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Valuing Voices: Cornerstone Places a Strategic Focus on Diversity and Inclusion

News Nov. 16, 2018

As Cornerstone University moves into the coming decade, having a clear vision for what a Christ-centered university looks like—especially in terms of its faculty, staff and students—is essential.

To craft this vision, President Joe Stowell and his cabinet engaged in an analytic process that laid the foundation for the current strategic planning process. “We spent more than a year analyzing the environment in which we fulfill our mission and our institutional history to pinpoint areas in which to focus for the next 20 to 25 years,” said Dr. John VerBerkmoes, executive vice president for academics and dean of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (GRTS).

One strategic direction is diversity and inclusion. VerBerkmoes continued, “As a Christ-centered institution, CU is called toward such wholeness, and demographic shifts in our culture demand it as well.”

President Stowell shared, “As a campus community, Cornerstone is guided and defined by the values of the kingdom of Christ. Scripture tells us that in His eternal kingdom some from every tribe and nation will be there. We count it a privilege to give the world a sneak preview of what His kingdom will ultimately look like. And, our prayer is that the outcome of our commitment to a diverse population will be to show a watching world that though different in backgrounds and cultures, we can enjoy a blessed unity under His loving authority.”

He continued, “Unity in diversity is also a key to fulfilling our mission to graduate students who will influence the cultures of our world for Christ and His Kingdom. Our graduates will live out their callings in an increasingly diverse world. Becoming cross-culturally competent in their time at Cornerstone will equip them to succeed as cultural influencers wherever God leads them.”

The Vision

The importance of diversity, according to Dr. Graham McKeague, associate dean of human services for the Professional & Graduate Studies (PGS) division and co-chair of the Diversity Committee, is established throughout Scripture. He notes that each person has value as an image bearer of God (Genesis 1:26), and we must work to honor this foundational aspect of human identity. The vision of Revelation 7 also offers an example in which every nation, tribe, people and language worship God together.

“We are all unique beings, individuals created in the image of God,” said Dr. Kendra Jackson, assistant professor of counseling at GRTS and director of the Intercultural Studies Lecture Series.

She notes that differences in our society expand beyond race and ethnicity into culture, socioeconomic status, history, experiences, thoughts, interests, spiritual and religious practices, abilities, spiritual gifts and talents. This means we all view and understand the world through a unique lens, and because of this, it’s all the more important to value other voices so we might better understand them. “If diverse voices and perspectives aren’t heard, it hinders spiritual, educational and professional growth,” said Jackson.

The need to nurture a more diverse environment is also a reflection of current demographic shifts as a whole, said VerBerkmoes. “We’re in a growing city, and so it’s important for us to be serving the growing populations within our context. As a university, we’re not only asking what it looks like to better serve our community, but also how a broader constituency could challenge us to grow. It’s about being more whole and redemptive as a people, and that unity comes from the gospel.”

Learning and Growing

Along this journey, CU recognizes there are areas in which it will need to grow in knowledge and competencies. “We have a tremendous opportunity to learn together as a community, to think in new ways and be a people who desire to be part of the solution rather than the problem. It’s an opportunity to engage our community; serve it more wholly; and be honest, challenged and transformed together,” said VerBerkmoes.

As an outgrowth of this strategic focus, CU is attending to a few key areas: new hires, continued training and programs and initiatives.

  • New and continuing programs and initiatives support the university’s focus. One long-standing program is GRTS’ Urban Cohort program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this fall.
  • Pathway, a traditional undergraduate program, is energized toward providing small group support systems, equipping students to earn an associate degree after two years while developing an individual roadmap toward completing their bachelor’s degree.
  • Training is also essential for maturing together as a community. This fall CU hosted its first in a series of all staff and faculty work days, which included a full-day workshop and book discussions (see list of additional resources for suggested readings).
  • PGS also provides faculty training via diversity and inclusion workshops each October and February and a series of lunch-and-learn workshops for staff.
  • Talking Points is a series of events hosted by GRTS that bring diverse perspectives to challenging topics. This year’s series explores themes of racial justice and unity in Scripture and culminates in a spring 2019 event addressing women in the church.
  • The Intercultural Lecture Series at GRTS offers opportunities to increase intercultural competence and provide a safe environment for engaging in meaningful discussions, according to Jackson. Held each semester and open to the public, it examines intercultural and multicultural issues through a theological and psychological lens.
  • Cornerstone University is also the hosting site for The Urban Church Leadership Center (El Centro de Liderazgo de Iglesias Urbanas), funded by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation.

A United Community of Faith

Cornerstone University’s traditional undergraduate chapel programming has intentionally sought to represent the diversity of the kingdom of God in multiple ways. Half of the speakers scheduled for the 2018-19 academic year are female and half are male, while at least half are persons of color. In addition, CU students regularly speak at chapel services/gatherings.

Programmatically, the Monday series through the book of John has brought into focus how Jesus Christ engaged the marginalized in his earthly ministry. This has caused the Cornerstone community to consider how they might respond to those who are marginalized today. The Friday series through the Psalms, preached by students, has continually called the community to consider injustices in the world and how we might respond in action and prayer as modeled by the Psalmist.

Musical style, expression and language has also been an important part of chapel programming in order for our community to learn about and celebrate diversity. “Our gatherings regularly include singing songs from faith communities around the world in their original languages, as well as songs originally written in English that have been translated into other languages,” shared Susan Burner, director of campus ministries. “These languages have included French, Hindi, Igbo, Mandarin, Spanish and Zulu. We have found this to be a rich practice for our community as we learn new languages, consider the ways that various cultures express their faith in God and unite with our brothers and sisters around the world as we bring praise to God.”

The Future

To effectively implement institutional change, VerBerkmoes said a sustained drive over the long-term is necessary. “It will require a consistent growth journey that includes change and correction and action along the way. It’s a long play, it will take time, and that’s why we’ve placed a sustained focus on our efforts.”

Looking toward the future, the hope is that CU will continue to grow in its mission and celebrate diversity as a gift, always growing and continually learning from one another’s differences.

Additional Resources

Related News

June 8, 2018

The Urban Cohort Celebrates 10 Years at GRTS

April 20, 2018

CU Group Attends MLK50 Conference

April 12, 2018

Intercultural Studies Lecture Series Features Scholarship on Inclusion, Diversity and Belonging

Jan. 18, 2018

Cornerstone Staff and Students Attend 18th Annual MLK Breakfast in Grand Rapids

Nov. 14, 2017

Cornerstone University Appoints New Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs


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