By Jarrett L. Carter, HBCU Digest
A crowd of just over 150 worshipers listened transfixed on a warm August morning as Morgan State University Memorial Chapel Director Bernard Keels drew parallels between the life of Christ, and the discipline needed for Morgan’s entering freshman class members to be successful.
“You’re not rooming with your parents anymore,” the preacher boomed as he walked through the aisles of the sunlit sanctuary. “There will be people who will tell you, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s just a one night stand,’ or ‘it’s just one drink.’ Will they be liars? Will they present themselves as lunatics, legendary figures in your life? Or will you have a relationship with the Lord that will guide you through these challenging times?”
It was the inaugural worship service of the fall semester at the Chapel. The theme for the hour, ‘Liar, Lunatic, Legend or Lord.’
It’s a service that Dr. Keels and student parishioners hope to evolve and grow for campus community members seeking spiritual support. A group of 15 Morgan students, alumni, faculty and community members -- the Friends of the Chapel -- has formed around this hope, working for the last three years to raise money for renovations and program expansion, along with awareness about the house formerly known as the Morgan Christian Center.
Despite its renowned history as a training ground for world-class engineers, educators and health care professionals, Morgan has not been exempt from the occasional campus fight, sex tape or random rant from a disgruntled student or alumnus eager to find viral celebrity on the Internet.
Paired with statistics and news coverage about HBCUs in economic crisis, low graduation and retention rates and dwindling relevance, Morgan and other HBCUs regularly struggle to find balance in a pop culture driven by sex, violence, and controversy. Despite many HBCUs having historical ties with Methodist and Baptist communities through their founding, only a handful still hold a recognizable brand in faith-based communities. Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel , Spelman College's Sisters Chapel and Tougaloo College’s Woodworth Memorial Chapel are among the most popular chapels in HBCU culture, and each is in symbol more than day-to-day activity.
It’s this history, says Dr. Keels, which makes the chapel presence on HBCU campuses familiar and more necessary today than ever before.
“In our tradition, as people of color, we’ve always had a strong connection to how the exercising of our faith informs our professional, ethical and moral choices. So in the black community, almost all of the college-trained people had a very sound basis for faith and understood what their purpose was in life.”
Keels, with more than 40 years of ministerial and pastoral experience, says that HBCU chapels are the “spiritual heartbeat” of a campus, and serves as a focal point for members of the HBCU community to examine existence and belief beyond religious practice or doctrine. Keels’ life is a testimony all its own -- the Birmingham, AL native and son of a single mother holds degrees from the Yale University School of Divinity.
In his office, adorned with small and medium-sized framed church programs past, biblical verses, and letters of thanks and appreciation, Keels leans back in his chair away from a large wooden desk, mildly cluttered with memos and handwritten notes. It will be weeks before he preaches his inaugural sermon of the semester to the incoming freshman class. Paired with Keels’ graying beard, thin-rimmed glasses and rich bass voice, the scene envelops with the comfort of a pastoral counseling session after Friday night prayer service.
“A lot of people talk about religion in the sense of being Christian, Muslim or Jewish, and that may be important in the sense of what you belong to denomination, but what is more important than that is relationship. What is your relationship to the one who creates? What is your relationship with the one who has gifted you with the intellect for you to even dare enter the academy and succeed at it?”
Keels says that he has been pleasantly surprised at the number of students who regularly attend chapel at Morgan, which is not a formal parish with membership rolls. Since his arrival in 2008, attendance at Sunday services has grown to nearly 160 worshipers, a number that pushes students and visitors, literally, to the edge of their pews at any given worship experience or activity.
At just under 8,000 students, Morgan State University is one of two historically black colleges in the City of Baltimore, and among four in Maryland. It is the largest of the state’s HBCU campuses, and like many HBCUs, its current profile as a doctoral research university traces back to a humble, post-emancipation founding mission of training black American men for the ministry.
The chapel dates back to 1939, when economic pressure of the era forced the college trustees to sell the college to the State of Maryland. The sale gave the trustees an endowment to purchase land adjacent to the campus and construct a new center for religious activities, and in 1941, the new facility was dedicated.
