Samford University The BelltowerAugust 2003

Full Circle: Samford Returns to the Black Belt

" ...we can't talk about Samford's mission without taking a long look at our beginnings in Perry County..."

In the old Marion, Alabama public cemetery an obelisk honors a slave known only as Harry. The monument, a unique tribute from those who enslaved him, was so bright in the afternoon sun that it seemed to be lit from within when Samford faculty gathered before it in June. They squinted at the inscription that records Harry's sacrifice on the night of the fire that destroyed Howard College's main building in 1854. Harry, owned by college president Henry Talbird, refused to leave the building before alerting the sleeping students, and so traded his life for theirs. Harry's monument, bright as a beacon, seemed the perfect place for the modern faculty to begin a journey through Samford's history.

The faculty returned to impoverished Perry County, Samford's birthplace, for a two day workshop in June as the first steps in a grant-funded, five-year program that “integrates more intentionally Samford's distinctive Christian mission and faith resources into its institutional life and into the lives of its students,” according to Stephen R. Todd, Classics department chair and director of the project. Specifically, Todd said, the group of approximately 15 faculty he led to Marion was considering “what it means to be a Baptist university in Alabama by looking at our historical roots, theologically examining our present work, and hopefully catching a vision for what our future can be.”

Over two hot, busy days the group heard from experts in state and local history and visited a variety of sites important in the lives of Samford and Marion, including Siloam Baptist Church (the home church of Howard College in Marion), Judson College (Howard’s sister institution), Lincoln Normal School (established after the Civil War as a school for freed slaves) and Marion Military institute (which took over Howard’s Marion facilities when the college relocated to Birmingham in 1887).

The group also visited the headquarters of Sowing Seeds of Hope, an educational collaboration between Perry County and the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Todd said that by working with Sowing Seeds of Hope and allied groups, Samford faculty, students and staff can develop learning and research opportunities that will also benefit the people of Perry County. “A part of what it means to be a Christian university in Alabama,” he said, “is the responsibility that we have to our state and region, and we perhaps have a particular obligation to Perry County as our ‘alma mater’.”

Julie Steward, Associate Professor of English, left the experience with new insights into the past, present and future connections between Samford and Perry County. “Ultimately, I walked away from the two day trip with a deep respect for how far Samford has come in actualizing its dream of becoming a first rate institution,” she said. “The level of dialogue, the engagement with history, and the expression of goals we all share solidified our common purpose of deepening faith as we open and develop minds.”

Workshop participant Scott McGinnis, an Assistant Professor of Religion and Samford alumnus, said he can already imagine how the experience will help him open and develop minds. He said learning more about the shared history of Samford and Perry County will help students in his Bibilical Perspectives class see how they might apply their beliefs. “Augustine promoted an idea that comes down to us in the modern aphorism ‘Charity begins at home’,” McGinnis said. "That is, when faced with the overwhelming need of the world, turn first to your immediate surroundings. This is not to promote a narrow provincialism, but rather a realization that we do not have to travel far to live out our faith.” For Samford, it’s only a matter of coming full-circle.

More info about... Sowing Seeds of Hope

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