Duke Divinity School partnership with Huntingdon College promotes ministry leaders
Friday, May 24, 2019

By Bridgette A. Lacy

Bria Rochelle, M.Div. ’21 started her college career focused on strengthening the body, but by the end of her freshman year she realized her true calling was lifting spirits.

Rochelle, a Division III volleyball player, majored in exercise science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. She was planning to become a physical therapist.

Bria Rochelle
Bria Rochelle, M.Div.'21

“I got involved in campus ministry my freshmen year,” Rochelle said. The Rev. Woods Lisenby, her chaplain at Huntingdon, suggested she apply for a pastoral internship her sophomore year, but Rochelle initially resisted. “I prayed about it, and then I fell in love with everything I was doing. I became involved in hospital and homebound visits. I was doing the benediction every Sunday. I graduated to offering prayers during church and eventually preaching at the midweek service.”

 “She’s a rock star,” says the Rev. Rhett Butler M.Div.’16, the current chaplain at Huntingdon College. She served on his student leadership team. “She has a strong sense of God’s calling on her life. She has an incredible ability to preach and a strong eye for justice ministry.”

Kindred Spirits

In 2016, Duke Divinity School Dean Ellen F. Davis and Huntingdon College President J. Cameron West (Th.M. ’86) signed an agreement to facilitate early admission for Huntingdon students to Duke Divinity. “Answering the Call: The Huntingdon College–Duke Divinity School Admission Pathway” offers preferred consideration and an early admission decision to any Huntingdon student who has earned a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or better and completes a Divinity School application for admission and an interview.

Rochelle came to Duke Divinity School from that partnership. She received the top merit scholarship award, which pays for her tuition at Duke Divinity.

West, a member of Duke’s Board of Visitors, says his religion faculty sees one of its roles as mentorship. “We like to help students discern vocation,” he says. “Duke can be a fit for some students, and it was obvious Bria was very interested in the parish. The core of the Duke mission is preparing men and women for parish ministry. We never tell students where to go. We tell them where they will be well educated and well nurtured.”

For many Huntingdon graduates, Duke Divinity is a natural progression of their training and formation. Rochelle fell in love with Duke during her seminary tour. “It reminded me of Huntingdon, in terms of the architecture. It’s big and old.”

But more importantly Rochelle liked the feeling. “All the people I interacted with were personable. I didn’t feel like a stranger on campus.”

A Spiritual Home

Rochelle, who grew up in a black Baptist church, has found a spiritual home in the United Methodist Church, where she wants to be a voice for women and people of color. “God really put me in this place,” Rochelle says. “If it had been up to me, with all the things I wanted to do, this would not be where I am. But all the doors here opened, and God was leading me step by step in the direction to go.”

Butler experienced that same feeling of being at home at Duke. “Huntingdon is a small, private liberal arts college affiliated with the Methodist Church, and while Duke Divinity is in a big university, it’s a small, close-knit community affiliated with the Methodist Church,” Butler says.

“A lot of our worship practices are the same. I think some of our lens of how we view the world complement each other really well. Most importantly, we take this big ethereal theology and pair it with practical everyday experience. Those two inform each other really well.”

“I didn’t feel pushed to go to Duke,” says Rochelle. “People were very realistic about their experience. The alumni all talked about how Duke helped them grow spiritually and how they were able to connect with students as well as the faculty there. That was also similar to my Huntingdon experience.”

Ministry and Leadership

This past spring, Rochelle was elected co-president of the Divinity Student Government and will also serve as a student member of the Duke Divinity National Alumni Council. Meanwhile, she’s adjusting to the United Methodist Church. “At first it was hard to get used to it. Once I expanded my views of what worship could look like, I started to experience the Holy Spirit as I did in my worship back home. I was used to more free-flowing services that were not very regulated. The pastor would let the Spirit move you. I had to make the transition to a traditional service with a chancel choir and high liturgy.”

Rochelle Huntingdon
Rochelle preached the Baccalaureate sermon for the Class of 2019 at Huntingdon College

Earlier this month, Rochelle delivered the Huntingdon College Baccalaureate Sermon for the class of 2019. She told them: “I have been able to be alongside some of you as we grew from 18- and 19-year-olds in college for the first time to soon-to-be—I don’t want to say the forbidden word—adults. It can be kind of a scary thing to think about. It makes such a difference in your journey when you have someone to walk alongside you, someone who does not walk ahead of you to prove to you that they can do it but gets right next to you and says, ‘Hey, I see you. We’re going to get through this. And we’re going to do this together’.”

At Huntingdon and now at Duke, Rochelle found traveling companions. She’s pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church, discerning whether she wants to work in a church or in relationship to the church as a community pastor. But she wants to create change.

“I’ve always felt called to minister to people that were often marginalized and considered ‘others’. I have often felt like an ‘other’ in various situations, especially during my time at First UMC in Montgomery. Ala. Being a black female in leadership was a great and enriching experience. But it has also showed me that the church has not quite absorbed racial and gender diversity. I was at an affluent white church, and I’ve felt out of place sometimes as a black female. I want to work to help others see the others in situations. I want to go back to the conferences I’m in, which has a lot of predominately white churches and not a lot of black clergy. I want to break down barriers.”