Published on April 29, 2024 by Neal Embry  

Morgan Champion thought she knew where she was headed when she first came to Samford University in 2018.

Starting her collegiate career as a triple major in pre-law, Spanish and journalism, while being part of the University Fellows program, Champion learned to live with cerebral palsy and navigated being on her own for the first time while using a wheelchair.

A few months into her time at Samford, Champion realized she wasn’t doing what the Lord had called her to do. She had a conversation with her parents in December 2018 and told them she felt called to ministry.  Champion changed her major to religious studies, still believing that law school would be in her future.

God had other plans.

Through a relationship with Jim Barnette, a professor in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies and a campus minister, Champion learned she had a platform because of her disability. Barnette, struck by Champion’s evident giftedness in preaching and teaching, encouraged her to pursue seminary, recommending Samford’s Beeson Divinity School.

While she was never part of the Preministerial Scholars program Barnette directed, Champion said Barnette called her an honorary member, and continued to push her to follow God’s will.

“He was the most amazing, incredible person,” Champion said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Dr. Barnette. The whole Barnette family has come alongside me in some awesome and incredible ways throughout my time in seminary.”

Morgan Champion outside Jim Barnette's door.

Before coming to Samford, Champion had never spent more than two weeks away from her family in Georgia. The first semester was a challenge, she said, as cerebral palsy forces the body to use about five times more energy to accomplish tasks than those without the disability. But over time, she became more confident, helped by a university that “became home, a safe place and a respite.”

“Samford really gave me the confidence to say, ‘This is who I am; this is what I’m good at; this is what the Lord has called me to do,’” Champion said. “It really gave me the confidence to say, ‘I’m going to throw away this perfectly curated and crafted plan that I’ve had for so many years and I’m going to obey Him and go to seminary.’”

As she prepared for Beeson, Champion admitted she didn’t know what she was getting into, not knowing anything about what seminary would be like.

“It was something that could only happen by the Lord’s grace,” she said.

Professors at Samford advocated for her, putting in a good word with Beeson leadership about her and encouraging her as she applied. Barnette planned to write a recommendation for her but was diagnosed in late 2020 with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an untreatable degenerative brain disorder. Barnette died in February 2021.

“It was really hard when he passed away,” Champion said. “I had to figure out who I am in ministry without him.”

Champion was the inaugural recipient of the James Barnette Award for Excellence in Preaching. She also completed her supervised ministry at Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, where Barnette served in various leadership roles, including as senior pastor.

Studies at Beeson represented a new challenge for Champion. One of the setbacks caused by cerebral palsy is a lack of depth perception and other issues related to vision, which was a problem when it came time to learn the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, she said. Champion’s eyes struggled to read the Greek alphabet.

“Dr. (Randy) Todd pulled me through that first semester of Greek, kicking and screaming,” Champion said. “I wouldn’t have made it through without Dr. Todd.”

Champion credited Beeson professor Mark Gignilliat with helping her through Hebrew when the time came as well.

Morgan Champion with her family

Despite the challenges, Champion never considered changing her degree path to one which would not require learning the biblical languages, knowing she was called to earn a Master of Divinity.

“I knew that’s what the Lord was wanting me to do, even though it was really hard,” Champion said. “I knew I would not be being faithful if I was not getting through that season. The blessing … is that I had so many people that first year come alongside me as I was learning the languages and helping me.”

As she conquered Greek and Hebrew, Champion also continued to grow more and more independent, moving to an off-campus apartment. She also built relationships as she trusted the Lord to provide transportation to and from school each day.

Through May 2023, she rode in the mornings with a bus driver, “Ms. Janice,” who retired last year at the age of 80. In order to catch her bus, Champion had to leave her apartment each day at 5:30 a.m. and would catch rides back to her apartment with friends from Beeson. This past year, she’s carpooled with friends both ways. Friends have also provided meals over the years, making sure she’s taken care of, even as she’s learned to cook and become more independent.

“It’s been really hard, but it’s been a blessing to see how the Beeson community has come around me and poured into me in this season when I didn’t know how the Lord was going to provide even basic things like transportation and meals,” Champion said. “Some of my favorite friendships at Beeson, I’ve built inside people’s cars, which is just crazy to me. It’s a living, breathing testament of God’s grace and God’s provision.”

Coming to Beeson offered Champion a chance to study preaching under the renowned Robert Smith Jr., who is retiring this year after more than 25 years at the school.

“I would follow Dr. Smith blindfolded anywhere,” Champion said.

Being at Beeson has confirmed her calling, and the Lord has used her time here to push her in ways she said she is “so grateful for.”

As she prepares to graduate this April, Champion said she feels as if she is “stepping into an unknown abyss.” Samford’s campus has been home for six years.

“It’s going to be weird when I’m gone,” Champion said. “I’m waiting for the Lord to open the right door. The Lord has brought me this far. I believe He’ll do it now.”

Wherever she goes, Champion plans to be an advocate for those with disabilities inside the church. Not many people have the background and perspective she does, and she often thinks about how what she’s learned in seminary could be used to help those with disabilities better follow Christ and be active members of a church.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.