Collegiate ministry, Jacksonville State, and another kind of home

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(Whoever made this meme, thank you. I’d give credit if I knew who you were.)

Jacksonville State University means a lot to me. For most of the 90s, it was my home.

In my current circle of friends and acquaintances, I’m “that JSU guy.” I’m not the only alumnus around. But, in a sea of Bulldog red, Tiger orange, and Roll Tide crimson, I’m there in my Gamecock red-and-white. On fall Saturdays while my wife watches Alabama on the big TV, I’m in front of our computer frothing over JSU versus Eastern Kentucky. In my home office hangs a one-of-a-kind framed picture of Burgess Field at Paul Snow Stadium, taken by the school photographer and somehow procured for me by the woman I simply refer to as The Greatest Mother-in-Law in the World.

My JSU shirts don’t get thrown away as much as disintegrate from age. My 1992 football national championship hat has a definite paw-paw look to it and is a prized possession. Over the last 26 years my national championship sweatshirt shrunk – the way I explain it – and now belongs to my daughter. Somewhere, I still have the free T-shirt from the campus bookstore following freshmen orientation.

I’ve succesfully indoctrinated my sons into thinking you can’t beat a gameday trip to Jacksonville followed by wings at (the original) Jefferson’s or a burger at Cecil’s Place. You know the look your kids get at names like Roquan Smith, Jalen Hurts, or Kerryon Johnson? My 11-year-old gets that way, but with names like Eli Jenkins, Josh Barge, Darius Jackson, and Quan Stoudemire.

But when we go to Jacksonville I always point out – and sometimes visit – a place at the corner of Pelham Road and Bennett Boulevard. Because, even though I stepped into many buildings at JSU, the Baptist Campus Ministries remains the most significant.

It was at the BCM I truly learned to grow in my faith. Before then, I’d more or less occupied a seat at church. But the BCM showed me how my relationship with Christ extends far beyond the pew. Not that my previous pastors and youth leaders hadn’t tried, but for me something finally clicked at BCM. Maybe it was because I was out of the house and on my own. Maybe it was spending more time around others also searching to make more of their faith. Whatever it was, I know God used many people to make it happen.

The list begins with my campus ministers, Bob Ford and Gary Brittain. Their influence on me can’t be overstated, mixing patience with timely discipline when I needed it. That started with me as a visitor and grew as I became part of BCM leadership. In January 1996 Gary led a small group Bible study in which a cute redhead caught my eye. Bob performed the wedding ceremony for me and that cute redhead 23 months later.

Located at the busiest intersection on JSU’s campus, I lived at the BCM. No really, I lived there. For a couple of years I was a resident in the basement apartment, tasked with keeping the place clean and setting up chairs for our weekly meetings. Very often, conversations outside of those gatherings centered on faith. In addition to sports and who was the greatest wrestler ever, we also debated theology. We’d talk about the Bible, but also work through concepts in Foster’s Celebration of Discipline or Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two books I’d never heard of before my time at the BCM. Sometimes Bob and Gary were around to take part in the conversation, but not always. And that was okay. It was just us students, talking it through.

Missions came alive to me at the BCM as well. I’d grown up a Southern Baptist, but never been on a mission trip nor heard of Lottie Moon. But not long after getting involved, I was in a van with a dozen others driving overnight to Connecticut during spring break. Those SPOTS mission trips (Special Project Other Than Summer) became a favorite for me. In turn, they stoked my desire for missions and led to summers in Colorado and Wyoming as well as two years back in Wyoming after graduation with my wife through the North American Mission Board.

JSU is on spring break this week, a fact many attribute to there having been no fatalities or even injuries despite the destruction. A couple of dorms I lived in had significant damage. I hear the science building where my (future) wife and I had our only class together (and her only C; I claim credit for being the distraction) didn’t fare well. Neither did the building where I took all my education classes.

The March 19 EF-3 tornado damaged the roof of the Jacksonville State Baptist Campus Ministries as well as leave scattered debris. Photo courtesy of Heath Jones @GOPheath/Facebook

In December my boys and I, along with my nephew, went to Pete Matthews Coliseum to see a men’s basketball game and check out the brand-new playing floor. Last night the roof of The Pete was ripped open, allowing rain and debris in.

Gary heard about the storm – since categorized as an EF-3 tornado – while on a mission trip in Houston. There, he and a group of students were helping residents still recovering from Hurricane Harvey. Bob rode out the storm at home with his Boston Terrier, Jazzie. And though Bob and Jazzie made it through fine, his house didn’t. The home study added while I was a student, and in which I finished more than one paper, was destroyed.

I spoke with Gary this morning as he and three others fought through Houston traffic at the beginning of a 13-hour trek home. The rest of the group stayed to complete their work. The current resident told Gary the BCM sustained some roof damage. The shed out back – the one my roommate and I painted and in which I found an old foosball table to rebuild for all to enjoy – didn’t make it.

On Facebook, it didn’t take long for a fellow BCM alum to suggest our own SPOTS trip. Rare is it that when you’re in a place, you realize at that time how influential that place is on you.

I imagine it’s the same with the students at JSU’s BCM as well as those in Georgia today. In my time with The Index I’ve had chances to talk to campus ministers. I’m astounded at the work they accomplish leading students in today’s culture. It’s not easy, teaching solid, biblical precepts in a day when fluidity seems to be the only acceptable position. 

I grew up in a town about a half-hour away, but Jacksonville, JSU, and the BCM also feel like home to me. I lived and learned a lot there. To this day, I owe much of my decision-making to the discussions I had in classrooms, hanging out at the BCM, and middle-of-the-night road trips to Birmingham for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Friends made back then remain that way today, even as life has led us all over the country. The BCM secretary, Miss Joyce, became a second mama. And even though I don’t stay in touch as often as I ought to, Bob and Gary’s role hasn’t diminished either.

Collegiate ministry gives a lot when you’re there, and continues to give after you leave. For those of us who benefit, the best way to pay that back is to live what we learned. Daily.

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