Sowing seeds

Construction crews lower the steeple onto Charleston Southern’s Lightsey Chapel in 1983.

Rick Brewer moved to town as a teen in 1969. His dad was a pastor, and they’d go watch sports events at what was Baptist College at Charleston.

Back then, the North Charleston campus was a 400-acre stretch with a few buildings, gravel roads and not much else. In the middle of nowhere.

“It’s a lot prettier now,” Brewer says, grinning.

The school was born 50 years ago this year after a group of Christian men saw a need for a Christian college south of the Baptist-heavy Upstate.

The South Carolina Baptist Convention agreed, and more than 70,000 people donated $1 to $20,000 to see that dream become bricks and mortar.

Today, Brewer is vice president of student affairs and athletics at the renamed, much-grown Charleston Southern University with a mission to integrate faith into quality academics.

“We find Christ-centeredness in all things,” Brewer says. “We want every student to hear about the gospel.”

In a country where academia often is synonymous with anti-religious sentiment, CSU faculty don’t have to worry that praying with students or inviting them to chapel will garner scorn. Here, it gets a pat on the back.

The approach has appeal.

Today, nearly 3,400 students attend classes on campus plus another 150 online. More than one in four students is African-American. Its alumni include U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Shawn Jenkins, president and CEO of Benefitfocus.

Still affiliated with the S.C. Southern Baptist Convention, CSU offers five undergraduate degrees with 45 majors and six graduate degree programs. It remains the only accredited Christian college in eastern South Carolina, a big swath of Christian-heavy acreage.

About two-thirds of students come from the Lowcountry. Most stay here with their MBAs, teaching degrees, law enforcement badges and nursing licenses. They also take their Christian faith into those workplaces.

“Our students bring God’s glory into every profession,” Brewer says.

CSU’s next goal: Grow to 4,000 students by 2020.

CSU President Jairy Hunter Jr. spent his first 10 years on the job trying to grow a fledgling school with limited resources back when there was no Interstate 526, few bridges and scant population near the campus.

Yet, for 28 of his 30 years at CSU’s helm, Hunter has operated a balanced budget. The school has grown steadily and raised more money each year.

It even pushed to become a NCAA Division 1 school to do things like hold team prayer on a football field in front of 80,000 Florida State fans even though they got walloped.

Much of that is due to an epiphany.

In 1989, five years into his new role, Hunter went to his mother’s funeral. A nephew read from a diary where she’d written about praying that one of her two children would go into a Christian vocation.

Hunter hardly saw himself that way. He’d come up through the business world, then switched to education, but saw himself more as a college administrator than a man called by God to steer an entire campus to Christ.

“It never dawned on me that this could be God’s calling on my life,” he recalls.

Fast forward. Most college presidents last about six years. Thirty years later, Hunter remains the college’s second president — ever — and has seen its budget grow from less than $4 million to $70 million. And since that moment at his mother’ funeral, he has ensured the school’s Christian mission is front and center and everywhere in between.

“We’re trying to graduate students with strong values and strong work ethic,” Hunter says. “We stress integrity with our students.”

With a mission to integrate faith into academics, Hunter started academic programs that many said wouldn’t be profitable or help it grow. But evangelism trumped those goals.

“Everybody said don’t go into nursing. Don’t go into football. And don’t get a marching band,” he says.

Within five years, CSU did all three. After all, who can minister to people suffering or near death better than a nurse? Who more than a coach can steer young athletes toward faith? And, heck, who wants to go to a football game without a marching band?

Over the past three years, the nursing program alone has tripled from 40 to 120 per class, making it one of the largest programs on campus, says Andreea Meier, dean of the College of Nursing.

“Nursing is very much about compassion and goes hand in hand with faith,” Meier says. “We teach students to rely on biblical truths and faith to really help guide their actions. Concerns about loss and love and grief are concerns all throughout the Bible.”

About five years ago, Hunter realized something else. Students did a lot of community service in the name of faith. Professors talked about faith; pastors preached about it. But students weren’t always learning how biblical teachings applied to their academics or, in turn, how to apply and spread Christianity in their future work places.

“Just opening your class with prayer isn’t integrating your Christian faith,” says Jacqueline Fish, vice president for academic affairs.

She came to CSU after a 17-year career in law enforcement. Faith helped her cope in ways she hopes CSU professors can pass on.

“If I didn’t have faith when dealing with abused children and murdered children, I don’t know what I would have done,” Fish says. “It can really destroy you mentally if you don’t. You see the worst of the worst.”

Today, CSU professors must weave threads of faith into all classes. They teach evolution, for instance, but that they believe God created the world. They use mathematical formulas to calculate passages of time in ancient Bible stories. They pray during classes.

“The beauty is the tie-in,” says the Rev. Jon Davis, campus pastor.

Yet the school is no Bob Jones University. Christian faith is encouraged, not required, of students. Dancing is permitted. Sex outside of marriage is not.

And although it is Baptist, there’s a distinct lack of denominational feel on campus. Muslims, Jews, Baha’is and even atheists have come to class here.

The idea is that students of all faiths, or none, can come and get a quality education. But they’ll do so in an environment where professors and staff are Christians who openly discuss their faith.

“We’re not going to force it,” Fish says. “You have to make that conscious decision to come to faith. But we are the mission field here.”

Today, the campus has 25 student-led ministry groups and Elevate, a high-energy worship time for students.

“It changes the heartbeat of our campus,” says Tyler Davis, assistant dean of campus life.

Shortly after finishing his freshman year in 2005, wide receiver Eddie Gadson was killed in a car wreck, shocking his CSU coaches and teammates. The young player from Georgia had come as a walk-on and left with a scholarship after leading CSU with 69 catches for 792 yards. He had wanted to become a teacher and a coach.

Instead, his team dedicated the season to No. 21.

That fall, Charleston Southern hosted Coastal Carolina in the unofficial conference championship game. Coastal Carolina arrived with no conference losses; CSU had one.

In overtime, the final game-winning play for CSU began at the 21-yard line. The scoreboard glowed with 21, Gadson’s jersey number.

“It was a God thing that whole year,” says Jamey Chadwell, head football coach.

A good 30 to 40 players dedicated themselves to Christ that season, he says.

“They saw Jesus in such powerful ways,” pastor Davis agrees. “Winning is a goal, but we find Jesus is transformational. We’re working toward something that transforms people forever.”

Athletics has let CSU spread that message further than it otherwise could. Its teams aren’t shy about praying in front of out-of-town audiences.

“We see athletics as the front porch,” says Barclay Radebaugh, men’s basketball head coach. “It’s an opportunity to play around the country and represent Charleston Southern.”

Plus, coaches mentor players in everything from dealing with pressure to win to coping with career-ending injuries.

“It’s a life — a life lab,” Athletic Director Hank Small says.

Out of more than 100 players, Chadwell estimates 60 to 65 percent of his team grew up without fathers around.

“You aren’t only coach and mentor, you are their father,” Chadwell says.

And what better opportunity to share the faith, whether on a football field or in a classroom?

“It’s about sowing a lot of seeds,” Radebaugh says.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.