Creating Social Change by Jim Ray

I am pleased to join other Sages in remembering my 32 years in ministry in higher education [1963-1995] at the University of Illinois [Champaign-Urbana], the University of Pittsburgh, and Youngstown State University. I was appreciative to read my friend Verlyn Barker’s memoir for his historical look at how our unique ministry evolved over much of the 20th century.

Let me share some personal history, which in retrospect, helped to focus my concerns in ministry in our unique setting.  I grew up in Columbus, OH in poverty conditions, which saw our family move 13 times just in Columbus, always into poorer housing. My  dad got a degree in Business from the University of Pittsburgh in 1929, and was “a big man on campus”. Given the “Great Depression” he had no full time job for over ten years until he got a position selling life insurance in 1941.

I graduated from a Junior- Senior High School which had only a half-dozen students of color then, while today it is 99% African-American, reflecting  the “white flight” over the years since I left there. I entered Ohio State University in the fall of 1948, but my graduation was delayed by my being drafted into the Army during the Korean War. I ended up serving in the Prisoner of War Command on a tiny island off the southern coast of Korea, where our company of G.I.’s oversaw the guarding of 8000 North Korean prisoners, which was done by 1000 South Korean soldiers. Never had I been is such a diverse setting !I was there for 16 months and speak of this because I encountered some ugly American stories, and actions, which affected my fairly simple perspectives on life and ultimately saw me going into the ministry. I was able to develop some personal relationships with four of the prisoners which produced some “AHA” moments.

Returning home, and being discharged from my two years of Army service, I completed my studies at Ohio State as a speech major and then went to McCormick Seminary where I graduated in 1960. I accepted a call to be the Assistant Minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Galesburg, Illinois where I learned about congregational ministry and enjoyed my ministry with the youth groups. After two and a half years I accepted a position on the campus ministry staff at the Presbyterian McKinley Foundation and Congregation at the University of Illinois in January, 1963.

I joined a staff of four campus ministers under the direction of Dr. James Hine, who was nationally known for his work on and off campus since he came there in the late 40’s. Little did I know that the “student ministry” there was to evolve so quickly from what it was when Jim first arrived there years earlier.  I saw pictures of students standing by the hundreds outside the McKinley Church waiting to get in for the second Sunday service. The sanctuary held over 600 persons and it was packed over most of those by gone days for both services. Jim Hine was a fine preacher and drew students in.

By the time I arrived, the times had changed dramatically on campus with students having access to more programs,  having cars, and life becoming more complex for everyone. By this time there was only one service with perhaps 250-300 persons attending with the same good preaching and service that spoke to students and other university folk.

I had only been on staff at McKinley, doing “student work” for about a month when I got a phone call which was to revolutionize my life, as well as being a precursor to change on campus and the nation. A clergy friend was asking me to join him and other clergy to go to the March on Washington in August. My response was “What’s that about?” I went and my life has never been the same since. There I not only heard speakers like Dr. M. L. King but Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A Changin’.” That surely became the mantra for the Civil Rights struggle and the years leading up to the Viet Nam War.

After only six months of doing bible study and programs and helping students understand their relationship with their faith and their church in a different university context, by the fall of 1963, as Verlyn Barker wrote, “Ministry in higher education had to come to grips with a whole host of issues, including racial and gender equality, war and peace, issues related to the welfare of students and academic freedom.”

Those issues became a major focus of my ministry and I credit Jim Hine for allowing me and my staff colleague, Larry Hill, to be involved on campus, and off, in the Civil Rights struggle. Some members of the McKinley Foundation Board and the Session of the church disagreed with Jim but he stood his ground. Thus soon after the March on Washington I joined a large group of university faculty, students and staff in a protest demonstration in front of the home of the Chancellor of the University. We were there because the university was not hiring African-Americans and other persons of color in the numbers that should have been in place. I remember a time thirty years later at Youngstown State when I was chatting with an African-American staff person, and a friend of mine, who told me that out of over 1200 employees at YSU, from the President down to the lowest level employees, there were only about 50 persons of color working on campus in a city that was rapidly becoming a majority of black and Hispanic persons. In both situations, my concern, and action, was for me part of doing ministry in higher education, along with continuing traditional “student work” ministry,

At the U. of Ill I started a weekly peace vigil in the center of campus. Several Roman Catholic sisters on the staff of the Newman Center joined in that prophetic presence with other students, faculty and staff.  Several years later these “sisters” and I joined forces to create a “Coffee House Ministry” in our foundation building. Those were the days!

