Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Part I: A higher grounding

Part II: Answer to a prayer

Last of three parts

AZUSA, Calif. — The predawn skies are a deep black-blue when Jon Wallace begins his twice-weekly climbs into the San Gabriel mountains.

Mr. Wallace, president of Azusa Pacific University, heads through tall grass up the Garcia Trail 26 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Joined at 6 a.m. by six faculty members and students, he trudges for a mile through mounds of mustard, sage, yucca, purple lupus and orange monkey flowers.

Along the way he comments on everything from theology to trail lizards.

As the sun rises, the sweaty group gathers for a short prayer at a spot overlooking 30 cities and towns containing a total of 1.5 million people and spread over 400 square miles in the glittering San Gabriel Valley.

By 7:15 a.m., Mr. Wallace is back at home, cuddling Cola, his black and brown springer spaniel. The holder of three business degrees, he is mulling over how he must raise $80 million in eight years for Azusa Pacific’s endowment, and bring in an additional $20 million for new buildings.

In the past 10 years, his school has doubled its square footage, budget and enrollment.

“We credentialed 1,200 teachers last year,” Mr. Wallace says of some of his graduates. “The need for educators in the state of California is huge.”

Azusa Pacific has had to adapt to California’s highly diverse populace. Of 3,423 full-time undergraduates, 19 percent are ethnic minorities or international students. Throw in part-timers — many Hispanic women enrolled in adult education — and the percentage shoots up a few points.

A total enrollment of 7,693, including graduate students, makes Azusa Pacific the largest of 104 schools in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.

Azusa Pacific also is a leader in the enrollment boom among evangelical Protestant and conservative Roman Catholic colleges as more baby boomers opt for a Christian education for their children. The Washington Times visited Azusa and nine other high-growth Christian schools to get a fix on the little-noticed phenomenon.

“For many diverse students,” Mr. Wallace explains, “a Christian college is not on their radar.”

So his school purchased address lists from black, Hispanic and Korean churches.

Campus life at Azusa Pacific is hardly white-bread. One faculty member sports a button opposing the American presence in Iraq. The coordinator of multiethnic programs is Korean. The homecoming king and queen last year were black.

Kneeland Brown, the homecoming king, plans to become an American Baptist minister. He was reluctant to enroll here.

“I prayed: ‘God, if You want me to go to school there, I’ll go,’” Mr. Brown says. “Then, within a week, I lost four scholarships. I went into debt to be here, but I’ve learned so much about myself.”

Pam Christian, who is black, is the administrator overseeing diversity. Too many blacks are not considering college at all, she says.

“I think there’s a real lack of hope for young people today,” she says. But some, she argues, “are enrolling in Christian colleges because they see them as places of hope.”

Students of many nationalities and colors relax in Azusa Pacific’s outdoor cafes, on promenades covered by enormous flowering plants. About 10 percent of the student body is non-Christian.

Qian Qi-Shen, a psychology major from China, is a Buddhist.

“The Christians are very nice here,” she says, “and I’ve learned to pray.”

Compact mix

Azusa Pacific sends 200 to 300 students overseas for study each year and imports 222.

“If we don’t globalize,” says Vic Bezjian, executive director of the college’s International Center, “we’ll be left behind.”

So globalize they have.

Todd Afshar, 21, a political science major, spent part of junior year running for mayor of Azusa, the tiny municipality that is home to the university. Mr. Afshar, son of Iranian immigrants, lost the March 4 election to the Hispanic incumbent by 700 votes. He expects to run again.

Ministering to this mix is no easy task, says college chaplain Chris Brown, who goes about campus in khaki shorts and sports shirts and stocks his office with Frisbees and footballs. He preaches at chapel Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the homespun style of radio personality Garrison Keillor.

“It’s a challenge to be three times a week in front of 3,423 critical thinkers,” Mr. Brown says. “The power in this country is not in money, land and politics. It’s in the media, those who can tell narrative creatively.”

The screen saver on the chaplain’s computer reads “3,423 eternities,” a reference to the destinies of those critical thinkers.

In counseling students about faith and sin, he gets questions on everything from parents’ divorces to roommate conflicts. Four students approached him in the past year about unplanned pregnancies. Unlike counterparts at secular colleges, he would not refer them to an abortion clinic.

One of Azusa’s selling points is compactness.

Duane Funderburk, dean of music, got a doctorate in chamber music from the University of Southern California. He points to one of his gifted piano majors, sophomore Crystal Rivette.

“A small school can mentor someone like Crystal,” he says, “whereas she’d be lost at USC. There are 1,000 music majors at USC and about 175 piano majors there. There are six at Azusa Pacific. Students here feel the faculty are part of their lives.

“You take a talent like her and meet with her twice a week, and have lunch with her, and you watch her grow.”

