EDITOR’S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches concluded March 13 in conjunction with the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, with a goal of $70 million to help pay the salaries and ministry support of 5,000-plus missionaries serving in North America under the SBC’s North American Mission Board. For more information, go to www.anniearmstrong.com.
BALTIMORE (BP)–College freshman Shemaiah Strickland suffered from horrible nightmares when she first came to Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Adjusting to being away from her home in Atlanta for the first time, Strickland said she just wanted to belong. At a campus fair for the university’s various organizations, she met Southern Baptist missionary Vickie Stewart, who was staffing a booth with fellow campus chaplains for The University Memorial Chapel.
Strickland had prayed to God for help with her loneliness. “I asked God what to do,” she said, “and He sent me to Vickie.”
Stewart gave Strickland her card and invited her to call whenever she wanted to talk. She made the call, and Stewart later led her to Christ.
Though Strickland had attended church off and on, she never felt she had a personal relationship with Jesus. She started going to Stewart’s weekly on-campus Bible studies with other young women and was impressed with the teaching and inspired by the seriousness of the students’ study of the Scriptures.
Strickland remembers telling herself, “I don’t need church. I could just read the Bible.”
“That was my thing. But then I came here and Vickie brought me to Christ with her teachings,” she said.
At first, Strickland felt intimidated by how the girls could recall and apply Bible verses so readily during discussions.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got a relationship with God and I can’t even quote a Scripture. All I know is, ‘I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.’ How can I get closer to God if I don’t read His Word and if I don’t know the type of person that He is?'”
Reaching students such as Strickland is what Stewart is passionate about. Simply known as Miss Vickie, Stewart energetically moves around campus — “not preaching, but connecting and building relationships” with them wherever she can.
“I might say, ‘Hello, my name is Miss Vickie. How can I pray for you?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, really, you want to pray for me?’ And I’ll say, yes, and I tell students, ‘I am here to serve you. Here’s my number if you need prayer or want to talk. I am available.'”
Stewart — jointly funded by the North American Mission Board and the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware — is one of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American missions.
With an upbeat spirit, the petite, 4-foot-11 inch Stewart seems to draw students and staff to her like a magnet at this historic black college. Founded in 1867 by the Methodist Episcopal Church as a school to train pastors, the college became a state university in 1975 and offers a wide variety of programs to its 7,500 students.
Doctoral student Katherine Lloyd meets weekly for lunch with Miss Vickie. Lloyd said it was hard for her, too, coming to a new environment, leaving a rural area to attend school and live in an urban area for the first time. But a mutual friend introduced her to Stewart via Facebook and, she said, “We immediately connected.”
“Vickie is my only consistent Christian woman friend I have,” Lloyd said. “She’s the only person I know here that I can go to as a woman and talk about stuff and know that this is coming from someone who is likeminded in Christ. It’s a quick hour, but it’s just good to know that once a week I have that fellowship.
“When you see Miss Vickie, you feel better because she’s excited to see you, and she’ll give you a hug and she’ll talk and say, ‘I’m praying for you.'”
In 2008, when Stewart came to Morgan State as a campus missionary, God brought her back home to her native Baltimore and gave her the desires of her heart. Since she first felt called to missions in 1981, Stewart had long wanted to work with college students.
But first God led her to work with the urban poor in Brazil as a missionary with the International Mission Board. After she was appointed in 2000, she initially worked with students but ended up serving as a church planter while there. Stewart said she never intended to leave Brazil, but she returned home after her father died to help care for her mother.
Soon after coming home in 2007, Stewart applied for the campus ministry position.
Stewart was a natural to continue the work begun a year earlier at Morgan State by Ryan Palmer, pastor of Seventh Metro Church in Baltimore — the church where Annie Armstrong, for whom the North American missions offering is named, was baptized around 1870.
Palmer said his church and others within the state convention had been praying for three years for direction and for someone like Stewart. He said it was “a step back, wow moment” to find someone with her training and experience with the IMB. In addition, she was a native of Baltimore, young and an African American.
“Vickie is an evangelist at heart, and I don’t use that term loosely,” Palmer said. “She is sincerely concerned about lostness. That’s just a good fit for the work we’re doing at Morgan State. In addition to that, she follows up on lostness with her strong passion for discipleship.”
Together, Palmer and Stewart lead an off-campus, coed Bible study called The Point, which targets unchurched students. Vickie also holds a weekly Bible study for young women on campus.
As she left Brazil, Stewart remembers being comforted by a pastor who told her that perhaps “God brought you to Brazil to show you that you’re unique and that you can do anything where He calls you. God is sending you home to work with women who are hurting.”
Today, those words seem prophetic. The young women in her weekly Bible study have many emotional needs, Stewart said, and are searching and figuring out what they want to do with their lives.
She prayed for God to send her students much like Strickland, who have teachable spirits and who are not Christians and are hungry for the Word.
Each Thursday night, Stewart’s Bible study begins with a boxed meal and a lively praise report in which students share answered prayers and good things that are happening in their lives. Last spring the group studied from the book “The Christian in a Post-Modern World,” which stimulated discussion.
“We talk about what it means to love God and what it means to be a Christian,” Stewart said. “Christianity is a way of life. It’s a relationship, not a religion.”
Her enthusiastic teaching style is both intimate and thought-provoking and shows her love of apologetics, which she developed early on as a student at Lancaster Bible College. She often plays devil’s advocate with the students to teach them how to defend their faith.
“Don’t let philosophies determine how you think about God. Get in the Word,” she said while tapping on her Bible. “We have something good.”
Stewart gives them practical advice, reminding them they have everything when they trust God, and she encourages them to memorize Scripture verses that are significant to them.
“Trust yourselves, not me, not the preacher, not anyone else. You should know whether or not you are a Christian. Because you can’t say you’re a Christian and live like the devil, right? You can’t say you’re a Christian and never open the Bible and read God’s Word. The Holy Spirit will convict you.”
Sophomore Charlene Thomas takes it all in and even carries flashcards with verses on them to memorize. She said she likes meeting with a group of young women who share questions and look for answers, and she values having access to Miss Vickie for godly advice.
“She’s so open, not only to us but to God, and you can see God in her. That makes her trustworthy,” Thomas said. “Her spirit, her smile and the way she talks to us makes us feel like family.”
Laura Sikes is a photojournalist in Alexandria, Va.