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In the midst of political confusion, Fla. college president eyes ministry

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–When hundreds of journalists and politicians descended upon this coastal Florida city in search of the nation’s next president, the president of Palm Beach Atlantic College saw a unique ministry opportunity for his Christian students.

Better known for its sandy white beaches and extravagant seaside mansions, Palm Beach County, with its small Baptist college, has become ground-zero in the battle over the Nov. 7 presidential election.

After a week of unprecedented debate over the future of the U.S. presidency, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the state’s chief monitor of elections, certified results from all the state’s counties, including Palm Beach County, giving Texas governor George W. Bush a 300-vote lead over Vice President Al Gore.

Democrats and Republicans have levied charges of voting irregularities in the past week after some Democratic voters in Palm Beach County complained they misread the punch-card ballots and cast their vote for Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan instead of Gore.

Located in downtown West Palm Beach, the Baptist college found itself in the nation’s spotlight on Nov. 11 when CNN broadcast three programs from the school’s campus, using students and faculty as audience members.

For Palm Beach Atlantic President Paul R. Corts, the presence of CNN on the school’s campus turned out to be a ministry opportunity of global proportions.

“When we were asked to host CNN by our local convention and visitor’s bureau, we looked at the very first line of our purpose statement,” Corts said during an interview in his second-story office that overlooks part of Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway. “It says, ‘we exist to serve.'”

So while some schools may have shied away from inviting a secular television organization onto their campus, Corts said he saw it as an opportunity to implement a little lifestyle evangelism.

“Christ’s persona was all about service,” he said. “And that’s our fundamental message here at the college. And with the current situation involving the presidency, we saw an opportunity to serve not only the country, but also the world.”

In other words, Corts said, the national election crisis provides a chance for evangelical Christians to share the love of Jesus Christ.

When the conversation turned to ministry, the veteran Baptist educator’s eyes brightened as he recounted the spiritual history of Palm Beach Atlantic, founded in 1968.

“What a tremendous opportunity we all have for ministry in an area that is reasonably unchurched,” he said. “We are called to be salt and light.”

And while students don’t practice the method of shouting the gospel message from street corners, Corts said their witness is conveyed in an extremely subtle and effective manner.

Take the school’s architecture, for instance.

Woven into every nook and cranny of Palm Beach Atlantic’s campus is the symbol of the Ichthus. The Greek word, which means ‘fish,’ is an ancient Christian symbol known from the first-century catacombs in Rome. At Palm Beach Atlantic, the Ichthus appears in the sidewalks, stained-glass windows, fountains and even wrought-iron railings.

“It is a constant reminder that we are a people of the cross,” Corts said.

“We have so many people who visit our campus for secular events and every time they will mention the atmosphere and how they can sense there is something different about the students,” Corts said. “What they have seen was the essence of the gospel.”

And that was especially true during the CNN visit, he added.

“We had a staff liaison who stayed with the CNN people for 72 hours during that weekend,” Corts said. “And they were very impressed with the attitude of our students and faculty.

“One of the CNN crew related a story to me that a student even apologized after one of the programs for being a bit rowdy,” he said. “But I can’t say enough wonderful things about our students. They maintained a Christlike spirit during the programs.”

As for the CNN crew, Corts said he was pleasantly surprised by their kindness and thoughtfulness during the weekend tapings. “The CNN family urged their staff to be respectful and they were,” he said. “They even highlighted the college sign with special lighting and gave us several plugs during the shows.”

And the news crews, sometimes given to expressing themselves with “colorful metaphors,” managed to guard their tongues during their visit, Corts noted.

Even after the CNN visit, Corts said students and faculty have continued to seek ministry opportunities. On Monday, Nov. 13, a group led by one of the college’s trustees met to pray for the nation and a controversial Tuesday afternoon protest march directed by Jesse Jackson.

“We spent a considerable amount of time praying that the spirit of God would prevail during the march and after it was over, we thanked the Lord that things were okay,” Corts said. “We have a tradition here that says this is the college that prayer built. And we believe it.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: PAUL R. CORTS.

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  • Todd Starnes