Ministry with Blacks in Higher Education (MBHE)
By Jim Wilson
I became the campus minister at Northeast Louisiana State University in the fall of 1969. The university was located in Monroe, on the edge of the Mississippi River delta, and had integrated only a year or two before my arrival. Fewer than 500 of its 7500 students were black, and most were the first in their families to attend college. The only black employees of the university were in food service, custodial or maintenance work; there were none in faculty, administrative or secretarial positions.
The Wesley Foundation had integrated before the school, thanks to the prophetic insight of the former campus minister, Roy Nash. Our ministry included Sunday morning worship. We were the only worshipping community in walking distance from the dorms that welcomed people of all races and nationalities. The service was well attended.
Life in the delta was very harsh for people of color. Blacks greatly outnumbered whites, but most blacks were farmhands for rich planters, receiving low pay and often rude treatment. I noticed the black students usually did not look me in the eye when they shook my hand as they were leaving. I soon learned to hold on to their hand until they raised their heads.
A black student, Noah Riley, came to our chapel every day playing gospel music on our piano. We talked quite a lot about how to make a difference in the lives of black students and help them raise their self-esteem. Noah had a brainstorm and suggested we begin a gospel choir. Soon the Northeast Louisiana State University Interdenominational Ensemble was formed. We were its home and provided a practice facility. I was privileged to hear gospel music at its finest! The choir sang on campus, primarily giving the concerts at the Campus Ministry house. Before long, the Ensemble became a great choir!
In the early 80’s, I received an invitation to come to the MBHE (Ministry to Blacks in Higher Education) gathering to be held in Jacksonville, Florida. I asked if they would like our Ensemble to sing. They said “Yes!” Our Campus Ministry and a local church had purchased an old school bus, and “old” is the operative word. We took off for Florida, but had lots of mechanical troubles. After patching the bus together about five times, we made it to Jacksonville with only fifteen minutes to spare. Harold Bell and Richard Hicks were waiting anxiously and rushed us into the conference. The students went in to sing without having an opportunity to change clothes. They held their heads high and brought the house down!
The students grew during their time together at the conference, because they were respected for their talents. It was a great experience, and these students basked in the warmth of the total acceptance.
On the way home, we stopped in Pensacola overnight. Just as we were pulling up at the church we had arranged as our hostel, the bus broke again. Sunday morning we fixed it and proceeded on toward Monroe, but it died again in Mobile. Several churches in Monroe brought vans and rescued the students. I got the bus fixed the next day and made it into Monroe that night.
Despite the problems, there were no complaints from this group of students. Honoring their gift for gospel music enabled them to survive in the university, which was in many ways a hostile environment. My understanding is that the Ensemble is still in existence, though it is now offered for class credit at the university.
I recently received this from a former student, now a pastor, and it describes one of the special fruits of campus ministry:
I hope this finds you doing well. I haven’t seen you in a number of years, so let me briefly bring you up to speed on my life. After spending 13 years in youth ministry, I stepped into the pulpit almost 14 years ago at the behest of my then regional minister. I served as pastor of Broadmoor Christian Church in Shreveport for 8 years while also working as a licensed professional counselor with the Youth Challenge Program. Just over 5 years ago, I made the move to Hot Springs, AR and have been serving as pastor of First Christian Church. I was ordained in the Disciples of Christ church 4 years ago on the alternative track to ordained ministry – but recognized my need to continue theological education. Two years ago, I enrolled in a program with Lexington Theological and am currently enrolled in my last two classes. Evangelism and Outreach and Leadership in the Black Church Tradition.
In my evangelism class, we were asked to define evangelism on a discussion board in 400 words or less. The following is what I wrote;
According to page 337 of “Christianity for Dummies” the definition of evangelism is defined simply as “sharing with others the gospel of Jesus Christ.” However, I believe the more important and more interesting question is not what is evangelism, but rather how do we evangelize effectively?
I know from my own life experiences (as someone who wasn’t raised in the church) that the most effective evangelistic effort toward me has simply been by example. I’ve been blessed with several great mentors in the faith in my life, but the one who comes to mind most often is my former campus minister – Jim Wilson. I grew up having the same stereotypical ideas about ministers as lots of other people. To me a minister was someone who had a lot in common with used car salesmen. Ministers were people with slicked back hair, cheap suits, people who yelled a lot, had great enthusiasm, and were always glad to see you – as long as money was potentially going to change hands. Ministers in my mind were judgmental people who exaggerated the last syllable of each sentence and tried to intimidate others with a “get right (with the Lord) or get left (behind)” attitude.
Jim was nothing like what I had imagined. For two years, I served as the resident house manager at the campus ministry when I was in college, so I got to know Jim on a personal level. Jim was knowledgeable about scripture and faith but challenged students to ask questions and to think beyond the text and the rituals. I got to know Jim as a minister and as a human being. He shared spiritual insights and thought provoking experiences as well as off-color jokes, and even a darker side of his personality. I saw him get angry, I saw him sad. I was nearby when his marriage dissolved and when he began a new relationship. Jim Wilson is far from perfect, but he was relatable, he was authentic, and he honored me by sharing (or at least not hiding) his personal struggles in the midst of his faith.
I knew that I could never be a stuffed shirt pounding on a pulpit yelling about fire and brimstone. But after getting to know Jim, I realized that I didn’t have to fulfill the stereotype in order to effectively “share with others the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
My daughter graduates from college in May, so she is now older than I was when I first met you. You are indeed one of the first people who comes to mind when I think about my faith journey – I just thought it was high time that I told you so. Take care and God Bless.
In Love and Respect,