A Refiner’s Fire: Eckerd College at 50

Editor’s Note: This address was delivered at the January 4, 2009, worship Service of Palma Ceia Church in Tampa, Fla.

It is a distinct honor to speak from the pulpit from which many great pastors have led the worship of this great church. Your distinguished minister, John DeBevoise, Eckerd College Class of 1978, is one in a long line of inspirational leaders of Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church. One of his predecessors, Dr. William Kadel, much beloved here, in 1958 became one of the founders and the founding president of Florida Presbyterian College. Dr. Kadel was a legendary preacher and a visionary teacher of church and school, and Eckerd College owes some of its missionary fervor for making the world a better place to Dr. Kadel’s zealous vision of the virtues of Christian commitment.

Of course, the world has changed a great deal since President Kadel, trying to build the best possible Christian college, began his interview with every candidate for a faculty position by asking, “Do you believe in the Virgin birth?” Legend has it that he gave up on that question when Classics Professor Fred White responded, “Yes sir, I believe virgins are born every day.”

It is particularly fitting for me to speak to you from Dr. Kadel’s pulpit at the close of a year of celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Eckerd College. We began our celebration almost exactly a year ago from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg. The past twelve months have been marked by many accomplishments: Our alumni, students, and faculty have continued to distinguish themselves; our capital campaign has raised $68 million in the “quiet phase;” our facilities and programs have continued to improve; and no less an authority than Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, probably the most famous scientist on earth, recently pronounced Eckerd College one of the ten most beautiful campuses in the country!

But more important than all of this are these questions: What kind of education — what kind of Christian education — are we providing the “brightest and best of the sons (and daughters) of the morning?” How are we holding fast to the founding vision, begun so enthusiastically, of Dr. Kadel and so many other Presbyterian leaders, many from this very church? What is the nature of the relationship between the college and the church today? Why should you care?

Florida Presbyterian College was created not simply to nurture and educate young men and women to grow up to be good Presbyterians. It was created to raise the level of “Christian education” well beyond the easy answers and sweet propaganda that constitute so much of what often passes for it. Florida Presbyterian College was determined to ask the hard questions, to strip students of their lightly worn beliefs and prejudices and to make them earn their theology and their ideas — by learning to think for themselves. Dr. Kadel, his academic dean from Davidson College — Jack Bevan, and their founding faculty created an undergraduate experience as a kind of refiner’s fire, an experience that burned away the prejudices and nonsense that passed for knowledge in many places, and replaced it with the capacity to see the world fresh and clear, with an understanding of values that endure.

In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi writes of the refiner’s fire with an Old Testament righteous harshness that disappears just a few pages later as Jesus is born in Matthew’s gospel. Malachi asks: But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire …

The College that was Florida Presbyterian and is Eckerd today continues to have precisely this ambition: To produce, within and outside the classroom, an educational refiner’s fire, to develop men and women who seek the truth and recognize it when they see it and who are committed to lives of service to others — sick, thirsty, hungry, poor, in prison or not.

As many of you know, Eckerd College is included in Loren Pope’s remarkable book, Colleges That Change Lives. Mr. Pope’s book has had a major impact nationally on how students and their parents choose what college they attend. Eckerd College changes lives, and our students graduate ready to change the world. They believe in Matthew’s activist vision of Christian duty. Some may not yet believe in churches, but they believe in service to make the world a better place.

Let me tell you about one of our recent graduates, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, an orphan who was moved 14 times from foster home to foster home as a young girl before she was adopted by a couple in Crystal River. At Eckerd, she became a national spokesperson for exposing the abuses of the foster-care system, won a nationwide essay contest run by The New York Times, and turned that essay into a prize-winning book on foster care entitled, Three Little Words. Ashley’s book was published last year, six months after she graduated. Ashley is a beguiling young woman. She looks like a prom queen, but she is smart and tough as nails, and she is changing the world.

We declare that the values of an Eckerd College education are residential, spiritual, environmental, global, and personal. Residential: Eighty percent of our students live on campus. Spiritual: Our students are intrigued by spiritual matters, some deeply involved in religious activities of various traditions and many others expressing their spirituality through the 62,000 hours of volunteer service they provided last year in Tampa Bay. Environmental: Our location on the Gulf of Mexico makes the environment a vital concern for us, and environmental studies is one of our most popular programs. Global: Eighty percent of our students study abroad, a higher proportion than at any other school in the nation. We now have international study centers in London, China and Mexico. And, Personal: The close relationship between faculty and student is the essence of Eckerd College.

