This year, broaden your understanding of 'alma mater'

This year, broaden your understanding of 'alma mater'

John H. Thomas

I write this column almost 30 years to the day my wife, Lynda, and I graduated from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. We didn't get back for our reunion last month, but we did pull out our old yearbook and recall the rich relationships and shaping experiences that continue to be a profound significance in our lives. And we do regularly visit our son David, currently a student at Gettysburg, and enjoy a new look at our college years through his eyes.

Having just celebrated "commencement season," it is appropriate to be reminded of the United Church of Christ's long relationship to higher education, both in the United States and through the institutions of our global partners, many of which we helped found. Thirty years ago I left Lutheran Gettysburg to enter Yale, founded by our Congregationalist forebears 300 years ago, one of many colleges and seminaries that endure today.

A particularly significant legacy of our church's commitment to education is the six colleges founded by the American Missionary Association after the Civil War to educate African Americans newly freed from slavery: Dillard University in New Orleans, Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.; Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas; LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tenn.; Talladega College in Alabama, and Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Each year the UCC makes a modest but important financial contribution to these schools and nurtures an ongoing relationship.

In January, I was in Memphis and visited LeMoyne-Owen. An energetic administrator gave me a tour, showing off recent renovations, describing new academic programs and sharing a litany of profound financial challenges and needs. Compared to a school like Gettysburg, LeMoyne-Owen's operating budget and endowment are painfully small. It is a fragile institution. I saw something else while visiting Memphis. Nearly every African-American leader I met—political, religious, civic and corporate—was a graduate of, or affiliated in some way with, LeMoyne Owen. So vulnerable. Yet so vital to a community's vision for racial justice and reconciliation.

Many of you are used to financial appeals from your alma mater. So here's another: Consider making a gift to one of your own church's AMA schools, one of the great legacies of our mission, one of the vital instruments for forging communities today in the image of God's vision of justice and peace. Someone reading this column is equipped to make a major gift to one or more of these important institutions of learning. Write me for information and begin to broaden your understanding of "alma mater" to include not just your own school, but the precious schools birthed by your church.

The Rev. John H. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.

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