I spent Holy Week of 1964, with another local pastor, when we responded to a call from the National Council of Churches for clergy to go south on picket lines in the South. He and I walked a picket line in front of the County Court House in Hattiesburg, Miss. We walked in a circle from 9-5 Monday- Friday. We lived in the black community with worship services in black churches several nights where I had never heard such preaching and singing. It was life changing of me. One day we were pulled off the line to go into the courtroom where a young black lawyer from Detroit, named John Conyers, defended and won the case against a young SNCC staff member. We integrated the courtroom for the first time in memory, and the judge was outraged and cleared the courtroom.  My friend and I were so nervous that we did not attempt to visit the local Presbyterian Church which was just a block away. All of this took place just weeks before the three young SNCC workers were found buried in an earthen dam several counties away.

Later that spring in the basement of the McKinley Church I joined other campus ministers and U. of Ill persons to do training in non-violence tactics with university students who were going to be involved in civil rights work in the Mississippi Summer Project– doing tutoring, voter education and registration in local black communities in dangerous circumstances.

I spent six weeks in the summer of 1965 in southern Virginia, outside of Richmond, as I responded to a call for a campus minister to lead a group of college students to do voter registration and tutoring. We worked out of the local black Presbyterian Church in Amelia. The local Ku Klux Klan became more active in response to our presence. That program touched a lot of lives and gave hope to the black community. It also was a moving experience for the students, and I heard from several of them that fall about how much that had informed and changed them.

During that time my wife and our two young sons lived with a McCormick classmate and his wife in Richmond. He was serving as the first white pastor of a black congregation. I came in periodically to see my family as I lived with the students in the church in Amelia. That was certainly an experience for all of us.

I had three classmates from McCormick who went south back then to be white pastors of black congregations. I led a work project of U. of Ill students at one of those churches in Asheville, NC. As many of you who read this have experienced, one of our woman students on that project returned to campus and changed her major as a result of the work she did in Asheville. That challenged her perspectives and her faith caused her make this change.

During my time at McKinley Foundation the new anti-war organization, Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], held their first national conference in our Foundation building. Our staff took turns staying up until the wee hours as SDS held meetings long into the night to plan strategy for the next day  to engage people in the community about their radical perspectives on the Viet Nam War. Nothing at McCormick Seminary had prepared me for some of this, but my exposures in the Civil Rights struggle surely did. Thus I understood and agreed with much that SDS was dealing with on matters like the influence of racism and the power of the military-industrial complex on our universities and our nation. Much of that still pertains today as the power of the corporate world impacts our universities with funding that has strings attached.

In 1968 I received a Danforth Campus Ministry Grant which enabled me to return to McCormick to work on a degree that could help me move into an urban campus ministry position. I am grateful to another “sage”, Don Gibson, who wrote that by this time campus ministry had moved from “being casual to being at times confrontational.”  I had already experienced some of that during my time at McKinley. But the day after I moved up to the seminary was the day of the demonstration against the Democratic Party Convention which was meeting in Chicago. That was the day that police brutality erupted on the demonstrators in Grant Park who were tear gassed and many arrested. “Dump the Hump” was the mantra of the day. I went down to the park the next day, smelled the residue of the tear gas and participated in the concerns that were being voiced there about the Democratic policies being espoused at the Convention as the War in Viet Nam raged on.

