The Great Debaters

Have you seen the movie The Great Debaters?  If not, go see it this week.  If you have evening meetings all week, take your committee members with you.  Take your youth group next Sunday evening (it is rated PG 13).  Or see an afternoon matinee.  Tell your SPRC Committee that I required you to go!  Consider it part of your job. 

Why should you see The Great Debaters?  I offer three reasons.  First, the movie is about the 1935 debate team of Wiley College in Marshall Texas, one of the 11 historically Black colleges affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  The film, which stars and is directed by Denzel Washington and is co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, is based on a true story about a professor and poet, Melvin Tolson.  Tolson transforms four students at Wiley College into a debate team, which took a significant step in the struggle for racial equality to become the first African American team in the United States to ever debate on a white campus.

I’m sure you are aware of the importance John Wesley placed on education.  In the 18th century he founded schools for children of the poor.  These children could not afford to enter the closed educational system of the time and would not otherwise have received an education.  The 2004 Book of Discipline (paragraph 164.E), reflects Wesley’s passion, “We believe that every person has the right to education. We also believe that the responsibility for education of the young rests with the family, faith communities, and the government.  In society, this function can best be fulfilled through public policies that ensure access for all persons to free public elementary and secondary schools and to post-secondary schools of their choice.”   

After the Civil War, schools were formed for the very first time for 4 million former slaves, who had been intentionally denied formal education, and the Methodist Episcopal Church led the way.  On August 6, 1866, the Freedman’s Aid Society was born through a meeting called by Bishop Davis W. Clark.  Within one year, 59 Methodist schools (elementary, secondary and college) were founded in 10 states for freed slaves.  In the early 20th century, these Black colleges provided the only opportunity for African Americans to receive a college education.

The second reason you need to see The Great Debaters is that your local church supports Wiley College through payment of ministry shares.  Since 1972 the Black College Fund has supported the programs and ministries of the 11 historically Black colleges and universities, all of which were founded between 1866 and 1882 to prepare former slaves for the future.  Our ministry shares help fund departmental research, libraries, operations and physical plant maintenance as well as capital expenditures such as new buildings, major remodeling projects and endowments.

Why should we single out 11 Black colleges and their 15,000 students for special support when there are 78 other United Methodist affiliated colleges and universities?

  • These schools, which did not begin with the same advantages and endowments that many white colleges did, provide opportunities for African-Americans who could not otherwise afford to attend college.   
  • These schools have already produced many African-American leaders in the United States and in the church. 
  • The schools, which are small and provide individualized instruction, are safe places for African Americans to embrace their heritage without experiencing the full effect of racism.
  • We need the prophetic witness of these schools, which have been and continue to be centers of social justice and civil rights.
  • The 11 historically Black colleges and universities (the name is a formal designation by the Department of Education) are the most integrated of our United Methodist institutions of higher learning.  They are great places for students who are not African-Americans to experience diversity. 
  • Over 50% of the African-Americans who graduate from our 89 United Methodist colleges and universities come from these 11 institutions.

Every year at the West Michigan Conference we hear a student from one of the Black colleges express gratitude for our support.  Thank you for your faithfulness!

The third reason you should see The Great Debaters is that the movie reminds us that the United Methodist Church can still lead the way in changing lives and transforming our world.  Melvin Tolson stressed that education is a gift from God whose purpose is to help students reach their highest potential.  He also reminded them through his own example that education brings personal confidence, power to change society, and hope for a world where all people are loved and valued as children of God.

In a promotional message to media outlets, Oprah Winfrey said, “Here is this little college … in the rural South in the 1930s, where you had to be there to even begin to understand what it was like to be a person of color, in a land that thought you were invisible and thought that your work really didn’t matter.  And here was this little college with a professor who understood beyond the place and beyond the time how powerful a mind and minds combined together could be.  And he created this debate team, and … believed that the color of your skin wasn’t what was significant, but (rather) the content of your mind and your character and your beliefs.”

The United Methodist Church missed a golden opportunity by not giving us more advance notice about The Great Debaters.  But it’s not too late to urge your parishioners to see the movie.  And it’s never too late to lead the way. 

  • Could it be possible for the United Methodist Church to once again lead the way in changing the course of our country as we did with the formation of so many schools for slaves after the Civil War?
  • Could it be possible for your local church to lead the way and change the course of your town, city or county?

Who will lead the way into tomorrow?

Blessings, Laurie

P.S. Denzel Washington has donated $1 million to Wiley College’s recently resurrected debate team.

P.P.S For more information about the Black College Fund, go to

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