Ken Gordon, a master photographer and graduate of Alcorn State University (ASU), posted to his Facebook page a breathtaking video about his alma mater. The short film is an aerial survey of what Alcornites affectionately call “the Reservation”. There we see stately buildings with classic walls daring to stand on lush emerald hills and between peaceful valleys. The campus’ nearly 1,700 acres are shown, illustrating that Alcorn has the most naturally beautiful campus in the state. There is something indeed majestic and mystical about Lorman’s little slice of Paradise. I often hear from alumni and current scholars that there the air is a little cleaner, the water a little sweeter, and milk and honey flow freely beneath the shade of giant trees. I’m not sure about how the air and water quality compares to other places in the Magnolia State or the world, but there is something undeniably moving about this institutional gem situated in Southwest Mississippi.
Underneath its beauty is also resilience. Alcorn has been through much since 1871 but, as ASU History Research Associate Dr. Josephine M. Posey in her authoritative history notes, Alcorn has come against great odds and persevered. This is because her people are noble and of great faith in what’s possible. I soon discovered this when I arrived there in 2013. The bravery and fortitude of the students, faculty, staff, and alumni make this HBCU a standout in the SWAC and across the nation. It is also unique in another, deeper way. Though modern in many aspects, Alcorn still has the mystique of black universities of yesteryear when the agenda was both education and moral formation. In other words, at Alcorn we address head and heart because for us knowledge and character matter. Many of us image for students the respect and dignity we effortlessly deserve through our words, deeds, and clothes. Good manners, social etiquette, and a global perspective are mixed into the strong tradition of academics, agriculture, and athletics. Serving at Alcorn has been like stepping into a parallel universe of mores and folkways long forgotten or dismissed by those now too “evolved” to be old school. But it’s the dual purpose that makes us special.
This has been especially true regarding the respect for religion and religious leadership. By this I don’t mean that everyone at Alcorn is religious, or that every religious person walks the same spiritual path. We certainly have persons of different faiths and some who are skeptical of God-talk. But my time on the Reservation has been one marked by religious hospitality. I serve as Director of Student Religious Life, which means I coordinate the religious dimension of the student experience. Nonetheless students aren’t the only ones who value the presence of spiritual leadership. Staff, campus police, and faculty often call on me for guidance. And there are ways in which the religious vision of many Alcornites is old time: it’s big mama’s religion for the 21st century. Admittedly I enjoy being in a place that still holds mutual respect for clergy. I don’t feel like a figure head or a nod to a religious constituency. Many at ASU see religion at is best as valuable to the human experience, especially to the education and development of young (and not so young) men and women who need a moral compass as they navigate life and work.
I thus cherish being part of Alcorn’s fabric by cultivating the ethical and spiritual dimensions of students. This is not done forcefully but rather in invitational ways. In other words, we are not forcing people to be religious but inviting students and others to experience the good religion offers to body, soul, and mind in the context of higher learning. There are already students of deep faith or students seeking for deep faith who are alike interested in what we offer across the spectrum. Helping them find purpose and direction at one of the most pivotal junctures in their lives is fulfilling. And I’m privileged to offer that in a culture where I’m not a stranger because of my faith. I am mentor, coach, pastor-figure, and a safe and listening ear when needed.
For so many Alcornites faith has meant fortitude. Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams once told me that when she was a student at Alcorn chapel service was required. Students who be dragged out of their dorms and escorted to Oakland Memorial Chapel for worship and character formation. With all she has been through, she testified, it was her abiding faith in God that saw her through. Mother Myrlie knows that. I’m sure she and countless others knew that when they arrived to campus. There are others, however, who in varied ways get that while there. One of the blessings I receive each spring near the end of the Ethics course I teach is hearing students say that I taught them how to be better people. Without preaching to them (I think) I simply remind them that they are Alcorn Braves called to higher ethical excellence. Whether in the Chapel or in the classroom, they are learning that knowledge and character matter. I am blessed to serve students (and others) of diverse faiths and to do so on a campus where faith, character, and spiritual life are explored and seen as important dimensions to educational vocation. In a speedily secularizing nation, I hope Alcorn will continue to demonstrate that a quality education must address the whole person. I believe we will.
And that is why Alcorn State University will remain a giant in learning’s band.