Cru staff to iron out the details. By the following quarter, Impact was up and running. Weinberg senior and current Impact leader Cameryn Farrow met Sarabi and the other black students in Cru her freshman year at an All-Campus Worship event. 

CAMERYN FARROW: So, I didn’t leave right away when it was over and I was kind of just lingering and I was kind of slowly packing up my stuff. And so I remember Sedoo was walking down the aisle. And she saw me, and she kind of waved at me and came up to me. And I was like, “I just got here. I don’t know.” That’s when she introduced me to Sarabi and Jah. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: After leaving the worship event, the group went to Burger King, where they sat and talked for hours. Cameryn didn’t know it then, but she found her people. 

CAMERYN FARROW: In hindsight, I can see just how, how crazy God had it work out. I was going there because I wanted to be intentional about finding community and my walk with God, but that doesn’t mean I actually expected to find community, and so I don’t think I realized how significant these people were going to be in my life.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Cameryn joined Impact during its first quarter on campus and watched the community grow. 

CAMERYN FARROW: We had free reign for Bible study topics, which we loved. And going into my sophomore year, we had a little more hands-on assistance from Cru, but it was still mostly like, “Okay, y’all have this event coming up. Do y’all need anything?”

CASSIDY JACKSON: It took time to build a community in Impact, but one night at Bible Study, Sarabi saw bonds cement among the first-years including Demi Oluyemi. 

SARABI WOODS: The girls that came in kind of late, they were just so emotional about school because freshman year at Northwestern — it sucks. So I just remember Demi was complaining about her feet and next thing I know, she’s getting so emotional and crying. I’m just like, you know, “I love you. You’re my baby now. I gotta take care of you.” I just told her to take off her shoes, and I just started giving her a foot massage right then and there. I was like, “Bump Bible study! This is my baby! I care about my baby!” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: After that, Sarabi took on a motherly role in Impact, and Cru’s black population grew under her leadership. In Sarabi’s freshman year, only three other black students were involved in Cru. When she graduated in 2018, there were 20. Asian and Latinx students were inspired by Impact’s ability to reach students of color and decided to form their own chapters in Cru with Epic Movement and Destino. Over time, as more students of color plugged into Cru’s ethnic ministries, many stopped attending Real Life altogether. Epic leader Kathryne Tao saw this firsthand. 

KATHRYNE TAO: I think it’s hard when we all come together because baseline, there’s like so many more white people compared to people who show up from Epic or Destino or previously Impact, and so that is a perpetual — I don’t know if “problem” is the right word but a thing that we face. How do we get people to come to Epic but also to come to Real Life?

CASSIDY JACKSON: Kathryne feels like she fits into Real Life’s majority white space, because she attended predominantly white schools all her life. But she knows that’s not everyone’s reality. Rachel Kim, a staff member at another on-campus Christian organization called InterVarsity, said that’s why ministries like Impact are important. They’re called contextualized ministries, and their goal is to carve out spaces for marginalized groups in religious organizations.

RACHEL KIM: So if you are trying to reach a certain group of students, there might not be a certain group of people that shows up, whether that be like, “Oh, I’m only seeing men on leadership. So as a woman, I don’t know if I feel welcomed in this space.” Or, “I’m not an engineering major. So I feel like I can’t be a part of this.” If you really care about reaching people that you want to reach, and you’re recognizing that you’re not able to get everyone, maybe having a safer space where they would feel like they’re important and their presence is valuable and their being is valuable, like maybe that’s a way that you could honor them and recognize the gaps or the shortcomings of what you are trying to accomplish.

CASSIDY JACKSON: The value of contextualized ministries is exemplified in Cru’s current demographics. After Impact, Epic and Destino emerged, the number of students of color in Cru skyrocketed. Rachel said that too often, students haven’t thought deeply about the role race plays in their identity, life and society. She said race needs to be a constant subject of conversation in religious spaces in order for students to feel equipped to discuss race-related issues. Ethnic-focused ministries give students the opportunity to do that. 