At the end of my study year I accepted a position on the staff of University and City Ministries [UACM] in Pittsburgh to be in campus ministry at the University of Pittsburgh. UACM was a multidivisional ministry interfacing the Church with the university and the city.  Located across the street from “Pitt” in a former Presbyterian church building, UACM was composed of: The Community of Reconciliation [COR], an intentional multi-racial congregation, Urban Ministry, Campus Ministry at three universities, the Hunger-Action Coalition, the Oakland Children’s Center, with Mister Rogers as one of the initiators, and a full-time staff counselor helping young men deal with their questions about the draft during the Viet Nam War.

I had only been there two weeks when I joined many people in a street demonstration with the Black Construction Coalition which was confronting the refusal to hire black workers to help build the new U.S. Steel Headquarters Building downtown and the Three Rivers Stadium for the Pittsburgh Steelers. What both surprised and thrilled me in the demonstration was the participation of some of the members of the Community of Reconciliation. Except for some of the Civil Rights marches, I had never marched with the members from the congregation where I worshiped. That is as it should be for the people of faith who claim to follow Jesus should imitate his model that finally took him into the streets and to his death. Maybe that message has been too dramatically clear for church folk to handle.

COR was committed to a social justice ministry, and its members, white, black and others, were half from a black Presbyterian Church who wanted to be a part of a multi-racial witness to God’s inclusive love, and many others from other congregations, including Roman Catholic, whose concern for social justice were not being met by those churches. We had students from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon and some faculty. COR spawned an Inner City Youth Group which saw inner city young people going to suburban white congregations to meet with the young people there.

My work at Pitt was diverse, from traditional student work to being called one morning from the Student Affairs Office, the day after the Kent State demonstrations and the killing of three students there. That morning Pitt students were milling around the Cathedral of Learning, full of anger and frustration. Would I and other campus ministers come down to talk with them?  Of course. I was able to meet the parents of the young woman Kent State student who was killed and was from Pittsburgh. I asked the father to come down later to talk with the Pitt students. That was helpful, both for for the father and for the students who heard him, through his grief, counsel them not to demonstrate in an ugly manner.

My most challenging role in ministry, in, and to, higher education at the University of Pittsburgh was as the result of meeting a radical faculty member, who along with other activists in the Oakland area, which surrounded the university, had organized a neighborhood community group called “People’s Oakland”. Their goal was to confront the university about the ways in which it was not being a good “neighbor” to those who lived around Pitt. From my perspective it was a classic example of a university “doing their thing” to the detriment of the neighbors around it. People’s Oakland received a sizable grant from the state with the intent to develop a master plan for the future of Oakland which would bring representatives from three universities, the several major hospitals, as well as persons from local block clubs and other community organizations, some of whom lived right across the street from Pitt. But the two bodies had never met to talk about what it meant to be neighbors. With the grant People’s Oakland hired Urban Design Associates [UDA], an architectural and community planning concern.

I was asked to chair the monthly meetings of representatives of these various bodies, some quite large and others very small. But all had a voice around that table. I was excited because this effort was exactly what I had been looking for after my year of study at McCormick. There I read material from urban campus ministers who pointed out the great need for “neighborliness” to be an important factor between a university and the people who lived around it. For they were, and still are, in most places, strangers to each other, yet our biblical message is clear, that ministry is to be about the work of reducing the divide between the two parties.

The planning process, led by UDA, went on for several years with both confrontation and conciliation taking place. UDA held several large community gatherings where they asked homeowners, businesspersons, all types of “Oakland persons” what their concerns and hopes were for their sizable area. I marveled at their skill in listening, and engaging with, both individuals who owned or rented the places where they lived, and representatives from huge concerns like the universities and hospitals. We hammered out a master plan, which some thirty years later I saw was still being  carried out.  As I reflect  back now over the years, I know that my part in that important venture, which brought diverse people together, was doing ministry in higher education.