Miss Rivette, whose spring project was whipping up Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,” was at first a skeptic of Christian schools.

“I thought I’d get a watered-down education from a narrow perspective,” she says, “but I haven’t, so far. They’ve got some outstanding guest artists and good professors.”

‘Type-A Christians’

One perpetual challenge for Christian colleges is the perception that academics are substandard and students’ SAT scores aren’t up there with the elite schools.

A perfect score on the SAT is 1600; the average for all entering college freshmen this fall is 1026. Of 10 “new breed” Christian colleges surveyed by The Times for this series, the student body of only one — Southern Adventist University, at 930 — fell below the average. Most placed well above it.

Wheaton College, sometimes called “the Harvard of Christian colleges” and a haven for what’s known as “Type-A” Christian students, led the list at 1315.

Wheaton, perhaps best known as the alma mater of famed evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, ranks 53rd on the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of top liberal arts colleges. Its airy cafeteria was ranked best in the country last year by Princeton Review, in part because of mounds of fresh fruit and a daily output of 450 pizzas, 6,000 cookies and 45 pies.

The 143-year-old college counts 800 alumni in the Washington area, including an extensive network around Capitol Hill. White House speechwriter Michael Gerson is an alumnus; so is former Sen. Dan Coats, Illinois Republican; Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat; and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

There are plenty more in the ranks of Washington’s lobbyists, ambassadors, White House employees and other government workers. Todd Beamer, one of the heroes aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, was a Wheaton graduate.

National Merit Scholars make up 40 percent to 45 percent of each entering class of 576. The only cohort not applying in great numbers is minorities, who make up 10 percent of enrollment.

“Many black and Hispanic students haven’t heard of this place,” Wheaton admissions director Shawn Leftwich admits.

“The students who turn us down aren’t going to other Christian colleges,” Provost Stan Jones says. “They are turning us down to go to the Ivys.”

Many other Christian colleges struggle to retain 50 percent or more of freshman classes, Mr. Jones notes, “but we retain 90 percent.”

Dangerous minds

What makes students take a second look at a school in Chicago’s western suburbs? One answer is the 171 full-time faculty, whose salaries average $63,000, highest among the CCCU’s 104 affiliated schools.

Full professors average $70,000, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Wheaton has attracted some of the better names in academia. History professors Mark Noll and Edith Blumhofer, the latter also director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, are just two.

“Our goal generally is not to indoctrinate our students,” Mr. Jones says. “At its best Wheaton College will be a dangerous place for students, because there’s nothing more dangerous than ideas. They’ll read Freud, Nietzsche and Kant, the most dangerous thinkers of contemporary and past ages. In the end, students will make their own decisions. The best thing we can do is not be hypocrites, and to be healthy and self-critical.”

Wheaton’s combination of spiritual seriousness and academic capability got some ribbing in the media this past year when the college decided to allow student dances on campus. Despite headlines such as “Footloose and Still Faithful,” administrators insist it was a carefully considered move.

Wheaton already had a dance ministry, Zoe’s Feet.

During chapel one morning just before graduation, young men and women in black tights dance out the story of a prodigal daughter in a piece choreographed by sophomore Karyn Moy.

“I’m grateful I came to Wheaton because it was here that God found me,” Miss Moy says, before the ensemble swings into an Afro-tribal rock tune by contemporary Christian singer Nicole C. Mullen.

Wheaton students feel compelled to get it together spiritually, physically and academically.

“We’ve been told so much that we’re the cream of the crop that we sort of believe it,” one student told the journal Religion and Education in 2001, “and we feel that we have to live up to that.”

Just what they must live up to is illustrated by Wheaton President Duane Litfin, who points to President Bush’s dramatic speech to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001.

“Denny Hastert was behind him, Michael Gerson wrote his speech and Bush was mentioning Todd [while his widow] Lisa Beamer was sitting in the balcony,” Mr. Litfin says. “Right there in one frame, you had four diverse Wheaton grads. What other school can you say that about? It was a reminder to me that we are doing what we do well. We are turning out people who make a difference.”

Belief on a bluff

Along with the Southern Baptists, Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists, America’s 8.3 million Lutherans have plowed millions of dollars into education. One of the most conservative Lutheran denominations, the 2.5 million-member Missouri Synod, has built a network of 10 schools around the name Concordia, which is Latin for “unity.”

The Missouri Synod’s crown jewel is in Mequon, a northern suburb of Milwaukee. At 4,900 full- and part-time students, Concordia University is the world’s second-largest Lutheran college, after the Lutheran University of Brazil.

Situated on a bluff 135 feet above a deserted Lake Michigan beach, the site was a Catholic convent until sold to the Lutherans in 1982 for $7.1 million.

Undergraduates number more than 1,300 and this fall’s record entering class is 500 students, up 10 percent from last year. And the freshman class of 450 last year showed a 10 percent increase.

