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Campus climate frames university’s inclusion and diversity

Larry Burnley challenges faculty, administration, staff and students to live into Whitworth University’s mission to incorporate diversity, inclusion and intercultural relations as part of its comprehensive higher-education program.

Larry Burnley

Larry Burnley expands diversity
on Whitworth University campus.

“Engaging difference requires the presence of difference,” he said of his effort to recruit and retain students and faculty of color.  In January 2010, he joined the faculty as assistant professor of history and assistant vice president for intercultural relations,

To create a welcoming campus environment, he is asking about practices and assumptions to understand how people of color, women and ethnic groups experience the climate on campus.

What opportunities are there to engage across differences?  Will the experience prepare students to live and work in a diverse world?” he asks.

Larry finds that many white students have had limited encounters with blacks, Native Americans or Hispanics, he said.  Media often shape their concerns, fears, understandings and stereotypes.

“Those attitudes affect how people engage or don’t engage.  We cannot easily address difference in a homogeneous environment,” Larry said.  “We need diverse racial and ethnic composition on campus.  We need curriculum and all aspects of our institutional life to reflect our mission.”

Every other year Whitworth’s Jan term includes an experience of racism and prejudice across America for about 20 students.  Study abroad for semester- or year-long immersion in other cultures may invite students to think critically about U.S. issues of race, gender and difference, he said.

While such efforts give attention to inclusion and justice, Larry’s presence comes from the administration’s commitment to develop an overall plan.

He also wants students to know how history—and how it’s often interpreted—created the present climate and ideas of difference.  He seeks to help them see how these influences affect their lives and connect with the Gospel, so they learn to live in justice and equality during and after college.

His guidance grows from his own journey in both conservative and progressive churches and institutions.  He sees Whitworth as embracing the right and the left.

“Too often progressive churches think conservative churches don’t have a clue, and conservative churches think progressive churches fall short.  Both have value, both fall short and both bring something,” he said, calling for conversations among Christians to embody and demonstrate reconciliation.

Since earning a master of divinity at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, he has sought to relate racial and ethnic organizations, groups and people to bring about reconciliation.  His road to seminary reflects his discovery of the need for racial and ethnic reconciliation.

Baptized in an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in his hometown, Cleveland, and now attending Bethel AME Church in Spokane, he spent most of his life in the United Methodist Church.

During studies in Afro-American culture and history at the University of Cincinnati, he found history could be interpreted from more cultural and racial perspectives than white male. Learning some churches condoned enslaving African Americans, he left the church, but “did not leave God.”

For a while, Larry associated exclusively with black communities, but found God showing him that avoiding others was not what God has in mind for his life.

God desires reconciled and diverse communities,” he said, valuing that there is a place for people of similar ethnic backgrounds to gather and share common experiences.

His insight came one day when he returned to Cincinnati by bus.  Larry was next in line for a taxi.  Three white men were also there.  When the taxi stopped and he opened the door to climb in, an older man told him to get out and let the white students in.  One of the young men said, however, “If he’s not going, we’re not going.”

“It rocked my world.  They stood with me.  I had placed white people in one box and God challenged me to rethink my conclusion,” Larry said.

In 1979, he became a probation officer and then served 18 months in the Air Force.

His faith journey led him to read holy books of Islam, Yoruba (a Nigerian indigenous religion) and Hinduism, attending services and seeing people engaged in the faiths and experiencing God’s presence.  Then, on a bus from San Antonio, Tex., to Keesler AFB in Mississippi, he began reading Proverbs and the Gospels.

“I saw principles of other faiths in Christianity—monotheism, justice, righteousness, fairness, cleanliness, love and emphasis on community over individualism,” said Larry, who then felt empowered to ask questions about Christian faith, rather than think he had to believe “imposed interpretations.”

I was transformed and saw God’s incredible love as Christ challenged his community’s assumptions about powerful people,” Larry said.  “I saw his radical inclusion of those who were excluded.”

He became involved at the Air Force chapel, and, in Japan, with a Pentecostal community near the base.  “On fire for Jesus,” he felt a call to ministry, but resisted it. 

In 1983, he resumed work in Cleveland as a probation officer, but found “God had other things in mind for me,” as he became involved in Fifth Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and submitted to his call to ministry.  

He started night school at Ashland Theological Seminary in Cleveland, and then studied at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind., from 1986 to 1990.  While there, he was student associate and youth minister at two Disciples churches—one white and the other black—that shared a building.

Seminary studies on African-American history and African influence on the early church led him to doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn).  He worked two years in campus ministry and two directing an intercultural center at Penn.

After six years in Philadelphia, he became executive for racial and ethnic relations with the cooperative Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ in Cleveland from 1996 to 2005.  Taking young people from different racial and ethnic groups around the world for mission immersion experiences, he experienced diversity in the body of Christ and beyond.

“Through telling stories, we learned how much we have in common, how we misinterpret others and how others see us,” Larry said.

While finishing his dissertation, he moved to Grantham, Pa., as associate dean and advisor on multicultural affairs at Messiah College, a Brethren Christian college.  His dissertation on the role of African Americans in founding Disciples of Christ schools is a book, The Cost of Unity:  African American Agency and Education in the Christian Church, 1865 to 1914.

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