A few years later I made my last move in my career, which was to be the Protestant Campus minister at Youngstown State University [YSU] in July, 1983. That ministry was called Cooperative Campus Ministry [CCM], as it had been formed years earlier by a cooperative action by the downtown churches in Youngstown. One of the highlights of my twelve years as Director of CCM was providing oversight for a Free Clinic which was held every Tuesday evening from 7-11 in the basement of First Christian Church, located on campus and also housed the CCM Office. The Clinic basically served as the health care center for the university students as YSU did not have such a facility. The Clinic was staffed by osteopathic physicians in the area. Over the years the population who came to the clinic changed as the fallout by the dramatic closure of the steel mills in 1977 in Youngstown meant many persons had no health care.

So they came to the Clinic. Over its twenty year history the Free Clinic served over 22,000 students and community persons. Finally YSU opened its own Health Care Center. Before that the President would on occasion slip me some money on the sly because he knew how important our service was for the students. The Clinic was another variation from traditional campus ministry and with its expertise we met the needs of many students and other.  I spent every Tuesday night for years at the Clinic talking with students about their situations, engaging with the doctors and ending the evening with a meal at a local restaurant at 11PM. A yearly highlight was a Christmas celebration which took place at St. John’s Episcopal Church, just off campus. Following the work at the Clinic, on the Tuesday closest to Christmas Day, many of the Clinic staff would bring food and we would have our evening meal there in the Parish Hall. Then late in the evening we would go into the darkened sanctuary, sit in the choir pews and sing Christmas hymns played by the St. John’s organist and the organ professor in the YSU Music School. That event always started the Christmas season for me,  and I would recall the importance of the Clinic for so many diverse persons.

When I started my ministry at YSU I came with a keen interest in wanting to start an interracial dialogue group with students and any other interested YSU persons. I met an African-American woman who was a staff person in Student Affairs who wanted to join me and we formed the Racial Awareness Program [RAP], which met every Wednesday noon for a brown bag lunch. This quickly  became one of the largest groups on campus and over the years evolved into The Coalition for Diversity. There were faculty, staff and students who took on every issue of diversity we could think of at a time when YSU evidenced little interest in this important issue.

When I arrived at YSU in 1983 the university was doing nothing to prepare students of color for what they would face in coming to live and learn in a primarily white campus. Beyond a few African-American faculty, there were no persons of color filling any leadership positions at the university. That fall some black faculty and staff who were on the CCM Board held a three hour “Introduction to campus” for incoming black students on the Saturday before classes began on the next Wednesday.Over the years I believe that our emphasis on diversity had an effect on YSU and now it is a much more diverse university, though even now, nineteen years after my retirement, there is a long way to go.

Other parts of my ministry, which pick up my concern for the prophetic, include planting a Peace Pole in the center of campus, holding peace vigils and demonstrations over crucial issues of justice, and providing some support  for key student groups that formed around these issues– thus trying to inform the larger university population of the importance of engaging together on such critical matters.With my Catholic campus ministry colleague we began a support group for older students returning to campus to start or finish a degree. The Non-Traditional Student Organization rapidly became an important base for those persons who came bearing additional burdens of family and jobs and wondered whether they could make it as students. They did so in grand style.

I will close by sharing the insight of John W. Traphagan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote a recent article entitled “Does Higher Education Have a Customer Service Problem?” out of his concern that many universities around the country are moving to running on a business model where students are seen as customers and the university is thus “run with the idea of pleasing customers and providing a service to students”. He believes “this changes the atmosphere from one where students are challenged to succeed and take advantage of all that they can as part of an intellectual community to one in which they view their education as a process of purchasing grades so they can get a job”.

My experience in ministry in higher education formed by my life’s experiences finds me agreeing with Traphagan when he concludes, “This degrades the mission of a public university, which is to promote the public good and improve society through research and education… .Thinking in terms of customer service deflects attention away from what we are— a community of people interested in learning and creating knowledge that promotes the improvement of our society”.

I have always believed that one of the primary roles of higher education is bringing about “social change.”  I was pleased to find Traphagan’s thought agreeing with what for years directed my ministry in higher education.

I am grateful  for the many campus ministry friends from whom I learned so much and with whom we did so much.




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