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The Conversation Starter

Staff member Ralph helps professors proclaim Christ.

  • Author: By Rich Atkinson
  • Credits: Photographs by Ted Wilcox
  • Published: November 4, 2013
  • Ministry: Faculty Commons
  • Location: USA

A boisterous man shouts in front of the University of Idaho library clock tower. In one hand he grips a megaphone, in the other a cardboard sign with the words: “What Your Teachers Aren’t Telling You.” A group of students laugh, mock and argue.

In contrast, Ralph quietly observes, his blue eyes gazing through silver, wire-rim glasses. He’s worked on this campus for 36 years and watched the culture of the campus change. With white hair and a matching goatee, Ralph, 61, could pass for a university professor or a Colonel Sanders look-alike. Instead he is a Cru staff member. Ralph knows, like the man with the megaphone knows, that college and university professors wield the power of their voices over the young, impressionable students in their classrooms. They play a huge role in charting the course of these lives. What the professors teach can either darken or enlighten the hearts and minds of these students.

Ralph and his wife, Connie, work with Faculty Commons, Cru’s ministry that seeks to provide every student the opportunity to know professors who follow Christ and works to ensure that each campus will have faculty members who point colleagues to Jesus. The Cooleys work alongside and behind the scenes with professors in Idaho and Washington state to help them know Christ, grow in Him and make Him known.

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Six years ago, professors were not on Ralph’s radar. He knew a few, but as a staff member with Cru’s Campus Ministry, he had focused on college students for 30 years. Then, Ralph received an email from Campus Ministry leadership asking him to attend a Faculty Commons informational meeting. Ralph did not have any interest in faculty ministry until he discovered that he would do many familiar things: evangelism, Bible studies and mission trips, for example. The main difference: a shift in focus from students to professors.

“It has been a pretty steep learning curve,” says Ralph. “I have learned a lot, and I am still learning.”

Part of Ralph’s success has been applying what he knows, and he knows students. So at a Cru meeting, he challenged them to take a copy of C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity and give it to one of their professors to read. Carli Swift asked her English professor to read it, though she admits she wondered, What is he going to think of me?

She says she was nervous each of the three times they met to talk about the book. During their second meeting, Carli remembers the professor explaining that he had grown up attending church and had been active in his youth group. But in college, the professor concluded that he didn’t need God because he was a good person and could be happy without Him. Even though Carli’s professor didn’t come to know Christ during their meetings together, she says God gave her confidence about what to say. She also knew, through the book, that her professor reviewed Jesus’ claims to be God.

Ralph understands that God is the One who changes lives, but he believes that process often begins with an exchange of ideas, and he knows no better place to do that than on a campus. “At least let’s have a conversation,” he says. “You may not agree, and you might be really opposed, but let’s at least have a conversation.”

The University of Idaho campus in Moscow which was founded in 1889.

Every Tuesday morning at the University of Idaho, down the hall from a chemistry lab, Ralph meets in Professor Cheng’s office for conversation—Bible study, specifically— with four professors. And on Friday mornings, just six miles away, yet over the state line, Ralph meets with between three and 10 professors for Bible study at Washington State University. Here they meet in a conference room. “In addition to looking at the Scriptures and praying for one another,” says Bill, a philosophy professor, “we think about integration of our faith with teaching.” One of the ways Bill applies this is by letting his students know in an appropriate way during non-instructional times that he follows Jesus.

Ralph encourages the professors to be open and available to talk to inquiring students about their faith. Kirk, who followed Ralph as the leader of student ministry in Moscow, Idaho, agrees. “There is a higher level of influence when your professor would attest [to] their belief in a biblical Christian worldview,” says Kirk. “That carries a lot of clout.”

While Ralph equips the instructors to integrate their faith, he recognizes that they must also know their limits in the classroom. For example, when a microbiology professor in one of Ralph’s Bible studies learned that one of his students questioned his view on intelligent design, the professor acknowledged there was some weird stuff on the Internet about his views, and he wanted to clear it up. So the professor invited students to meet off campus. One night, 22 out of 40 students showed up for pizza at the professor’s home. He explained his position, including his standards and scientific reasoning. The discussion lasted three hours.

According to many in academia, Christianity and science, like oil and water, do not mix; Ralph diligently addresses this concern among skeptics. For two years in a row, he has helped create a partnership among Christian groups and churches to host a public dialogue—Ralph insists this phrase is friendlier than the traditional word “debate”—on the subject of faith and reason. These groups have invited a national speaker from a group called The Veritas Forum to address faculty and students from both the University of Idaho and Washington State University. This year, Christian philosopher Tim flew in to speak, and Nathan, an agnostic philosophy professor who teaches at both schools, offered the rebuttal.

Ralph has a hobby of renovating bikes.

“We have been praying", explains Ralph, “that we would have Christian students across the table with non-Christian students, and Christian professors sitting across the table from non-Christian professors having a significant conversation.”

Before the Wednesday event, Ralph, Tim and Nathan meet for dinner at the Fireside Grille and, over burgers and pasta, review last-minute details. Dressed in a sweater vest and striped tie, Nathan asks about the forum: “I hope this isn’t inappropriate, but is part of the motivation for this [forum] that Christianity is not given the intellectual respect that it deserves? Is theology under attack from academia?”

Over the clang of restaurant dishes and background conversations, Ralph responds, “Yes, I would say so. Let’s get it back into the marketplace of ideas. It is a legitimate worldview.” The men continue the discussion and then head to the auditorium.

Later that evening, 420 people—full capacity—pack into an auditorium in Washington State’s Todd Hall. In the most unchurched region in the U.S., students line up for 45 minutes afterward to continue the conversation with the philosophy professors.

Ralph hopes these conversations are just the beginning. He wants to see God use professors and students on college campuses. He also wants professors to go to the world. “Professors open doors on foreign campuses unlike anyone else can,” says Ralph.

Gordon, a professor friend, joined him this year for a spring-break mission trip to Costa Rica. Gordon made contact with the biology department at the University of Costa Rica.

“Here is a professor now that has opportunity to influence, to teach and to meet students and professors that I would never have the opportunity to meet,” says Ralph.

He’s not holding a sign or waving a bullhorn, but Ralph believes that it matters what professors are telling their students.

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