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TJ Kirk, a middle school principal in Henderson, Tenn., and his wife, Shiradon, receive congratulations after Kirk’s chapel talk at Freed-Hardeman University.
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Photo by Erik Tryggestad

Doing good in a divided world

Freed-Hardeman's 86th annual Bible lectureship calls for Christians to show compassion — even when society says it’s OK not to.

HENDERSON, Tenn. — As story after story of White law enforcement officers killing Blacks flashed across screens in the midst of a global pandemic, “society gave me a pass,” TJ Kirk said.

“I didn’t have to love police,” said Kirk, who is Black and preaches for the Jacks Creek Church of Christ in Tennessee. Then “it happened right here in our town.”


Related: Daughter of lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education sets the record straight


During an October 2020 standoff with a suspected car thief in nearby McNairy County, a White female officer shot and killed a Black man, echoing the headlines Kirk had seen far too many times.

“The difference is, I knew the officer,” said Kirk, who, in addition to preaching, was principal for Chester County Middle School in Henderson. The officer had “walked my school hallways” to keep students safe. “I knew her. I loved her. And she had even trusted me to educate her babies.”

T.J. Kirk

T.J. Kirk

Compassion — shown even when society says it’s OK not to — was the theme of the 86th annual Bible lectureship at Freed-Hardeman University. Kirk and Christians from across the nation spoke to more than 2,000 registered attendees on campus and an additional 530 who watched online.

Kirk chose not to say anything publicly about the officer. He knew the backlash he would receive from some: “Oh, look at TJ. He’s a sellout.”

“I didn’t speak up,” said Kirk, who spoke to attendees and students at the university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, during chapel in Loyd Auditorium near the midpoint of the weeklong lectures.

The experience shaped his understanding of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, described in Luke 10. The Samaritan, part of an ethnic group reviled as traitors and half-breeds by the Jews, also was given a “pass” to disregard a Jew he found alongside a road, robbed and beaten.

Yet the Samaritan showed kindness that would have earned derision from his own people. Kirk said, “Look at him. He’s got a little money now, and now he’s hanging out with those Jewish folks. Look at all the money he’s spending on this Jew who would spit on him if he were in that situation.”

Jesus used the parable to help people understand what it means to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” Kirk said. “But Jesus, being the master teacher that he is, doesn’t just stop with teaching a story. He lives it out in his life. And it’s recorded in Scripture how he went about doing good, even to the marginalized.”

(Watch T.J. Kirk’s speech in its entirety in this video of Freed-Hardeman University’s chapel. Erik Tryggestad, president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle, read scripture during the service.)

Evangelism in the midst of division

Outside the auditorium, Billy R. Smith rushed to introduce one of the lectureship speakers — but had to make frequent stops to hug former students as they flagged him down.

Billy R. Smith

Billy R. Smith

“I had to see you to remember how good it is to see you,” said Smith, a longtime minister and Bible professor at Freed-Hardeman.

For many, the lectures were the first large-scale event they had attended since the COVID-19 pandemic began — just weeks after the 2020 lectures. Last year, Freed-Hardeman conducted the event entirely online.

“You could feel the crowd, the energy,” said Andrew Phillips, pulpit minister for the Graymere Church of Christ in Columbia, Tenn. “It’s exciting to see people’s enthusiasm.”

The lectureship, especially the singing, provided “a breath of fresh air,” said Jon Hackett, minister for the Kingston Church of Christ in east Tennessee, as he caught up with friends in the Brewer Sports Center, where the FHU Associates had set up an “F.H. Brew” coffee bar.

For two years, many Christians lived “isolated in anxiety,” Hackett said. One attendee told The Christian Chronicle that she had lost her husband just months ago to the virus.

Debby Allen

Debby Allen

Debby Allen lost both of her parents during the pandemic. The Freed-Hardeman graduate and member of the Dexter Church of Christ in southeast Missouri said she was glad to be among her brothers and sisters in Christ.

“COVID showed us how much we need each other,” she said. It also “opened our eyes to the need for evangelism.”

