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New Orleans alumni reflect on past, hear challenge for future

ST. LOUIS (BP)–Intent on committing suicide by jumping off a bridge and taking their baby with them, a desperate north Alabama couple drove to New Orleans. Deciding first to feed their baby, so she at least would die with a full stomach, they stopped at the neighborhood grocery at the foot of the bridge.

Meanwhile, two seminary students intent on buying food for a Friday evening of entertainment, also came into the store. Upon noticing the disheveled couple with the baby dressed only in a diaper, Don Wilton and David Odom decided to open their wallets and give the family all the money they had.

Sneaking up behind the overweight, barefoot man, Wilton rolled up more than $200 in bills and stuck them in the man’s back, telling him not to turn around.

With a gentle voice, he told the fearful man, “My friend, you don’t know who I am. But I want you to know that there is another man and I [in] here tonight who love the Lord Jesus Christ. He has done something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Because of him, we just want to give to you something from the two of us.”

When the man tearfully received the money, Wilton had no idea that he would see him again.

Several years later, as a faculty member at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Wilton, a South Africa native, finished preaching the semester’s opening chapel message and was greeted by a man who said he recognized his accent.

The man recounted how on that dark night years ago he and his wife were so encouraged not so much by the money but by the gentle words of the man who wouldn’t let them see his face. The man told Wilton of their desperation and the suicide pact they had made. Instead of ending everything that night, the act of kindness had set him on a path to salvation and to an eventual call to ministry.

Speaking to more than 350 NOBTS alumni who gathered at the America’s Center in St. Louis for their annual luncheon, Wilton said, “It’s not about the size of our church or the number of people who walk down the aisle; it’s about our willingness to be faithful to the Lord.”

Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., is chairing the alumni portion of the seminary’s New Horizons: Equipping Leaders to Change the World capital campaign, a four-phase project to revitalize the campus and provide for a range of student needs.

With his comments, Wilton kicked off the alumni campaign, challenging every alumnus to give at least $100 a year for the next three years to New Horizons. Contributions in the alumni division will be used for student housing, by a vote of the division’s executive committee because alumni can identify with the need for better student housing, he said. “Having lived there, and judging by the response so far, nothing could give us greater joy.” he added.

Alumnus Paul Moore, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala., said he remembers his small efficiency apartment on campus. “The apartments were so small that you had to go outside to change your mind,” he laughed.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he still remembers the address of the apartment he and his wife, Rebekah, had come home to after their honeymoon. He said they later learned that Jim and Jeanette Henry of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., had lived in the same apartment building.

Assisted by seven regional chairs who will oversee 35 co-chairs and more than 100 vice-chairs in each region and state, Wilton continued, “We all have so much to be grateful for in our lives. God has given us so much. Now it’s our turn.”

Two distinguished alumni were honored at the luncheon.

Paul Brooks, who earned the master of theology degree from NOBTS in 1969, has served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Raytown, Mo., since 1985. He led the church to relocate to a new 3,000-seat worship center in 1998. The 7,000-member church has led the state of Missouri in Cooperative Program giving and baptisms many times in the years he has served as pastor.

Also honored was Chette LaRue Williams Sr., who earned the master of divinity degree from NOBTS in 1993. He currently serves as a fulltime campus director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Auburn (Ala.) University. Williams formerly served as president of IMPACT Ministries in Spartanburg, S.C., and as pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church in New Orleans.

NOBTS President Chuck Kelley shared the good news of record seminary enrollment, the status of a major building program (with the first new student housing to be built in more than 30 years) and the achievement of the $8 million base goal for the New Horizons campaign. With last year’s enrollment exceeding 3,000 students for the first time in seminary history, Kelley reported this year’s enrollment is on a pace to set a new record. The seminary’s church-focused, competency-based curriculum has continued to attract students in record numbers, he said.

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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