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New Orleans Seminary holds first post-Katrina graduation

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary celebrated an historic graduation Dec. 17 -– its first since Hurricane Katrina. In spite of the disruption caused by the storm at the start of the semester, 137 graduates completed their degrees.

The graduation, held at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., marked another milestone in the seminary’s effort to recover for the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. The tone of the ceremony was triumphant and worshipful. The graduates understood the significance of the event.

“God proved Himself to be faithful and true,” M.Div. grad April Price said. “Through this hurricane, I had to learn to rejoice in Him always and regardless of the circumstances it was amazing to see how faithful He was.”

Price said walking across the stage was “even sweeter” because of difficulties each graduate faced.

In his remarks to the graduating class, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley praised the work of the students and faculty following the hurricane, calling their efforts “the stuff of legend.”

“It’s taken two things in particular for these graduates to get where they are, and these faculty members to accomplish what they have accomplished,” Kelley said. “It has taken grit and grace -– the essential qualities that will follow you the rest of your life in ministry.”

Pointing to Acts 20:24 and 32, Kelley said the Apostle Paul taught these qualities in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders. Paul showed his grit by following God’s call no matter what obstacles he faced. He considered God’s calling more important than his own life.

“If you’re going to make it in ministry, you have to have that kind of grit,” Kelley said. “No matter what the obstacles, you are going to finish the course that God puts out for you.”

Kelley noted that Paul was going to fulfill a ministry he did not choose himself, but one that God had assigned.

The fact that God has assigned a particular ministry is fundamental when ministers face difficult circumstances -– like completing seminary training after losing everything in a hurricane, Kelley said.

“What you do, you do at God’s direction,” he said. “You do not do it because it is easy. You do not do it because it is rewarding. You do it because you simply must finish that which God has called you to do.”

Kelley said that Hurricane Katrina gave students vital experience in following God. He encouraged the “Katrina class” to apply the same passionate commitment they have exhibited after the storm throughout their life in ministry. When people follow after God in difficult times, God receives the glory, Kelley said.

Kelley described “grit” as the determination to follow God no matter the cost or circumstance. God’s grace, he said, sees believers through when they make willful decision to be obedient to His calling.

Although the graduates faced circumstances like no other seminary class, Kelley said they also received more grace than any other seminary class, such as the efforts of Southern Baptists to provide free housing and financial assistance for the seminary family.

“The call of God is more than a direction of where to go; the call of God is a promise of God’s provision,” Kelley said. “What God calls us to do, God will enable us to do.

“You can’t quite understand grit -– the determination to finish what God gives you to do no matter what -– if you don’t also understand grace,” he continued.

As he walked through the campus in October after the students, faculty and staff had returned to retrieve their personal items, Kelley said he thought about the obedience of those who lost so much in following God’s call on their lives.

“Everyone who was here was here in obedience to God. They were not running from, they were running to the call of God,” Kelley said. “It made me realize afresh that whenever we follow Jesus we are not necessarily safe, but we are always secure.”

God will provide what His people need, he noted.

“You can’t get to the fullness of God’s power until you get to the difficult days of your life,” he said. “The watchwords for this class are ‘grit’ and ‘grace.’ You have demonstrated your grit by staying with it and as a result we have experienced His grace.”

Kelley recounted how he and other school officials met in Atlanta three days after the storm with one goal -– forging a plan for the seminary’s future. Two days later the group had developed a plan to continue every course started before the hurricane and make it possible for students to graduate.

The faculty embraced the plan and went to work reformatting each course, all the while dealing with their losses.

Many of the men and women on the faculty lost most of their possessions and had to relocate, enrolling their children in new schools.

“It is the stuff of legend,” Kelley said. “It is the greatest performance by an academic faculty in the history of theological education in the United States of America.”

As Kelley finished his praise of the faculty’s hard work, the graduates stood to honor their professors. The audience followed with a standing ovation.

“This group of men and women demonstrated for all time their passion and love for Jesus and their passion and commitment to their students,” he said. “And we are here on their shoulders.”

During the commencement ceremony, the seminary awarded ministry certificates, undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees from 24 different programs. Sixty-three of the graduates earned master’s degrees and 18 earned degrees on the doctoral level.