COLUMBUS — Tony Gray is about as much of a legend on the campus of Columbus State University as he is to the Baptist Collegiate Ministry(BCM) just across the street.
Gray joined as director of the ministry in January 1996, following Bill Neal and Jerry Johnson as fulltime directors. Now Gray, after serving 20 years at the campus, is turning in his keys this Friday – May 13 – to accept a newly created position at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville.
He will enter the new phase of his campus ministry on June 1 and will be succeeded by Rick Jenkins who is already on campus. The Index will profile Jenkins in a story next week.
Gray’s youthfulness mimics that of the students at least half his age, displaying an abundance of cheeriness, energy, and optimism that is contagious. And that is necessary to relate to the students who are shouldering more stress than when he was on campus as a student.
“While some of the problems we had as students decades ago are similar, today’s seem to have a greater intensity. I see a lot more family issues with divorce, drugs, and social issues. The internet, which didn’t exist when I was on campus, now shapes and drives much of what they do today,” he explains.
BCM mission remains the same
But, he quickly adds, the mission remains the same; to provide a safe house, a sense of security from the pressures of what they deal with in the classroom and the challenges they receive to their faith.
“Our role is to help them grow into being the salt and light in their Jerusalem where God has placed them. We want to disciple our students to boldly go onto the campus and live their witness outwardly.”
The Alabama native explains the pressure that students endure to be passive believers and not to share their belief openly.
“We work with them to create an environment where they can learn to share their faith and live a missional lifestyle in front of their friends. The idea of tolerance that we hear so much about these days is a two-sided street; people preach to them to
be tolerant of others, while those doing the preaching do not reciprocate and tolerate (respect) their beliefs.”
The success of his long hours of discipleship have paid off. Numerous students have been involved in lifestyle missions; at least 200 have participated in Send Me Now mission trips sponsored through the BCM and Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
Many have also participated in mission opportunities through local churches and the Columbus Baptist Association.
Great support from churches, Columbus Association
“We have great support through our Association and churches. We frequently have church staff who attend lunches in our building who come for mentoring opportunities,” he adds.
Every Thursday – 32 times a year – a local church will provide food for the fellowship known as SLT, or Student Luncheon Together. On May 5, for example, the menu featured hot dogs and hamburgers grilled outside and served up with all the trimmings.
Gray and his wife, Laura, have seen many changes in the campus and students since their arrival two decades ago. The academic community has grown from 4,200 students at then-Columbus College to 8,500 now as a full-fledged university.
Johnson’s move to Statesboro opens door for Gray
He first set foot on the campus as Jerry Johnson’s intern as he and Laura were preparing for service at the International Mission Board. For the next five years he and his family served in Panama before returning to Georgia to be close to his parents. They have a son, Matthew, who was born in Panama and a daughter, Torrie, who was born in Columbus. Both are now studying at the University of Mobile in Alabama.
A change in leadership at the Columbus campus provided the open door that made his transition easy. Johnson was transferring to Statesboro to assume the BCM leadership at fast-growing Georgia Southern. The Columbus position remained open for a year until the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s Collegiate Ministries department learned that Gray was returning to the States and asked if he would consider the opportunity.
And, as they say, the rest is history.
“I would not trade anything for my time at Columbus State,” he said in the last week of his ministry there.
The question, then, is “why move?”
Gray responds with saying it was “an overwhelming sense of rightness.” It just seemed to be the natural next step to be part of a building a new campus ministry on a fairly new campus, building on the groundwork laid by Teresa and Bob Royal. Teresa Royal serves as campus minister at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”
Georgia Gwinnett is exploding with enrollment, with its student body increasing from about 100 just eight years ago to nearly 13,000 for the coming semester.
“Students tend to be the movers and shakers in the Christian community. All the great missionaries had strong mentors in their background and that’s the role we want to play in the lives of our students. That’s why I am planting my lives with today’s students because they will be tomorrow’s leaders.
“I have been proud to have played a small role in that, and look forward to continuing in that role at Georgia Gwinnett.”
The future is bright for BCM work because, Gray adds in keeping with its motto, it challenges students to “Know Him and Make Him Known.”
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he says.