With a spirit of 'irrational generosity,' a church helps pay the debts of Howard University seniors and sustain a historic connection to HBCUs
On HBCU Sunday, adult members of Alfred Street Baptist Church show up wearing school colors or paraphernalia representing their Greek affiliations. Photos and video courtesy of Alfred Street Baptist Church
Alfred Street Baptist Church has a long history of supporting college students and historically black colleges and universities. So when a churchwide fast in January yielded $150,000, they knew where to invest it: in future leaders.
You have been paid for. … But for the sacrifices made by some of your ancestors, you would not be here; they have paid for you. So, when you enter a challenging situation, bring them on the stage with you; let their distant voices add timbre and strength to your words. For it is your job to pay for those who are yet to come.
-- Maya Angelou
The new assistant minister needed an idea.
Alfred Street Baptist Church was already a week into a churchwide fast. Fully half of the 8,000-member historically black congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, had committed to giving up nonessential spending and contributing to a special outreach offering at the end of January.
In the first month of his first job after graduating from Duke Divinity School last year, the Rev. Marc Lavarin had been tasked with organizing the fast, called Seek 2019. Fasters would give without knowing in advance how their gift would be used, except that it would help neighbors in need.
So Lavarin was searching for an idea to tie up that one last detail -- how would the church use the money?
As he prayed in his office, a cause came to him: college students.
He worked quickly, connecting with the financial aid office at nearby Howard University, the historically black school in Washington, D.C. The plan, quickly blessed by church staff and the senior pastor, was for Alfred Street to pay off the debts of randomly selected seniors whose outstanding balances threatened to delay their graduation.
The ministers had no idea how much money would come in, especially after a prolonged federal government shutdown left many worshippers without paychecks. But however much was contributed, they wanted to use it to help young adults complete their education.
As Lavarin said later, “What better way to begin Black History Month than to invest in our future history makers?”
The idea fit neatly with Alfred Street’s legacy of investing in students and educational institutions, especially in the African American community -- honoring the congregation’s own roots that date back to 1803, when Susan Black, an enslaved woman, was baptized as its first “colored” member.
Two centuries later, the now-prosperous church would give $1 million to help launch the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. The church hosts one of the nation’s largest college fairs for historically black colleges and universities and donates $25,000 each year to a featured HBCU.
The money for the Howard students would be given in a spirit of “irrational generosity,” an ideal encouraged by the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, and exemplified by its programs such as Hidden Halos, in which members reach out to the community with random acts of kindness -- say, surprising people at gas stations and grocery stores with gift cards, or turning up at schools to encourage students and teachers. The ideal is all about investing in the world outside the church walls without any expectation of direct return.
How could your congregation invest in young adults, even in ways that aren’t directly connected to church?
This particular “irrational” gift would strengthen the next generation of kingdom builders by helping ease the ballooning burden of educational debt. There would be no application process; like God’s grace, this gift would not be earned but be freely given.
“Our ideal of generosity is to bless people with no strings attached,” Lavarin said. “We’re not looking for people to join Alfred Street because we give. We’re looking for people who want to be a part of Alfred Street because they love to give. … Come if you want to be a part of that spirit of generosity.”
While there was no expectation for recipients to connect with their congregation, there was a hope that the students might connect or reconnect with the wider church.
Does your organization embrace “irrational generosity”? If not, how might you imagine giving with no expectations?
“Maybe people who have never gone to church or had a bad experience at a church have [now] seen church do something amazing,” he said. “Maybe they won’t give Alfred Street attention, but they’ll give God another chance.”
Indeed, it was in that hope that Wesley told one overjoyed student: “Your account has been paid in full. You are cleared to graduate. On behalf of Alfred Street Baptist Church, go do amazing things in the world.”
The post-fast collection was planned for the four regular services on the last weekend in January. Parishioners were invited to donate the money they had saved through abstaining from Starbucks or cutting back on shopping, and even to consider doubling the sum, if they heard God asking for that.
“One of the promises we made was that 100% of the money that’s coming in is going out,” Lavarin said. “This isn’t going to a building project. This isn’t going to pay off anyone’s salary. Everything that’s coming in is going out.”
When have you been surprised by your congregants and constituents?
The staff had anticipated $10,000 or $20,000, but with the long government shutdown, expectations dropped. Perhaps they would raise $5,000.
Yet members were ready to give. Over that single weekend, on top of their regular tithes, some 1,000 households donated a total of $150,000.
As the church was preparing to give, the university was preparing students to receive. Mysterious invitations from the financial aid office had gone out to 34 randomly selected seniors with significant financial need, whose outstanding tuition and fee balances ranged from $100 to several thousand.
On the Thursday after the collection, Alfred Street staff set up cameras in a small room on the Howard University campus. Taking turns in a series of one-on-one meetings, Wesley and Lavarin sat opposite the students, whose expressions went from puzzled to amazed as the ministers explained that the church had helped pave the way for them to graduate this spring.
Students laughed, smiled, cried and hugged the bearers of the good news.
“It’s like one of those things that you just don’t believe,” said one student, who leaped up and ran around the room when he was told of the gift. Several recipients spoke of the challenges they had faced on their way to finishing college. More than one had recently lost a parent. One young woman recalled through tears how her mother had kept praying and believing even when they were living out of their car.
Another struggled to put into words her gratitude to the church. “I just wish I could just come and just hug everyone,” she said. “It’s a lot to worry about. So the fact that this weight is lifted off my shoulders -- I am forever grateful.”
