Luther B. Felder II knew early on that he was being called to the ministry. Because of a fear of preaching before large groups, however, he put off heeding that call for several years.
Named associate university chaplain last summer, Felder came from a family of preachers. "My dad and granddad were Texas Methodist preachers, and so is my brother," Felder said. "So I declared that I was going to be a Texas Methodist something, but not a preacher. I never felt that I could hold a candle to my father or my brother, or to a lot of my colleagues in seminary planning to be preachers. Yet, I was called to full-time Christian service, to be involved with ministry."
Heeding the call
Felder got his first taste of preaching in seminary at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Because it was a curricular requirement, and because he thought it would be wise to polish his public speaking skills, Felder took a course in preaching from Gardener Taylor, who gave the benediction at President Clinton's inauguration earlier this year. During the course of the term, Taylor invited Felder to preach at his church.
"I was shocked," Felder recalled, "because I wasn't the only Methodist in the class and I was certainly the furthest from any intention of becoming a preacher. But I accepted the invitation and went, and it was the most life-changing experience I've ever had. When I got out of the cab in front of the church that Sunday morning and walked into the narthex of the church, it seemed like pews were everywhere. I had never seen so many pews in all my life. I trembled in fear because that congregation was going to be my responsibility that day."
In spite of his butterflies, Felder recognized the meaning behind his experience. "My call to the ministry and to preach was affirmed by that," he said. "It was then that I began to at least acknowledge that call a bit more."
While still a seminary student, Felder got a job at AME Zion Church in Rochester as student/youth minister. In that position, he was required to prepare a sermon each Sunday for what he termed "children's church," held between Sunday School and the worship service. Felder became progressively more comfortable with the role of preaching in subsequent positions as pastor of East Grand Boulevard United Methodist Church and Faith Bethany United Methodist Church, both in Detroit. At Emory, he is routinely asked to preach at Sunday morning worship services in Cannon Chapel.
Reaching beyond campus
If preaching is an element of Felder's call to ministry that has taken time to develop and mature, youth education and community outreach were clearly present from the beginning. Shortly after Felder completed his doctor of ministry at Southern Methodist University, he ran into a couple of friends at a conference, one of whom was working one day a week as a campus minister at Texas Christian University (TCU). "He asked me if I was interested in the job, because he was leaving and he thought I would be excellent for the position," Felder recalled. "It was a way to earn some extra income without investing a whole lot more time, so it sounded good to me. I went to TCU and got the job. That was a three-year love affair for me."
At TCU, chaplain John Butler became an important mentor for Felder in campus ministry, as did several other colleagues.
After three years at TCU, Felder was named pastor/director of the Wesley Foundation of the University of Texas at Arlington, just outside Dallas. "That meant that for the first time I was part of the chaplaincy, part of a denominational campus ministry," Felder explained. "The community at Arlington was so open to growth and learning, and willing to try new things."
Beyond his role as a campus minister, Felder was known in the Dallas area as a prominent community leader and peacemaker, "one of a handful of prominent African Americans who moved to the city in the early 1980s and worked to change the social, political and racial landscape here," wrote the Dallas Morning News upon his departure for Emory.
Connecting Emory students with communities of people who need their help has been Felder's top priority this year. He recently returned from Bermuda with the Voices of Inner Strength choir, where the group encountered people who are trapped, "with no opportunity to move and no way to see an incentive to raise their horizons above where they are," he said.
"What the Voices of Inner Strength did in Bermuda was go to high schools and elementary schools and the steps of city hall and other places to show to the kids there that they can be somebody. And being somebody means not only being somebody who recognizes their own worth, but also somebody who takes that and makes it a viable instrument for creating hope in other people's lives."
"Dr. Felder has a long history of commitment to community involvement," said University Chaplain Susan Henry-Crowe. "His sensitivity to the University's role in the larger community is deep. The Chaplain's Office's continued interest in the larger Atlanta community continues, and Dr. Felder brings vision, strength and experience to these endeavors."
Felder says that because of the sense of community responsibility instilled in him by his parents, he believes that "everybody is somebody in God's kingdom. We are all connected somehow. The connections between us are so close that it's really important that we make our responsibilities for each other a critical part of who we are."
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