RACHEL KIM: Let’s say you end up at a multi-ethnic church. You’re not going to thrive there if you have not done the work of understanding like, “Wow, the way I worship as a Korean woman is unique and beautiful in these ways because that is being made in God’s image. The way that my black brother over here is preaching and worshiping is beautiful and unique to the way that God has made him.” And so it’s not helpful if you’re in a multi-ethnic space and they don’t know how to talk about culture or embracing each other’s different backgrounds and seeing the commonalities in that, and the beauty in that as well — as well as the brokenness because brokenness is real. But if you’re not able to do your own work, you’re not gonna be able to see that in another person. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: So, back to Cru. It’s 2018, Nadia’s reaching the end of her freshman year and Cru’s Northwestern chapter is continuing to grow along with its affiliated groups. But behind the scenes, Cru’s staff was resistant to change. Nadia scheduled a meeting with Kim Johnson, a Cru director, to offer her perspective on Cru’s evangelism tactics. She felt like the staff primarily pursued first-years and failed to connect with upperclassmen.

NADIA HUNDLEY: I brought up some concerns about how more attention should be on people who are sophomores, juniors, seniors. In my meeting with Kim, she was essentially trying to explain why they did what they did. And in theory, parts of it made sense. I mean, I’m not expecting this to be an easy task. It’s hard sometimes to walk with God and bring others in because sometimes you just don’t feel like doing that. Despite me being like, “We can do this. We can blah, blah, blah, blah” She asked me like five times in this conversation, “Why are you here? Cru’s not for everyone. You don’t have to be here,” and I’m like, “I know. I’m only here because I care.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Cameryn thinks Cru should be student-run, but in reality, staff makes the decisions. 

CAMERYN FARROW: The students are more just like the arms and the legs. It’s not as much our ideas. Or the ideas that we have are controlled, not because what we’re doing isn’t a good idea, but it’s just not the way that they think ministry should be done. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: After that meeting with Kim, Nadia’s trust in Cru staff was broken, and she questioned whether they truly cared about their students.

NADIA HUNDLEY: I could see the potential Cru had, and I think, in theory, what they’re working towards is amazing. But it was just disheartening that no one wanted to actually take the steps needed to reach that. And I just felt like I was being slapped in the face. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: This brings us back to Nadia’s trip to Impact Conference winter break of 2018. According to Nadia, Kim said she would provide scholarships for her, Cameryn and Imani Minor, another Impact leader. Then she got to the event, and it was a completely different story. 

NADIA HUNDLEY: The breaking point for me was actually at Impact Conference because I was under the guise that Kim was going to pay for it, flew to Atlanta, and Cameryn checks in, cool. Imani checks in, cool. I check in, and I had a balance. Imani finally was able to call Kim. Kim was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never said that I was going to pay for her. I didn’t even know she was going.” And I was like, “What?”

CASSIDY JACKSON: Kim Johnson never responded to multiple requests for comment. All 11 other staff members were contacted. One of them replied and said they are “not allowed to do interviews as a Cru staff person.” In the end, Nadia didn’t have to pay for the conference. She still doesn’t know who paid for her ticket. But that was the end of her time in Cru. Nadia called her mom during the conference, and she told her it was time to leave Cru behind. After she left, Nadia struggled to forgive. 

NADIA HUNDLEY: I was like, “God, I literally can’t do this, because every time I see these people, I’m triggered all over again.” I just started doing intentional Bible studies on forgiveness and how to get through hard times. I was daily on it, and I was listening to worship music, like sad worship music, all the time. I was just like, “I can’t do this.” It was just beyond me, and I was so helpless that I was like, “God, I need you to get me through it.”

CASSIDY JACKSON: Nadia’s story foreshadows the rift that would develop between Impact and Cru staff two quarters later. Even before the conference, in fall 2018, Cru staff had been rejecting Impact students’ programming ideas and Bible study topics. Imani and Cameryn also had grown frustrated with Cru staff’s control over student leadership. Still, during the fall, they agreed to let Cru staff member Emily Gerst attend Impact’s Bible study. 

IMANI MINOR: We wanted her to come to some, because she was meeting with our freshmen and such. So we wanted her to come to some but not all of them, because we also wanted to have this all-black space at times. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: This is Imani Minor.

IMANI MINOR: And at the end of a meeting, we decided that, “Okay, you can come to this one slash you can come, I think we might have said, six weeks, but then we’ll discuss this again at the end of the quarter, or at the end of the six weeks.” But then Winter Quarter comes, we didn’t have that reevaluation meeting, and every time we would try to bring it up, it was like, “Oh, let’s do these things that are on my agenda for this meeting.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: For Cameryn, this is when tensions started to rise.

