Education as a core value of The United Methodist Church emanates from the earliest days of the Methodist movement in 18th-century England. John Wesley's vision of making education accessible to all continues to inspire the church.
The 1972 General Conference reaffirmed the denomination's commitment to education accessibility with the creation of the Black College Fund. Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, is one of the 11 historically black colleges and universities the fund supports. One of the oldest and largest historically black academic health-science centers in the United States, Meharry is dedicated to educating physicians, dentists, researchers and health policy experts in the U.S. Born from the work of Methodist missionaries and a $30,000 gift of cash and property from Samuel Meharry and his brothers, the medical college remains a United Methodist-related institution.
It is also home to Henry Anderson Atwater II. He served in several capacities over four decades at the medical college, including director of student life and student services. Today, Atwater works about 32 hours a week, primarily giving tours of the school. He takes the responsibility seriously and considers it a calling. "It's not my only calling," Atwater says, "but I do think this is a way I can make a difference, especially at this stage of my career. If I didn't feel like I was making a difference, I'd go home."
About the Black College Fund
Administered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the Black College Fund provides financial support to maintain solid and challenging academic programs, strong faculties and well-equipped facilities at the 11 United Methodist-related historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The institutions use one-sixth of the fund for capital expenditures such as endowment, construction and major renovations. The remainder enriches libraries, faculty development, academic research, student counseling programs and other services.
The 11 United Methodist historically black colleges and universities offer a values-centered learning environment that encourages leadership development, self-esteem building and spiritual growth. These schools are still critical in the 21st century because they are a place where faculties and staff can be role models for students who might otherwise fall through the cracks and miss a college education. The Black College Fund helps support college staff and faculty who can serve as strong intellectual, cultural and spiritual mentors.
Cynthia Bond Hopson, assistant general secretary for Black College Fund and ethnic concerns at the board, explains. "The Black College Fund is supporting institutions that provide a comprehensive collegiate experience that includes not only academic rigor, but support for personal, cultural and spiritual growth. That support comes from the faculty and staff, many of whom dedicate themselves to helping their schools and universities in ways that stretch far beyond their job descriptions.
When Atwater speaks of Meharry, a deeply rooted passion immediately comes through. When he discusses the source of that passion, tears often follow.
"I was born in walking distance of here. Literally. A Meharry physician brought me into the world. I just believe that gives me a different perspective of Meharry," he says.
Atwater's connection to Meharry dates back to the early 1900s. "As a child," he says, "I remember my Great-Aunt Maggie, who finished Meharry Medical College in 1905." Because educational opportunities were scarce for women, Maggie's accomplishment was a source of pride for Atwater's family. "This was a big deal in our family. We've got not only a college graduate, but a graduate from Meharry."
Education was also a big deal to Atwater's mother, a great influence on his life. She told him, "If you want to live the good life, get a good education. I don't have a million dollars to give you, but I'm going to see to it that you get a good education, and you can earn as much as you choose to."
Well-versed in the history of Meharry, Atwater can draw parallels between his mother's belief in education and that of The United Methodist Church. "Without the initial emphasis or intervention by the Methodists, Meharry Medical College just might not have ever come into existence," he says.
Atwater gives tours as if the school's existence depended on it. "People fly in from all over the world to tour this campus," he says. "I don't think they flew in to look at buildings. I want to give them something they can take away with them. It is my job to spread the good news of Meharry Medical College."
The good news of Meharry is the same good news that the Black College Fund and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry are striving to share: United Methodist-related historically black colleges and universities are still relevant and essential.
Says Atwater, "We are still alive. We are still carrying out that mission that we started better than 140 years ago. To help the poor and the underserved. To educate students – some who might not have a chance to get their education anywhere else."
Atwater, who never anticipated remaining at Meharry for 40 years, cannot envision himself anywhere else. To him, Meharry is more than just a school or hospital. It is a place where something powerful is happening.
"The motto of Meharry is ‘Worship of God through Service to Mankind,'" he notes. "Our students learn from the beginning that what they do is not just a job. They are expressing their love for God by serving."
So, too, is Henry Atwater II.
Tyrus B. Sturgis is senior communications associate for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November–December, 2015.