This past weekend, my alma mater granted two honorary doctorate degrees at their commencement ceremony. When I saw the recipients of these awards, I smiled.

Ivor Jenkins, a South African anti-apartheid activist, was the point-person for a study tour I took of that country months before the first free election in 1994. He guided us through our weeks there, opening doors for meetings with political and religious leaders and experiences with the South African people that proved life-changing for me. I am a different person because of that trip.

I met Brenda Salter McNeil my freshman year at North Park, and it was a conversation with her over lunch after she spoke in chapel one day that most deeply influenced my decision to not transfer: “God has something he wants to do with you here in this community,” she said. At the time I was only beginning my involvement in mentoring youth in that community. She spoke truly of what, years later, would become my most transformative ministry experience: founding a comprehensive community youth outreach based on North Park’s campus. I am a different person in ministry today because of her prophetic counsel.

What strikes me as I write this is how little we actually see or know about the impact our words and time have on the different people we meet. I think about my teaching and speaking opportunities and the individuals who seek me out for conversation or counsel; I think about the guest groups we host here in South Central; I think of the many interns who share a season of their lives with us here and I am reminded that every one of these can be used by God in that Ivor Jenkins/Brenda Salter McNeil/”I’m a different person than I was before” kind of way. Not because I am special or great or because our church is so amazing, but because God works that way.

What a burden and privilege that is.


  1. Wonderful to hear about Brenda’s honorary doctorate. She’s a bud from way back. We worked together in ministry for years at Occidental College in LA and led the first InterVarsity Urban Consultation together up in Portland back when we were trying to get IV to buy into an urban ministry emphasis on a national level. Besides being a great preacher what I mostly remember from that time was her insistence for the first few years–as an inner city New Jersey girl–on wearing high heels to the various retreats we did with students in the mountains around LA. Cross cultural experience indeed :^)

  2. Tom,

    Fun to hear your stories about Brenda! She is one of my biggest preaching role models. She was one of the first woman preachers I met who was beautiful and feminine in the pulpit, and totally powerful in proclaiming God’s word. The high heels story doesn’t surprise me one bit!

    The funny thing too about my interaction with her that afternoon my freshman year was that I had reactivated my acceptance at Oxy and was planning to transfer, having been persuaded that the IV experience was worth the move. So it was extra strange for her to point me in a different direction…

  3. This is cool news about Brenda. She was instrumental in my discernment process to join the Covenant Church. I agree, she’s one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. She’s got the effortlessness in communicating her message that reminds me of Henri Nouwen. When I hear their words, it’s as if they’re pointing out something that makes so much sense I think I’ve always believed what they said. But when I reflect on Brenda’s or Nouwen’s words, I realize they’ve revealed new and wonderful things to me. She’s good. Very good.

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