At 104, he aims 'to be a blessing'
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--Eugene Florence may be 104, but he is anything but set in his ways.
His June 9-11 visit to Indianapolis marked his first trip to the Southern Baptist Convention and his longest flight on an airplane.
Florence continues to model hard work and endurance as he experiences new things. Rarely has there been a time when he did not hold two full-time jobs in addition to juggling family responsibilities, odd jobs when they became available and ministering whenever God provided an opportunity.
But Florence's skin color hindered him from attending classes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary during the day; nevertheless, he was faithful to attend the then-Negro Extension program, which consisted of night classes in a basement classroom at the Fort Worth, Texas, campus.
He completed the same courses as the daytime students, but after eight years of tirelessly studying God's Word, he received a diploma in theology, while the white students received master of divinity degrees.
Despite these hardships, Florence's Christ-like attitude prevailed. Instead of expressing anger, he devoted his life to preaching on the weekends and to his career as a beloved janitor at Texas Christian University.
"As long as he keeps me living, I'm going to trust Him and preach the Gospel whenever I can," said Florence, who never questioned the diploma, confident in the education he received and the Lord's calling on his life.
In 2004, Southwestern faculty and trustees determined from Florence's records that his coursework qualified him for a master's degree rather than a diploma, so SWBTS President Paige Patterson invited Florence back to campus to receive an M.Div. in the fall 2004 commencement 43 years after his studies.
Though he has presided over the awarding of thousands of degrees at three different institutions, Patterson said he regards the 2004 commencement as the most fun. When the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1845, Patterson said, its founders had many things right. "But they made one tragic mistake. With regard to race, our convention took a very sad position that was unbiblical, ungodly and un-Christian in every way," Patterson said during the commencement. "It is one thing to make a bad mistake. It's another thing to never come to the point where you say, 'We were wrong.'"
Florence has returned to campus on several occasions, either to address a class or preach in the seminary's chapel service.
Because of his dedication, Florence was honored at Southwestern's alumni luncheon by being named one of three 2008 Distinguished Alumni recipients.
Patterson expressed his gratitude for Florence during the June 11 luncheon, saying, "I marvel at this wonderful man of God.... To give you this distinguished alumni award is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life."
Florence proved that he is a man without bitterness through his acceptance speech. "I don't see color," he said. "I just see God's people.... However many years I have left, I just want to be a blessing."
Florence's advice to current students and pastors is simple. "Be obedient and have determination. We are all God's children, but we should seek to be obedient children above all."
Michelle Myers is a writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.