CAMERYN FARROW: Having a white staff person in Impact’s space makes it less welcoming, less acceptable, less comfortable for the black students that we’re claiming we want to serve. What ends up happening is you are implicitly controlling the types of black people that are going to come to these spaces and stay. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Despite Emily’s presence and the resulting change in atmosphere, Communication junior Femi Olaniyi stayed in Impact. 

FEMI OLANIYI: I think having a staff member that worked behind the scenes is different from coming in and stationing yourself within that space. Just coming on a regular basis did not feel really like help for anything. It felt more like surveillance. And so I was pretty much like, “I’m not gonna change me.” I’m supposed to be in a safe space for myself. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: After Cameryn and Imani brought up the topic a few times, Emily stopped attending every Impact Bible Study. But the issue didn’t disappear. The way Imani saw it, Emily started acting in manipulative ways. Emily declined multiple requests for comment. 

IMANI MINOR: She also would get snacks for the event. We were like, “Yeah, can we have pizza for this night?” And she was like, “Well, can I come?” And I was like, “Huh?” I literally laughed in her face, and I was like, “You don’t think that’s controlling?” She just looked and I was like, “You have to realize that’s manipulative, and, no, you still can’t come.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Cameryn and Imani realized they needed outside help, so they reached out to Anna Ruffin, an Impact staffer at Illinois State University and Western Illinois University. They coordinated a day for Anna to visit, and Imani said Emily tried to stop the meeting. 

IMANI MINOR: Our staff person tells her no, she doesn’t think this is the best time for her to come after me and Cameryn already told her, told Anna, “Yes, you can come. We want to have this connection.” There was some back and forth there. And so then essentially, finally, Anna, she came anyway. But then when she came, just seeing that whole dynamic was just really interesting because it was like, why do we have to fight to get this person who’s also supporting us just to talk with her?” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Imani and Cameryn also connected with Impact Movement’s national president Jimmy McGee. Speaking with Anna and Jimmy reassured Imani that people were in their corner. Even though she didn’t see tangible changes after talking to Anna and Jimmy, she still felt they supported her.

IMANI MINOR: After Jimmy and Anna came, just wanting to cry. And I’m not a crier, so like really just wanting to cry just because I’m like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve been going through all of this mess, basically. But now I’m really, really feeling supported and I actually feel like they completely have my back. And they’re going to put Impact’s interest above Cru’s.” Whereas with Cru staff, I never felt at the end of the day, when push came to shove, they would actually fight for Impact.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Come spring of 2019, Cameryn and Imani mobilized. They organized frequent meetings with Emily and Kim in hopes of forming a more equal relationship with Cru. They wanted the authority to choose Impact’s leaders, serve the black community the way they saw fit and decide Emily’s presence at future Bible Studies. Some of the conversations were successful.  

CAMERYN FARROW: I know I probably felt hopeful when we were explaining the fact that, at that point, the way that Impact was being used by Cru was to bring black faces into the white spaces, not to actually foster a community for black students. And so, we talked about the fact that we think that black students shouldn’t be implicitly forced to go to Real Life and to go to events they would have. We were given a lot more freedom to not attend Cru things as much. It’s kind of like, “Okay, well they’re understanding or if not understanding at least validating our experiences, validating our truth by allowing us to prioritize what we think should be prioritized.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: But most of the meetings ended where they began. Cameryn left most of those conversations…

CAMERYN FARROW: Frustrated, majority of the time frustrated because for the most part, stuff wasn’t changing, and a lot of the times, we couldn’t get to the point. Our conversations had to end after all we got to do was talk about our issues, because one honestly enough time wasn’t being scheduled for each meeting. You can’t just meet for an hour and expect for stuff to get ironed out. But also, like I said, a lot of times this was us having to reiterate stuff, having to explain our experiences. It was a lot of them asking questions like, “What do you mean? Can you give examples?” So we rarely ever got to the point where we could actually be like, “Okay, so what are the practical next steps?” We never really got to that point because it seemed like every meeting we were starting over. There was at least one time where I literally was like, “At the end of the day, I can’t tell if we’re at a point where we just don’t understand or we just genuinely disagree.” And I don’t know where to go from here if it’s a matter of us genuinely disagreeing.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Although Imani and Cameryn struggled to see progress in their conversations with Kim and Emily, Cameryn never wanted to separate from Cru. 

