Racial discrimination infiltrates Samford's ‘H-Day’ program

by Jennifer Davis Rash, posted Wednesday, April 28, 1999 (21 years ago)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)--Charges of racial discrimination have spurred Samford University officials to reexamine the school’s 50-year-old H-Day program.

Samford President Thomas E. Corts announced April 12 that the program's current spring semester activities have been canceled and that the program is being revamped for the fall.

The program was canceled after three African students were not allowed to preach in a few isolated churches in the state as part of the H-Day program because they are black.

Both black and white students are upset about the situation. But the school's administration has vowed to make sure this does not happen again. "We have a responsibility as an educational institution," Corts said, referring to the racially inclusive stance the university has claimed.

Dennis Aggrey, third year divinity student at Beeson Divinity School, has faced racial discrimination within the program for the past two years. "I signed up to go, and they told me I could not go," said Aggrey, a native of Nigeria.

"It is painful," he said. "It is like looking down on someone for something they don't have control over. Nobody has control of what they look like or where they are born. To be pushed aside because of that is painful."

Daniel Chelagat, Beeson student from Kenya, said he was surprised to learn he could not go to a church because the people did not approve of a black preacher. "In Kenya, there is no such thing as color," he said. "I was encouraged to sign up, but then twice I was told I could not go," Chelagat noted.

H-Day -- which gets its name from Samford's original name, Howard College -- is a student-led program on the Birmingham Baptist college campus.

Ministerial students sign up during the fall and spring semesters to participate. Churches also volunteer to be hosts for the students through the associations.

Sundays during the fall and spring semesters are dedicated to specific associations. And the participating students preach and lead music in the churches which have agreed to host them. A student director and student committee attempt to match the gifts and characteristics of a volunteer ministerial student with the setting and style of worship of the host church.

Along with the experience of leading local congregations, the students also receive an honorarium from the church, as well as possibilities of future ministry opportunities.

Corts said the majority of experiences by the students have been positive and encouraging. "This is a great tribute to our Baptist people."

"The churches of Alabama have been enormously helpful in exposing the students to church pulpits," Corts noted. "And generally they have been enormously accepting of all races and ethnic groups."

Some of the African students have received much-larger-than-average honorariums and invitations to come back for other church activities. And this has happened in predominantly white congregations because, so far, no African-American churches have requested an H-Day program, said Samford officials.

In fact, the African students who are concerned about the racial discrimination are fighting for this program to continue because it is such a "rich experience," Corts said. "They want to be involved, and they want all students to be involved."

The students even continued participating after the encounter with racial discrimination.

Aaron Matti, a Beeson student from Africa, feels strongly about continuing relationships with the churches which have offended him and the other two students. He said showing those churches Christian love is the way to help them overcome their prejudice.

The new program, which could even don a new name, will gain university sponsorship and will no longer be an independent, solely student-operated activity.

"There needs to be a clear understanding that if this is a university activity, then it has to be just that," Corts said. He also pointed out that undergraduates and graduates need two separate programs because of their differing goals.

Beeson Dean Timothy George agreed, noting Beeson students only started participating in the program three or four years ago following an invitation by undergraduate H-Day participants.

Both groups benefit from a program like H-Day, George said, but in different ways.

"It has had a wonderful ministry for many years," George said. "It has been good for the students by giving them good, practical experience in ministry. And it has been good for the churches to hear a fresh proclamation of the gospel."

Still, the program has been the source of some confusion over the years, Corts said, noting its unofficial tie to the university, how policy decisions are made and criteria for participation, as well as the recent racial problem.

"I think the whole situation leads us to see that the way H-Day has operated has been a little bit out there on its own," Corts said. "It is not a good arrangement for anybody."

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