Published March 26th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
A couple of decades ago it would have been impossible to open the program that William Jewell College in Liberty just started — The Center for Faith and Culture.
From its founding in 1849 until 2003, Jewell was a Baptist institution. It was supported by the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), a network of some 1,800 independent Southern Baptist churches. That state group provided something like $1 million a year for the school. (William Jewell was a Columbia, Missouri, physician who donated $10,000 to help start the school.)
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Jewell-Southern Baptist relationship was unraveling. The MBC decided that Jewell’s stance on welcoming gay students was biblically out of bounds. Then, when there was an on-campus performance of the theater piece “The Vagina Monologues,” it was just too much for the MBC. So the two split.
Since then, Jewell has become more ecumenical and theologically open. That has allowed for the creation of this new center, patterned after a center with the same name at Yale University’s Divinity School.
Once Jewell and the Southern Baptists divorced, says Craig M. Walls, the Jewell center’s director, “Jewell tried to figure out what are we, who are we and how we navigate that.”
One answer is the new center itself, which offers students as well as the broader Kansas City community an opportunity to explore what a flourishing life rooted in faith looks like. That faith might well mean Christianity, of course, even a Baptist version of that, but the vision is wide enough now to include many other religious traditions — as well as none.
The seeds for the new center began to sprout in late 2021 when Brendon Benz, now a religion professor at Jewell, was named theologian in residence. Benz has degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Neither is a Baptist institution.
Then Walls, a pastor in the Mainline Protestant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, was hired in January 2022 as center director. And Melissa Dowling, who grew up Southern Baptist but now is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, joined the effort last July and is now the campus chaplain.
“We were tasked to get this center up,” Walls says. The center’s start-up money came from Philip and Patty Love. Philip, a Jewell graduate now deceased, had been on the Yale center’s board.
The Yale center, in turn, has been guided by its director, famed theologian Miroslav Volf, whose many books include “For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference,” co-authored by Matthew Croasmun. In it, they describe ways to live what they call a “flourishing life.” (The idea is drawn from something Jesus is quoted as saying in the gospel of John: “I came that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”)
So this fall, the first group of “Student Flourishing Fellows” will commit themselves to staying in the new Jewell center until they graduate so they can examine what an abundant life both now and after graduation might look like.
“We want to open this up to all students,” says Walls, “and say that if you are a person of faith and that’s important to you and you want to be a civil engineer or a nurse or a teacher or a doctor or lawyer or whatever you’re called to do, we’re going to put a program in place where we help you form spiritually.”
This kind of spiritual exploration seems to fit how Jewell sees itself now, as opposed to what it was decades ago.
“Jewell,” says Benz, “now has great scaffolding for this program because of our core curriculum. All students are required to take courses in that curriculum. The first one and the cornerstone is ‘The Responsible Self.’ It’s kind of a world-view construction, deconstruction, reconstruction course in which they read several books, including the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ and St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions.’”
For Melissa Dowling, the daughter and granddaughter of Southern Baptist pastors, this approach simply wasn’t available when she studied at Jewell from 2002 through 2006, though there were hints it was coming.
“During my time here at Jewell,” she says, “all of that (Baptist-focused) programming was still in place. I was raised not having any examples of female leadership in the church. I knew I was called to serve, but I thought my path would be in the mission field.”
Eventually, however, she realized other denominations would accept female pastors. Classes she was taking at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, an American (not Southern) Baptist school in Shawnee, awakened her to that. At the time Central had a female president, the Rev. Molly Marshall.
“I ended up pursuing chaplaincy,” Dowling says. “I was a hospice chaplain in Texas for many years. But my father’s church refused to ordain me because I was a female.” She is, however, diplomatic about such differences: “So we are not on the same page as Southern Baptists, but we do appreciate our Baptist roots.”
The ideas behind the new center have grown from simply creating a class or two about spiritual growth to having students commit to a multi-year program and now to offering classes at four metro-area churches, Country Club Christian, Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Village Presbyterian and Second Baptist of Liberty.
Members of those churches may attend for free any of the 16 classes offered by the center because their congregations fund the classes. Non-members may attend the four-week sessions for $45 each. The final class for the semester ends on May 2.
When Walls looks at Jewell today, he sees that “our student body runs the spectrum politically and spiritually.”
In other words, the campus today looks more like the world in which the students eventually will live and work than it did before 2003. And the center’s job is to prepare them to flourish in that world.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.