CAMERYN FARROW: I never advocated for separating from Cru. I felt passionate about reaching the black community. I felt passionate about combating cultural Christianity. I knew that we also, however subtly, were making a difference in Cru. And even if it wasn’t legit differences, we were at least not being silenced anymore. There’s something to be said about expressing your grievances and being able to keep people accountable and call people out, even if nothing technically changes the environment has shifted in a way that we are taking up space.

CASSIDY JACKSON: As spring 2019 came to a close, Impact’s relationship with Cru was up in the air. And Imani and Cameryn’s leadership positions were in question too. They both said Kim wanted to set up a meeting to discuss their fitness for leadership.

CAMERYN FARROW: We reached out to her and were kind of like, “Are you gonna make this happen?” And she’s like, “Oh, yeah, because it’s really important for me to meet with y’all.” And then never did schedule a meeting. Nothing was set in stone. The only thing that was accomplished was the fact that we explicitly talked about how can we benefit each other mutually in more of a partnership role. 

IMANI MINOR: My understanding is essentially Kim did not want me and Cameryn to be leaders anymore.

CASSIDY JACKSON: This is Imani again. 

IMANI MINOR: Because me and Cameryn especially last year spoke out a lot against Cru and a lot against their agenda and such. Cru essentially likes a lot of minions slash yes men. They kind of equate that to being “not teachable.” We weren’t necessarily teachable because of that.

CASSIDY JACKSON: On Cru National’s website, the acronym FAT — faithful, available and teachable — is an acronym used to determine what makes a good discipler. Students in Impact and Cru said these principles also guide how Cru staff select student leaders. To Nadia, Cru has its own definition of “teachable.”

NADIA HUDLEY: Teachable in the sense that you will do whatever you’re told. You know, you’ll follow everything they say without, “Mm, why is that?” Or, “Well, we could probably go about this a different way or a better way because it’s not really working here.” 

CASSIDY JACKSON: Nadia was critical and in turn felt ostracized by Cru staff. Cameryn and Imani spoke out, and their place in leadership was questioned. Over the summer, the situation escalated for Imani and Cameryn.   

CAMERYN FARROW: One or two messages were sent from the other Impact leader to the Cru staff person and the campus director throughout the summer about like, “What’s the word?”

CASSIDY JACKSON: Imani sent a long email to Kim that summer. It said:

IMANI MINOR: Clearly, this year has been rather rough in terms of communication and trust with good reason. However, after our lovely and lengthy meetings, it seems that there will continue to be cyclical stagnation in terms of communication, which will thus impede on our attempts at trust. Now, just so it is clear that is not “the devil within me” or “my vain imaginations playing tricks on me,” quoted by Kim Johnson meeting on Tuesday, May 28, I’ll provide you with two examples that demonstrate a perpetuation of neglect and stagnation. 

CASSIDY JACKSON: The email goes on to detail Kim’s failure to set up a final meeting with Imani and Cameryn as well as Emily’s lack of transparency on who Cru chose for 2019-2020 Impact leaders. It continues:

IMANI MINOR: In all honesty, Kim, Cameryn and I should be meeting with you to judge your competency to interact in any capacity with the Impact Movement and its leaders, not the other way around. Going forward, I would like to pursue a healthy partnership with Cru. But if this is not feasible, then I simply refuse to continue sacrificing my peace to deal with what looks like a pointless spell of stagnation. So this summer, I ask that you please think about how you all would like to continue with Impact at Northwestern. I also ask that you all look within your own hearts and pray for areas where the intentions of your heart have been deceitful. I will definitely be doing the same. If you all are going to act as stumbling blocks to these missions, please remove yourself from our path. Again, so it is clear, if you all want to help Impact in whatever capacity, I would like to maintain a working relationship with y’all. This email is made for accountability purposes and before your defense mechanisms begin to arise, please know that this email ultimately came from a place of love. Thank you kindly. Imani Minor.

CASSIDY JACKSON: Kim never responded. That same summer, Cru staff messaged students involved in both Cru and Impact. They were asked to choose between the two organizations. When Cameryn and Imani found out about this, they started putting two and two together. 

CAMERYN FARROW: We didn’t know that we were no longer being considered as Cru leaders at this time, but I guess we realized that implicitly by the fact that we weren’t being contacted about anything. I’d been removed from the Cru leader Facebook page. And we weren’t getting any emails even though the Cru Leadership Summit was coming up.

Jacob Ohara contributed throughout the planning and reporting process for the story.