Designed by Albert Irving Cassell, one of the leading black architects of the 20th century, it is one of a number of iconic buildings on historically black colleges campuses throughout Maryland, Washington D.C. and Virginia. Howard University’s Founder’s Library is perhaps his most famous design.
In 2009, Morgan State took over the deed to the Chapel, one year after Keels’ arrival at Morgan. He would soon convene an advisory board of campus constituents with the goal of re-envisioning the Chapel’s programmatic impact on the student body and within Northeast Baltimore.
But with crumbling infrastructure, limited space for growing attendance and missing modern amenities necessary to attract and sustain a student-centered faith based community, the board set its sights on fundraising and marketing the chapel’s goal for progressive, purpose-building activities.
The impact of the Friends’ advocacy has already worked wonders to members of the university community. Friday Jummah prayers for Muslim students, faculty and staff are now held in ventilated rooms with restored carpeting and lighting. It is a long departure from the broken window blinds and stained floors, present just a few months ago. But even with the cosmetic fixes, numbers continue to stretch the chapel’s physical capacity beyond comfort and accessibility.
So important is the chapel to Dr. Leonard Simmons, that the 1953 graduate of Morgan State College says he desires for the chapel to be the site for his memorial service. Simmons, former president of the Friends of the Chapel, fondly recalls the Christian Center as the center of the school’s spiritual engagement, but also as the hub for intellectual discourse among students and the host site for some of black America’s great scholars who came to Morgan as guest lecturers.
“We went there for classes, but also for presentations by very distinguished scholars. I remember, for example, Professor Frank Snowden came to talk to us, as well as J. Saunders Redding, a very distinguished author.”
Simmons says that the chapel, by its nature, challenges students to a higher level of critical thinking within areas of how they find and define their own personal value in their lives and within the world. Even with activities and discussions that are not spiritual in nature, the setting prompts an injection of morals and values that likely would not be present or as robust in the classroom or dorm room.
“I think it is essential for all colleges, universities and institutions of higher learning to have some mechanism whereby students’ spirituality can be developed. I recently read a study out of UCLA, which underscored that spirituality, should receive the same support as academic development. Students are seeking meaning, direction and purpose in their lives. They can only develop that purpose for themselves if they are able to grow spiritually.”
DeShauntra Johnson, a junior history major from Suitland, MD is among the students who regularly attend chapel. She and a group of chapel students participate in the ‘Feed My Sheep’ initiative, where students make sandwiches after service on Sunday afternoon and deliver them to a local Salvation Army on the following Monday.
“It’s a great venue to go and have worship,” Johnson says. “We’re grateful that the Chapel has been made available to students to use to study and be in fellowship with one another. This isn’t just about a particular religion, it’s an interfaith center, and it is important to a lot of people on the campus. It’s good to see change and a place for people to clear their mind and find new spiritual ground.”
Monzona Whaley, a public relations major from Salisbury, MD and junior class representative on the university’s Student Government Association, is a member of the Friends of the Chapel. He and fellow students have raised just over $5,000 through a ‘Jammin’ for Jesus’ concert campaign launched in 2011. The concert, which attracts choirs from throughout Baltimore City, helped the Chapel to purchase new sound equipment, and looks to raise the same amount of money this year for window treatments, paintings and the commissioning of a mural for the front of the chapel’s sanctuary.
“I built a relationship with Rev. Keels, and I begun discussing with him different things that needed to be done,” said Whaley. “I could sense his want for the Chapel to become a better place, and he really moved me to want to help out.”
Last week, on a cold November morning; months after the inaugural sermon at the University Chapel welcomed the class of 2016 to the university and days after Hurricane Sandy passed through Baltimore with much fanfare and limited impact on the Morgan campus, Keels and students are promoting the Chapel’s Jackie Burley Memorial Thanksgiving Day Dinner. The annual event aims to provide for MSU students, staff and community members who are unable to travel home for the holidays or cannot afford a meal.
Scaffolding looms above the main entrance to the building, by way of $26,000 the Friends have raised for new furniture, interior treatment to floors and walls, and annexed space for more programs soon to arrive. Friends’ officials say that Morgan State University administration has pledged $200,000 towards improvements for the building and its programs, and that the chapel is on the short list of facilities to potentially be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
And all it required was a little help from some friends.