The weekend after the emotional meetings at Howard, the congregation back at Alfred Street learned how their donations had been used when the ministers played the poignant reveal video.
“When I tell you everybody was crying -- everybody was crying,” said Da’Shaun Joseph, 33, a first-time faster who contributed to the special offering.
“The energy in the space was just gratitude,” she said. “That’s all you felt. Everybody was just like, ‘Wow, I was a part of that.’”
The ministers explained that in addition to the $100,000 for debt relief at Howard, the collection also funded a $50,000 gift to Bennett College, a historically black women’s school in Greensboro, North Carolina, that is fighting to keep its doors open. In a recorded video, the school’s president thanked Alfred Street for the largest donation from any religious group in its fundraising campaign.
“I love that this came out of a fast,” Lavarin said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, let’s cut a check.’ ... Now there are individuals who can understand that when I give up my cup of coffee for 21 days, God can do something supernatural.”
Joseph -- a recent graduate of Norfolk State University, a historically black public institution in Virginia -- remembered the pressure of paying for college and took pride in supporting soon-to-be fellow HBCU alums.
“I definitely think they will pay it forward,” Joseph said. “This small act of kindness let them know that nothing is impossible.”
Perhaps some of the students they helped would feel an ambition restored and decide to pursue a Ph.D. or an MBA, or maybe become the scientist who cures cancer, she said.
Lavarin said that generosity to students can happen at churches of all colors, sizes and financial footings.
“If you are able to donate to help pay off debt for students in your own congregation, that’s a lasting impact,” he said. Students will remember -- “My church was there to stand with me when I almost had to pack my things and go home.”
Building on a legacy
While the debt relief at Howard drew national attention, it was far from the first time Alfred Street had supported students and HBCUs.
Many American colleges and universities have historic roots in the church; that connection has always been particularly strong for HBCUs and black churches.
“Black church, black college are probably two of the most important institutions in black life,” Lavarin said. “I truly believe that it’s necessary for black churches to stand alongside HBCUs. That’s an institution that I don’t think black churches can forsake or ignore.”
At a time when many HBCUs are struggling, Alfred Street continues to nurture the connection. The historically black educational institutions share a sense of history, dignity and pride that also pervades the culture of Alfred Street, where one of the banners recently hanging in the sanctuary read “Excellence.”
Lavarin estimates that two-thirds of Alfred Street’s adult members attended HBCUs or joined one of the black Greek-letter organizations, the fraternities and sororities known as the Divine Nine. Each February, the church takes part in the tradition of HBCU Sunday, when members wear school colors or paraphernalia representing their Greek affiliations.
That tradition started in the 1960s, with a featured college invited each year to send its president to speak during Sunday services and receive a donation from the church. The annual gift has now grown to $25,000.
Alton Wallace, a recently retired defense industry mathematician who joined the congregation in 1983, knows the importance of HBCUs firsthand. The North Carolina native went to college when historically white Southern schools were still resisting integration; UNC-Chapel Hill had only a handful of black students, he said -- not in each class, but on the entire campus.
“They were part and parcel of who we were,” Wallace said of HBCUs, especially in the Southeast. “My generation -- that’s who we were. The generation coming behind us is wondering, ‘Why do I want to go to black colleges when I can go to UVa?’”
The Alfred Street HBCU festival
A major Alfred Street ministry was born out of that question.
A member named Vance Davis, a Norfolk State alumna, wondered why her high school-age son had not included any HBCUs on his college application list. She dreamed of a college fair to connect today’s students with historic schools that might otherwise escape their notice.
Davis reached out to a few other lay leaders, including Wallace and a Morehouse College alumnus who had run career fairs for District of Columbia schools. With the pastor’s blessing, they organized the first-ever Alfred Street HBCU festival in February 2003.
It was a low-budget affair; to feed the students who showed up despite snowy conditions, Wallace went to a grocery store and ordered 9-foot subs.
That first fair saw about 120 students; the next year’s, about twice that, and the following year’s, twice again. Attendance continued to soar, as families started coming from as far away as California and Alaska, and teachers in Northern cities began organizing field trips to the festival.
Eventually, when the fire marshal warned that the church basement was exceeding its legal occupancy, the organizers came up with a system to split the crowd in half: a thousand attendees would visit the college fair while the other thousand went to free seminars on scholarships, athletics, Greek life or faith on campus, and then the two groups would switch.
The growth has continued. This year, the festival welcomed some 10,000 visitors to Washington’s downtown convention center. More than 70 HBCUs sent representatives. Admissions officers gave on-site interviews. Band and chorus directors held auditions. The schools offered millions in scholarships.
The festival’s expenses now exceed $300,000, Wallace said. Facebook signed on as a sponsor last year, and several new corporate sponsors joined this year, but the church still spent more than $100,000.
Organizers hope that sponsorships will cover the entire cost starting next year, creating a self-sustaining program that grew out of Alfred Street but now lives outside the church walls after nearly two decades of growth as a ministry of the church.
Wallace talks about the HBCU festival like a proud parent who has seen his child off to college.
The Howard University and Bennett College gifts grew out of a tradition of HBCU support at Alfred Street. Are there new ways you could innovate from your church’s traditions?
Now that he’s retired, he looks back on his life and sees his long involvement supporting students and HBCUs as something in which he -- and all of Alfred Street Baptist Church -- can take pride.
For some Howard University students who walk at graduation this year, Alfred Street members will be among those “on the stage” with them, as Angelou wrote; the special fast offering was an investment in a new generation, who will in turn “pay for those who are yet to come.”