Clergy Appreciation Month: Following the lead of several others, I’m writing to acknowledge the clergy who have shaped me. I came to Millsaps as a “cradle roll” Baptist, expecting to become an English teacher. I signed up for a course called “Heritage” because it offered a path to completing core curriculum requirements in a shorter period of time. There, I encountered United Methodist Elder T.W. Lewis, whose explication of Paul’s letters left my “heart strangely warmed.” I shifted my vocational focus to ministry that first semester. I worked for Gerry Reiff in the library at Millsaps. Her husband, Lee Reiff, was the Chair of the Religion Department at Millsaps. The Reiffs modeled “Christian Hospitality” in so many ways. That first Christmas season, there was to be a service of Communion in the Chapel. I had grown up with the “closed table” model of Communion. I asked Dr. Reiff if I’d be welcome at Communion. He said “It’s God’s table, not ours.” A seed was planted toward becoming a United Methodist. Keith Tonkel was a regular speaker at Millsaps chapel services as well. He modeled a VERY different approach to preaching than I had heard before. He made his own painful experiences available for reflection on the life of faith. I also encountered the preaching of John Claypool, then the pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson. He modeled that same vulnerability in the pulpit, as well as offering a vision for how I could integrate what I was learning in religion classes at Millsaps with the Preaching Life. Don Fortenberry was the Chaplain at Millsaps. He also modeled hospitality and care, as well as seemingly infinite patience for dialogue with those whose theological/doctrinal commitments were more “rigid” than those I was coming to have. Don was also my guide into moving into the United Methodist Church, when it became clear that ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention would be impossible for me. Jack Woodward was a United Methodist Elder who served as Director of Financial Aid at Millsaps. He helped keep me there, especially my Senior year, when things were looking questionable.Bishop C.P. Minnick came to Mississippi in September of the year I had become United Methodist in January. He modeled “telling your truth,” combined with a self-deprecating sense of humor that I admired. Later, Bishop Ken Carder showed that same kind of leadership.Thomas LewisKenneth CarderDon FortenberryJoe Reiff
Alongside these United Methodist developments, I was actively involved at First Baptist Jackson, MS for the first two and a half years of my time at Millsaps. I walked downtown at least two times a week, for Sunday School and Morning Worship and to sing in the Revelation (High School and College) Choir and to sing at the evening service. Frank Pollard was a compelling preacher, who also spoke to my deepest soul most of the time. Larry Black was the music director for FBC Jackson and the director the Revelation Choir. Both men, though near the “pinnacle” of their occupations, seemed to be genuinely humble “servant leaders.” I was unaware early on of the political developments in the Southern BAptist Convention, but I now realize that the staff at FBC Jackson would have fit into the “Moderate/Liberal” camp, though they’d have never called themselves that. The first “conservative/fundamentalist” SBC President was elected in the summer of 1979. No ill was spoken of him or of the movement in any public forum at FBC Jackson, but it was becoming clear that I was on the likely “losing” side of the coming SBC developments.
Two events precipitated my exit from both FBC Jackson and from the SBC. In January 1980 the Revelation choir joined the choir of a Mobile Baptist church for a joint “retreat/rehearsal” event at a Baptist Conference Center in Pass Christian. The preacher for that event was the youth/college minister at the Mobile church. He was an angry “hellfire and brimstone” preacher, who also worked a lot of homophobia into his sermons. There was a degree of “pushback” from the students, but none from the adult leaders. Later that month, Frank Pollard addressed “basic Christian beliefs.” They were pretty much the main claims of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. I didn’t disbelieve any of those, but the phrase “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe this.” was used. This struck me wrong-excluding, rather than confessiing. I had been wrestling with the notion that I needed to make a different denominational commitment for a while, but it was as if a “switch” turned in my brain. It was now clear that I needed to go a different way. That week, I approached Don Fortenberry about what would be needed for me to pursue ministry in the UMC.