Several attendees shared stories of starting up small congregations in their driveways during the pandemic and inviting their neighbors. One attendee worshiped with what he called “the Nature Trail Church of Christ,” named after his subdivision.

But the pandemic dealt equal doses of division, as quarrels over masks, vaccines and politics infected congregations. That’s part of the reason organizers chose “He Went About Doing Good: The Compassion of Christ in Luke” as the lectureship’s theme.

“Out of all the qualities of Jesus — all of which I love — his compassion is what I love most,” said Smith, who was honored at a dinner during the lectureship for his 47-year career with the university, which included stints as dean of the College of Biblical Studies and as Distinguished Professor of Bible.


Related: Editorial: Reclaiming unity through respect


Smith taught a “Life of Christ” class for 40 years to thousands of Freed-Hardeman students. Throughout the course, “I would stop and say, ‘How can you not love him?’”This year’s topic was timely, Hackett said. In a world that seems intent on tearing itself apart, “we’re poised for a great opportunity in evangelism.”

But to reach an increasingly divided world, “we’ve got to be more compassionate — not only in our communities, but in our churches,” Hackett said. “As ministers, we must battle the secular and political with the spiritual, and that’s not always easy to do.”

‘Everybody matters to God’

In a divided world, “you can’t preach Jesus without preaching about the church,” said Samuel Jones.

During a evening sermon, the associate minister for the East Jackson Church of Christ in Tennessee noted how Jesus began to preach in Matthew 4 after the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus’s message: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

“Brothers and sisters, we ought not to be ashamed to be a member of the Lord’s church,” Jones said.

As a part of that church, Christ followers should “be about what Jesus was about, doing good.”

Doing good means pursuing justice, said Melvin Otey, a minister and law professor at Faulkner University in Alabama. In a morning session, Otey charted prophecies about Jesus through Old Testament prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah. Each urged God’s children to take care of the poor, the widows and the oppressed.

“Some of the oppressed have never been born. They can’t speak for themselves. Shouldn’t we speak for them?” Otey asked. “But there are some who have been born. They’re being oppressed, too. They’re being mistreated, too. We ought to speak for them. We do that in the church because everybody matters to God.”

“But there are some who have been born … being oppressed, too. They’re being mistreated, too. We ought to speak for them. We do that in the church because everybody matters to God.”

‘There’s a pew right next to me for you’

As he concluded his chapel talk, TJ Kirk urged lectureship goers to follow Jesus’ example of serving the underserved — those judged unfairly and kicked out of society. To those people, Jesus said, “Welcome home.”

“And we have to take that message out of this auditorium,” Kirk said.

Steven Curo, a minister for the Parker Church of Christ in Colorado, takes notes during the 2022 Hispanic Workshop, part of the Freed-Hardeman lectures.

Steven Curo, a minister for the Parker Church of Christ in Colorado, takes notes during the 2022 Hispanic Workshop, part of the Freed-Hardeman lectures.

He urged the audience to say to the marginalized, “There’s a home, there’s a church, there’s a place, there’s a pew right next to me for you and your family where you don’t have to be on the outskirts. … And ultimately, when this short life is over, you’ll have a place for eternity where you can rest.

“Jesus went about doing good. Let’s continue the story as Jesus’ people.”

After the talk, Freed-Hardeman president David Shannon prayed, asking God to “forgive us for the times we failed you by failing others.

“Thank you for the refreshment that you give us through your grace and mercy, and help us be graceful and merciful to others.”

TJ Kirk, a middle school principal in Henderson, Tenn., and his wife, Shiradon, receive congratulations after Kirk’s chapel talk at Freed-Hardeman University.

TJ Kirk and his wife, Shiradon, receive congratulations after Kirk’s chapel talk at Freed-Hardeman University. As chapel ended, president David Shannon announced that Kirk will serve as vice president for student services. Along with working in areas from career services to campus safety, Kirk will help students in their spiritual and social development, Shannon said. Kirk, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s from the university, will complete the school year as principal before beginning the new job in June.

 

Filed under: division Evangelism Freed-Hardeman University International lectureship National News Partners Race relations Top Stories unity

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