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HBCU Chaplains Evolve to Meet the Spiritual Needs of their Students

At 10 a.m. on Sunday mornings, students will find Charles H. Lewter IV preaching from his iPad during worship service at the Johnson-Phillip All Faiths Chapel.

Part of the reason for this preaching method is to keep students engaged, said Lewter, who is dean of the chapel and assistant director of student engagement at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU). He has been at the historically Black university (HBCU) for 25 years.

“This generation doesn’t use pen and paper unless they’re in class. That was a wakeup call for me,” he said, noting that students increasingly use their cell phones to take notes during service. “The story has not changed, but my methodology has changed. … I had to learn that. I evolved just like the students evolve.”

Living through the tenets “faith, education, service,” Lewter’s multidimensional role in the chaplaincy and in student affairs allows him to empower students to focus on strengthening their spiritual journey with their Creator while they receive an education.

Dr. Charles H. Lewter IV speaking at a serviceDr. Charles H. Lewter IV speaking at a service

“When I speak on moral values and the importance of right and wrong and making those ethical decisions when they go to class … I’m not a judgmental individual,” he said. “I meet them where they are. I don’t point the finger, but I do say, ‘Let’s see, what’s the other options to make you a better person’” or to do the right thing?

Lewter steps back to let the students be active participants instead of spectators in their worship experiences, he added. Students will conduct the altar prayer, read the scripture, and participate in mime ministry, the choir or the praise dance team.

This year, Lewter launched the Second Sunday Fresh Fire Worship Experience for students, an experience led by a student preacher.

“The best part about it, it’s only one hour,” Lewter said. He added that if he gives students “the whole meal,” they won’t come back.

Lewter’s experience in the chaplaincy is not exclusive to PVAMU. For years, HBCU chaplains have played a critical role in nourishing students from entry to exit. The job has become a bit more difficult, in part because there has been an overall decline in the number of church-going college students in recent decades.

Still, HBCU chaplains mention a need to remain relevant and contemporary as they work to serve traditional-age college students who are in the early years of adulthood.

“It’s not church as usual anymore,” said Rev. Debra L. Haggins, the chaplain at Hampton University. Students want their religious officials to give them the gospel and give it to them in a way they understand it, Haggins said.

Hampton’s Sunday worship service starts at 11 a.m. and is only 50 minutes long because students are “programmed” for class time, added Haggins, who has been at the university for 11 years. “They’re on a cycle. We have to pack as much as we can into them.”

Most of her sermons revolve around a theme she sets for the semester or the year. Past themes have touched on Psalms and worship, salvation, identity (“I am not a label”) and self-worth.

Altar Prayer at Chapel at Hampton UniversityAltar Prayer at Chapel at Hampton University

Hampton’s worship services are geared to where students are developmentally in their life as opposed to community churches that often speak to the challenges that older adults may face.

“What [students] do have is peer pressure and encouragement to do things that they normally would not do. The goal is to teach them to deal at this level through a Judeo-Christian heritage and faith,” Haggins said, adding that at the university chapel, the message encourages students to “hang in there” as they work through the semester or finals, or “‘That degree is already yours, you just have to stay the course.’”

Haggins works to remain relevant by watching CNN and reading other news and popular culture sites in order to connect her sermons to students’ lived experiences and the world they live in. The chaplaincy, she said, “is one where you must be aware of what’s going on.”

Like Lewter, her sermons’ theoretical concepts remain the same, although her preaching has evolved over the last decade. Moreover, she does not use complex theological words and she hopes that students come away with a sense of integrity and knowledge of who they are in Christ, she added.

At Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU), Rev. Kenya M. Lovell points out that B-CU founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, in her Last Will and Testament, said “I leave you faith.”

As dean of the chapel and director of religious life at B-CU, Lovell cultivates the campus community’s faith to honor the institution’s heritage, tradition and values through service and theological engagement. She notes that engagement is “shaped in such a way that it is appealing to [students], but also other generations of folks present.”

Ministries available at the institution include the gospel choir, band, the Wildcat Worship team, liturgical dance and mime ministry. Students also serve as chaplain assistants.

Lovell describes her chaplaincy as “ministry in the truest sense of the word.”

“It just really depends on what the needs of the campus are,” she said, adding that she moves “with the fluidity of the day.”

“This includes visiting the hospital with a sick student, faculty or staff member,” Lovell continued. “It also includes praying for the campus community as I visit offices on campus, being present in times of celebration and tragedy, and pastoral care for those who are homesick, need encouraging words or just need a listening ear.”

The Office of the Chaplaincy additionally hosts the B-CU Day of Prayer, promotes environmental stewardship and partners with the Mind of Christ Ministries, a local food distribution ministry. Students have access to weekly chapel services on Wednesday’s at 11:15 a.m., an Open Mic Night, a student-led Friday Night Live worship experience and Bible study group sessions.

“In each of these programs and ministries, students assist in the planning and help to lead many of the services offered,” Lovell said.

Bethune-Cookman’s ministry food distributionBethune-Cookman’s ministry food distribution

Because she is working with millennials and those who are considered “Generation Z,” she strives for her messages to be “real and relevant and reachable” so that students can ask questions, interact and understand that “we are charged to be the hands and feet of God in the earth,” Lovell said. “It doesn’t’ always have to be this pious presentation.”

Attendance for worship services vary depending on the time of year, Lovell said. When students come to campus, they get involved on campus, in campus ministries or attend churches in the area. As “life happens,” attendance wanes and usually picks up around midterms or when students face stressful situations, she added.

“It’s the natural ebb and flow of any church,” Lovell said.

B-CU is a part of the Black College Fund, a department in the United Methodist Church, and Lovell is a member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. These affiliations connect her with other chaplains around the country to collaborate and learn from.

Similarly, Lovell and Lewter said they frequently speak with other HBCU chaplains about how they serve their campus, but even so, the chaplains have not met as a collective outside of groups like the Black College Fund.

“I’d really like to form an organization with HBCU chaplains so we can learn from one another, and grow from one another, and help one another,” Lovell said.

Lewter agrees:

“We need to come together to share our experiences. We don’t do that well,” he said. “I still have not found any literature where there is a practical handbook or a theoretical handbook of what’s expected of an HBCU chaplain.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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