The glory of Christendom is not only the revolutionary, life-changing, world-changing boldness of its vision of what God is and what man should aspire to be. It is the quality of the celebration of that vision, the quality of worship, of Christian worship, which has taken center stage in the art, the literature, the philosophy, the ceremony and the rituals of everyday life in the West since the crucifixion of a carpenter eighty generations ago on the other side of the world. Ever since, many of the most accomplished artists on earth have labored to tell “good tidings to Zion,” to “say to the cities of Judah” (and everywhere else): “Behold your God!”

Whatever we believe, or don’t, about the stories of the New Testament, it is impossible to be less than astounded by Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors in Florence, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica, the baroque order of a Bach mass, the ecstatic exhilaration of Handel declaring “good tidings to Zion,” and the many glorious hymns of Christmas we have been singing for weeks now and sing today. What extraordinary, what unprecedented worship Christendom has inspired. Most of the greatest cultural achievements of the Western world have been works of the Christian religious imagination.

At Eckerd College, we try to expose our students to the canonic works of the Western imagination, in the context of the wider world of art and belief systems so that they can begin to own and to use the tools of sophisticated understanding, imagination, and personal values. We believe THAT — not compulsory chapel attendance and the like — is the mark of a contemporary higher education in thoughtful covenant with the Presbyterian Church. We focus on teaching the skills and habits of the searching intellect for a lifetime rather than for a first job, and on developing the tools required for understanding and belief in a changing world.

This is, of course, an ambiguous, messy business — but neither education nor Christianity is an uncomplicated endeavor. There are no easy answers to the important questions, and thoughtful uncertainty is often the mark of a wise man or a wise woman: “I am certain of nothing,” wrote John Keats, the great 19th century poet, “but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”

On this Epiphany Sunday, we celebrate the recognition of a Jewish baby as the Christ by three Gentile kings. On this 12th day of Christmas, three strangers from afar symbolize the recognition by earthly powers of a new kind of king and a new kind of kingdom. Epiphany celebrates the appearance of the divine in the midst of humanity and sets in motion the call of Christian hospitality, described by The Rule of St. Benedict in the 6th Century as welcoming “each guest as we would welcome Christ.”

This essential lesson of Epiphany — that all deserve our Christian hospitality, Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, white and black, male and female, rich and poor, hetero and gay — is not one our church and our culture have learned or taught very effectively.

Today, Eckerd College attempts to create a refiner’s fire to develop graduates who seek the truth and recognize it when they see it, hard as it is to find, and unpopular as it so often is to proclaim. Our contemporary world is so different from the almost wholly white, male, financially prosperous Presbyterian world that started Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd College, 50 years ago. Our world, with all of its differences from the world of our founders, is a refiner’s fire for the church as well. The world of the church will be complicated by, and will no doubt be changed fundamentally, by the world of the 21st Century: a world in which our new president is a black man, in which most of us drive to church in cars made by companies headquartered in Asia or Europe, powered by a gas line from the Middle East, wearing clothes made in Hong Kong and Central America, and supported by national and personal debt funded by China. It is a new world in which there are three times as many Presbyterians in Korea as in the United States.

This, then, is my answer to the questions I posed earlier: “Why should Palma Ceia care about what we are doing at Eckerd College?” And “Have we held fast to the founding vision of President Kadel and his fellow Presbyterians of 50 years ago, those straight-laced, crew-cut men in white shirts and skinny black ties starting a college on a sandy beach covered with sand spurs, palmetto scrub, and fiddler crabs?”

Palma Ceia should care because it is in the refiner’s fire of intellectual and spiritual challenge and debate that this church and others will create their future, and colleges like Eckerd are where that happens. And it continues to happen at my college in just the way Dr. Kadel hoped it would — through vigorous engagement every day, within and outside the classroom, between committed mentors and challenging, curious students. We have no better evidence of both of these assertions than your minister, our alumnus, John DeBevoise.

Further evidence is provided by Andrew Black, who preached at your early service …. Andrew, who graduated from Eckerd in 2002, decided law school and the corporate life were not enough, so he went to divinity school AND law school at the same time. He has returned to campus to be our associate chaplain.

On Epiphany we celebrate our belief that God isn’t done with us yet. We celebrate that he has more redeeming to do, and more life-changing, world-changing work for us to do. I celebrate the fact that a little girl could grow up in a horrible foster care system, find a family that loves her, find a college that embraces her, and find a life’s work in changing the world into which she was born. Eckerd College helps students use even the darkness in their lives to bring light to others.

Let me offer the words of an old hymn as a concluding prayer, a prayer for understanding, for believers and non-believers alike, on this Epiphany Sunday:

“Open my eyes, that I may see

Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;

Place in my hands the wonderful key

That shall unclasp, and set me free.


Silently now I wait for Thee,

Ready, my God, Thy will to see;

Open my eyes, illumine me,

Spirit Divine!


Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.