The only signs of the Catholic past are the chapel’s marble flooring and stations of the cross. In the back, a 21-foot-high stained-glass window depicts Jesus Christ in a blue robe. The image originally was that of the Virgin Mary, until the Lutherans had the head redone.

“Parents perceive us as a safe place, both physically and spiritually,” says Ken Gaschk, vice president for enrollment. “If they send their kids here, they won’t return as Buddhist monks. They won’t come out of here questioning their faith.”

Concordia’s schools produce almost all the denomination’s pastors and church musicians, as well as teachers for 1,000 Lutheran elementary schools and 92 high schools. Twelve percent to 15 percent of students head into public schools around the “Lutheran Bible Belt” cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Eight percent of the campus enrollment — 95 students — are pre-seminary students.

Denomination founder Martin Luther was a music lover, and music majors are in great demand.

“We can’t process them out fast enough,” instrumental music director Louis Menchaca says. “Our job board is filled with organist positions.”

Concordia also pumps out nursing majors to fill the 1 million jobs for nurses that will open over the next seven years.

Wisconsin alone will need 24,000 new nurses, says Ruth Gresley, head of the School of Human Services. Concordia’s nursing school has seen a 50 percent jump in applications in two years, she says, despite stiff competition from large secular universities.

Small colleges are perceived as more helpful in placement and mentoring, she says, adding: “The tide of young conservative people brings a high interest in Christian colleges.”

Vegetarian faithful

Southern Adventist University sports the red brick and white columns typical of schools south of the Mason-Dixon line, but the rules are strict here in Collegedale, Tenn., seven miles northeast of Chattanooga.

Dorm checks each Saturday morning ensure that students are out worshipping in the college chapel or one of a dozen churches nearby.

The Seventh-day Adventists, a conservative Protestant denomination, worship on Saturdays. They’re known for emphasizing health and the teachings of influential early leader Ellen G. White.

Adventists swear off caffeine and meat, so don’t look for them in Southern’s cafeteria. The Adventist-owned supermarket across the street overflows with natural foods, fresh vegetables, rows of vitamins and soy products, but not a drop of java is in sight.

Along with bans on smoking, drinking and sexual activity, Adventists forbid dancing and the wearing of jewelry, citing the latter as vanity frowned on by the Apostle Paul. Until two years ago, movies were prohibited.

Parents appreciate the tight rein, says Vinita Sauder, Southern’s vice president of enrollment and marketing.

“The boomers want values for their children,” she says, “and whatever college can position themselves for that market will do great.”

Nursing is Southern’s largest major. Religion rose as the choice of major from 198 students to 243 this past school year, overwhelming the department’s 10 professors. The college produces half of the Adventist pastors in the country.

With 95 percent of students being Adventist, Southern earned the sobriquet “Southern Matrimonial College.”

Student body president Paul Hoover, 21, from Calhoun, Ga., turned down an opportunity to go to the University of Georgia. “I knew I wanted to marry an Adventist or Christian female,” he explains.

Indeed, he and a fellow Southern graduate wed in May.

“I felt you could get an education anywhere,” he says, but not a good Christian wife.

David Wright, 24, a theology major studying to be a pastor, met future bride Elizabeth Wilson, 22, of Silver Spring, at a lunch near campus held by his family. Three young women also were invited.

“Elizabeth,” he admits, “caught my eye.”

They married in July.

“There are other schools people could go to with no curfews and where girls are allowed in the dorms, which we don’t allow here,” Mr. Wright says. “But we have distinctives, and people still come. It makes this a school where people are serious about their spirituality.”

Pointing to the source

There are downsides: Financially strapped Southern is not adding enough staff in several departments, instructors say. As for faculty salaries? “Not a popular topic,” one says.

The Adventists’ strong parochial school system feeds students into 11 colleges across North America. Southern’s enrollment of 2,300 is an increase of 35 percent from 1,700 five years ago, for an impressive annual growth rate of 7 percent.

From student-led chapels on weeknights to religious paintings in the dorms, Southern, like other thriving evangelical colleges, seeks to build strong personal faith and passionate convictions to put that faith into action.

The new conservative Catholic schools see each graduate as a contribution to Western civilization. Evangelical Protestant colleges aspire to turn out graduates who will lead virtuous public and private lives.

Officials from each of the 10 schools visited by The Times for this series explain that their aim is to equip youth with the ability to account for the source of the hope that is in them.

Thus, the Rev. Gordon Bietz, Southern’s tall, dapper, silver-haired president, says his school attracts students by depicting itself as an incubator of passionate faith in Jesus Christ.

“From a pure marketing perspective, that works,” he says. “This time frame is a time of transition from programmed godliness — their parents’ — to their own godliness.”

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