Why libraries are important to an open society
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ABILENE, Texas — Landon Saunders, founder of Heartbeat radio, tells a story about once inviting a young person from “a motley crew of kids” to come and stand next to him on the stage and receive a full minute of applause, “not for what you’ve done but for who you are — a human being.”
A young girl responded, the applause grew louder and longer, and Saunders says the tears flowed.
This week’s ovation for the beloved minister and broadcaster lasted much longer.
Saunders knew he was to be honored Wednesday as Abilene Christian University Library Friend of the Year but was surprised by an honorary doctorate from ACU, presented by bestselling author Max Lucado, who once served as Saunders’ intern.
Last July, Saunders and the Heartbeat board conveyed to ACU’s Brown Library more than 50 years’ worth of personal correspondence, audio and visual materials, corporate records, photographs and personal notes.
James Wiser, ACU dean of library sciences, said to date more than 200 of Saunders’ presentations have been digitized and made available on ACU’s Digital Commons, with several hundred more to be added in the months ahead.
Saunders, 85, was diagnosed a year ago with cancer — a neuroendocrine tumor that has spread despite treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H, just across the river from his Vermont home.
Wiser also announced the creation of the Landon Saunders Center for Joy and Human Flourishing. A fundraising goal of $4.5 million has been set for construction and programming that will include curricular planning, conferences, multimedia content and lecture series.
Wiser said college students face “ever-growing mental health challenges, humans struggle with a sense of belonging in our increasingly disconnected society, and churches are torn apart by hyperpartisanship on any number of issues. We have often failed to connect the core of Jesus’ teachings with the reality of this age.
“We believe that what Landon Saunders has taught and focused his career upon for more than 50 years is a foundation that will serve not only our university but society as a whole for many years to come,” Wiser continued, adding that Saunders has requested that the entity “have a radical focus on the lives of students.”
Wiser said the interdisciplinary center will function “at the nexus of positive psychology, religious communication and public theology.”
Notables from all three fields were among those paying tribute to Saunders, whose Heartbeat radio program, begun in the 1970s under the auspices of Herald of Truth, reinvented broadcast evangelism among Churches of Christ.
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In addition to Lucado, who recalled an internship in college working with Saunders in Abilene, other speakers were Mike Cope, director of ministry outreach at Pepperdine University in California, and J. McDonald Williams, Dallas real estate executive and philanthropist who serves as Heartbeat chair.
Williams told the crowd that four universities were competing for the Saunders collection, including Yale Divinity School, where Saunders has served on the board of directors of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. But he said the minister and the Heartbeat board determined the work would be best centered at ACU.
“We are an epistle that you’ve written — in this audience you married us, buried our loved ones, consoled us in grief, heard our confessions, loved us, blessed us.”
Cope said Saunders “will not let go of that idea that God cares about human beings,” and said of the audience of about 300, “We are an epistle that you’ve written — in this audience you married us, buried our loved ones, consoled us in grief, heard our confessions, loved us, blessed us.”
Richard Beck, chair of the ACU psychology department, said he learned how to talk to students about faith and life from Saunders.
“Right now in the academic world, the science of joy and human flourishing is exploding, but I’m more interested in how to appeal to young hearts,” Beck said.
“They can imagine something more joyful than a Christianity that’s turned political and angry and often mean,” the professor added. “We need to learn how to talk about God, and Landon has pioneered that his entire life.”
Saunders’ ability to touch multiple generations from a variety of theological spaces within the church and among the unchurched was mentioned in every tribute.
The diverse crowd represented 13 states, according to Wiser, “from Southern California to Miami and up to Vermont, from St. Louis and Nashville, from Searcy and from plenty of people from right here in Abilene.”
“And here you all are — getting along,” Wiser said to much laughter. “I’ve come to think that Landon Saunders is the Church of Christ version of Dolly Parton — everyone loves him.”
A native of West Virginia, Saunders served as a minister in Churches of Christ in Arkansas and Tennessee before moving in 1971 to Abilene, where, for several years, he was the minister of the Minter Lane Church of Christ.
With characteristic wit, he cracked jokes about West Virginia, then recalled a childhood sleeping in an old house with tar paper over the windows to keep the snow out.
“I woke up one night with the bed covered with snow because the tar paper had blown off,” Saunders said. “It’s been a journey from that poverty that I’ve found my way here, and for that I’m thankful from the bottom of my heart.”
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