By Gary D. Myers
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Surprises took center stage at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s luncheon June 15 in St. Louis.
The first surprise was the awarding of a long-overdue diploma to distinguished alumni award winner, Mel Jones. The second surprise caught NOBTS President Chuck Kelley off guard when he received the distinguished alumnus to mark his 20 years at the seminary helm.
The seminary also named Fred Hewett, executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention, and Tommy King, president of William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss., as distinguished alumni.
Kelley began the program by presenting the distinguished alumnus award to Fred Hewett. A veteran of the U.S. Navy and a businessman, Hewett entered full-time ministry at age 35 and studied in New Orleans Seminary’s extension system.
“We are very proud of all of our extension center students,” Kelley said. “Fred is a great representative of that group of people.”
Before serving in his current role in Montana, Hewett led churches in Florida and Georgia. In Jupiter, Fla., Hewett planted a church and grew it to a membership of 600. Hewett went on to serve as church planting group director at the North American Mission Board.
“He has not only been outstanding in ministry in the churches he has served and the other denominational roles he has fulfilled, he has been a great and passionate advocate of the Cooperative Program,” Kelley said.
In presenting the next distinguished alumnus award, Kelley acknowledged the historic nature of the moment. Kelley presented Mel Jones with his bachelor of arts in Christian ministry diploma moments before naming him a distinguished alumnus. Jones earned the degree in 2001, but never received his diploma.
Jones, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and executive director of Bethel Colony South Transformational Community and Women at the Well in New Orleans, knew about the distinguished alumnus award, but the diploma came as a surprise.
Jones was a successful businessman before drug and alcohol addiction left him homeless for three years. Through the Brantley Center, the Baptist-related addiction recovery program in New Orleans which closed following Hurricane Katrina, Jones recovered from addiction and ultimately came to study and work at NOBTS.
“He knows what brokenness is all about. He knows what restoration is all about. He knows what the hard work of urban evangelism and life recovery is all about,” Kelley said. “I am very proud to give you this distinguished alumnus award Pastor Mel Jones.”
Due to recent back surgery Jones’ wife could not attend with him. Faced with the prospect of sitting at a table alone during the luncheon, Jones found new friends in St. Louis to share this occasion with him.
“I went to the local homeless shelter to get brothers and sisters who are like me,” Jones said asking his guests to stand. “Would you all welcome my brothers and sisters from St. Louis?”
Jones shared that the ministry he started now serves 140 men and 70 women who spend six months recovering from addiction. With few other options available, the recovery program is always full. A new family house has room for 10 mothers and 20 children.
“All of this came through people not giving up on me,” Jones said. “When you take a fall, when you mess up in life, people distance themselves from you — even in the Christian community.”
Jones told of the relapse he had shortly after beginning master’s study at the seminary. Rather than rejection, Jones said he received support and encouragement from the seminary community. The love he received was instrumental in establishing Bethel Colony South after Jones completed rehab.
Kelley then recognized Tommy King, president of William Carey University (WCU), with the distinguished alumnus award. Kelley commended King for his leadership in Christian higher education and called William Carey a valued NOBTS partner.
Before being named president in 2007, King served as a professor and dean of psychology and counseling, vice president for graduate and off-campus programs and executive vice president at William Carey. During King’s tenure, WCU’s enrollment increased by 46 percent.
“We are grateful for Dr. King and the work he has done,” Kelley said. “The most important thing is that he has always been making a difference for the kingdom of God through the lives on the up-and-coming generation.”
As Kelley concluded the distinguished alumni presentation, NOBTS national alumni president Nathan Cothen, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont, Texas, announced the surprise award for Kelley. The announcement was greeted with a standing ovation by the luncheon crowd.
“Dr. Chuck Kelley has corrected my paper many days,” said Cothen, who studied under Kelley. “Today, I am here to correct your paper — the paper with the agenda for this meeting. We have one unannounced, surprise recognition for a distinguished alumnus of the year.”
Kelley came to study at NOBTS 40 years ago and began his teaching and leadership ministry at NOBTS 33 years ago — first as an evangelism professor, then as the director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health and chair of the seminary’s division of pastoral ministry. In 1996, Kelley was named New Orleans Seminary’s eighth president.
“Thank you very much,” Kelley said. “I get a lot more credit than I deserve and not nearly enough blame. It has been a great privilege to spend the 40 years of my life at the School of Providence and Prayer.”