I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.
I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists. Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.
My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world. I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others. I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.
In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology. I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions. And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.
By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.