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SBC’s senior campus minister now ready for pioneer work

DURANT, Okla. (BP)–He makes a killer root beer float. And that’s probably what some students will remember about him. But most will recall that he genuinely loved them, was a true friend and cared about their spiritual future.

For 39 years John Heath directed Baptist student activities at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant. He officially retired from the position June 1. He was the longest-tenured Baptist Collegiate minister in Oklahoma as well as the Southern Baptist Convention.

When Heath came to SEOSU in 1962, he had no experience with student work. While attending school at East Texas College in Commerce, he had a renewal in his Christian life, and his wife became a Christian.

“Within two to three weeks of that time, God called me into ministry,” Heath said.

He was attending church in Greenville, Texas, when the pastor of that church was called to Calvary Baptist Church in Durant, and became a member of the advisory committee for the Baptist Student Union, which was then sponsored by local churches and the association.

“He recommended me for the position of BSU director, and although I had no experience, everything clicked, and it just seemed right,” Heath said.

Heath, his wife and three small children moved to Durant, which would be their home for almost four decades. A fourth child was born six years later.

At the time Heath began work at SEOSU, enrollment at the school was around 2,000-2,400 students. It has now grown to almost 5,000. About 30-40 students were involved in Baptist student work, which has now increased to 500-700 students.

“We worshiped those kids to death the first couple of years I was here,” Heath admitted. “We had vespers Monday, Tuesday and Thursday night, noonday every day, morning prayer services and international night on Fridays.”

But he said the emphasis grew through the years more toward being out on campus.

Heath said reaching students who are non-Christians or not Baptists is sometimes easier because they have not been “churched out.” He said students who have been in strong discipleship programs in youth groups are “strong wherever they go, but if youth are involved just in activities or weekend events, it usually takes more work to get them involved in student work on campus.”

He said in many ways students never change. The “why am I here, where am I going” and the “boy-girl thing” doesn’t change much, Heath said, but the changing world and political focus has had an effect on the students.

“I’ve been through the Iranian crisis, with many students from Iran on campus, the hippie scene, the Jesus movement and the changing dress codes, but one thing that has remained constant is the students’ commitment to God,” Heath noted.

He said the introduction of the Living Bible and other modern translations caused students to start reading the Bible.

“They became involved because they could understand the Word,” he said.

One of the biggest things students face is hypocrisy with the things they see at church and home, Heath noted.

“They see parents or deacons drinking or out with other partners, and don’t see a difference in those who are Christians,” Heath said.

He said in a group of 150 students, at least half of them come from broken homes.

“And these are kids who are coming to BCM [Baptist Collegiate Ministry] regularly,” he noted.

“All of us have to realize that we’re role models,” he emphasized. “I’ve found the only way you can really help these kids is to genuinely love them, have them in your home,” he said. “And even then, it comes down to a one-on-one relationship.”

Through the years, Heath said, missions has been given more emphasis, with a spring break mission trip each year and a push on summer mission projects.

“We want students to get a glimpse of global missions,” he said.

Through the years, students who have graduated from SEOSU and the BCM program have gone out into the world as strong Christians, Heath said, with many working on the mission field, as pastors and church staff. One of the numerous success stories is a former member of a successful band who was on alcohol and drugs, and somehow got connected with the BCM program.

“We got hold of him, and now he is a solid Christian,” Heath said.

After 39 years, Heath said he is not tired of working with students. In fact, he and his wife, Sue, will soon be off on a venture to Vermont where they will begin student work in that state.

“We began talking about working in Vermont about two years ago, and there’s never been any question that we would go,” Heath said.

He said there are nine to 10 colleges in the state with no Baptist student work on any of them.

“We will be living in Burlington where there are 24,000 college students in four colleges,” he said.

Heath said they will be working through churches and campus administrations to get student work started. But there are only 11-12 Baptist churches in the state.

The Heaths hope to find a home that will be large enough to have students come for Bible studies and fellowship.

“We’ll try to meet some students who are Christians, and get the work started through them,” Heath said. He said he also hoped to get some dorm studies started.

“I can’t imagine being in anything but student work,” Heath said. “It’s been my life for 39 years.”

He said the people in student work in Oklahoma have made a difference in his life — people such as Bob Lee, state Collegiate Ministries specialist; and student directors Max Barnett at the University of Oklahoma; Charles Lillard at the University of Central Oklahoma, and Jim Morrison at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, all of whom have been in Baptist Collegiate ministries work for at least 30 years.

“Can you imagine this many guys being in the same place for more than 30 years? It could only happen in Oklahoma.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN AND SUE HEATH.

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  • Dana Williamson