In 1970, I became the Baptist campus minister
(Baptist Student Union director) at a state university
in middle Tennessee near Nashville. The area was still largely rural. The ministry was supported not only by the state Baptist convention but by the local association of about 40 churches.
I found out in my initial interview with local church leaders that they were a bit ambivalent about doing ministry on the college campus. Of course, this was just after the decade when college campuses (usually in the north and west) were centers of protest and liberal lifestyles. Little of this had impacted Tennessee, of course, but our local Baptist constituents tended to fear higher education, the “liberals” on campus, and students in general. I can even remember one member of a small church saying, “Aren’t you concerned about the influence that the students will have on your children?”
These were good people, but they were afraid. They wanted to do the Baptist thing and cooperate with the state convention on a ministry that was, in reality, a state mission initiative, but they feared change, education, and “the other”—anything different from themselves. I can still remember the Sunday when I took an African student to church and the stares we received. Afterward one church member said, “Oh, I knew it was OK. I figured he was just an international student since he was with you.” I wonder what would have happened if I had brought an African-American to church?
When I left six years later, most of the churches in the local Baptist association had come to the point that they considered this “their” ministry. What caused the change? First, I spent time in the churches. I was able to preach in most of the churches—from the largest to the smallest. This meant that my wife had the responsibility for getting our children to church on Sundays, but she graciously made that sacrifice. Second, I did the tedious work in the association that showed that one was really a team player—leading Vacation Bible School clinics, serving on committees, attending the monthly association executive board meeting on Saturday mornings. Third, we got the students into the churches. No, they did not join local churches in droves. This was, after all, the 1970s not the 1950s. Student missionaries gave testimonies to mission groups, the student choir sang in worship services, and students even helped with association mission projects.
Over time, the local folks came to trust me, but even more they found out that the students were not as bad as they thought they were! Some of them were even members of their churches who had been forgotten once they left the youth group. Others were growing, searching young adults who sincerely were seeking ways to serve God. Many of those students are leaders in local churches today.
The lesson I learned from this was the importance of getting people to interact with each other. Our natural tendency is to draw a circle that defines who is “in” and who is “out.” Once you sit down across the table from someone and engage in some level of dialogue, it becomes more difficult to see that person as alien or “other.” A little conversation can go a long way in overcoming misconceptions. Want to overcome fear? Talk to the one that you fear.