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Monday, August 21, 2006

Norfolk State turns to Churches for fundraising support

It's a big public school supported by tax dollars, but when Norfolk State University started its current $15 million capital campaign, it sought help from a community that few secular universities solicit: local churches.

That approach may be unconventional, but it has also proven a success for Norfolk State, a historically black school. Five black congregations in Portsmouth and Norfolk have pledged a total of $232,500 to the university over the next five years, and Norfolk State representatives hope other churches will donate as well.

"We think their role is critical for the success of the campaign," said Phillip D. Adams, associate vice president for development at Norfolk State, who said church giving adds a new dimension to the school's donor base.

The participating churches in Norfolk are First Baptist Church on East Berkley Avenue and Second Calvary Baptist Church and First Baptist Church on East Bute Street. Third Baptist Church and Grove Baptist Church are in Portsmouth.

Representatives at two other large state schools in the region - Old Dominion University and The College of William and Mary - said they don't target the faith community for financial support.

Similarly, Rae Goldsmith of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a national organization for professional college fundraisers, said she knew of no instances of churches donating cash to public universities.

She said it is more common for churches to support faith-based schools within their own denomination. For example, Baptists have a long history of supporting Baptist-affiliated colleges.

But in Norfolk, there is also a historical bond between Norfolk State and the black community.

Black church support was critical to the school's founding in 1935 as the Norfolk branch of Virginia Union University, a Richmond-based institution with Baptist connections.

Local black pastors helped organize the school, and black congregations raised scholarships for the first students, according to "Upward," a history of Norfolk State by Lyman Beecher Brooks, a past university president. Black clergy taught biblical literature courses, and faculty spoke to black congregations at Sunday services to promote the school.

Though the school became independent and publicly supported in the 1940s, its ties with local black congregations have stayed strong.

"I doubt if you'd find many families in the black community who didn't have relatives who attended Norfolk State and are doing better because they got that education," said the Rev. Joe B. Fleming of Third Baptist Church. Members of his Portsmouth congregation include employees of NSU, alumni and students at the school.

Fleming said Third Baptist's five-year pledge of $32,500 to Norfolk State fits into the church's regular support for "mission" activities, be they religiously affiliated - missionaries, for example - or secular charities.

"We have to be about transforming the world," said Fleming, who said Third Baptist will give away $150,000 to good causes this year. "Our presence ought to be about more than just being here to preach."

But Fleming's interest in aiding Norfolk State was also sharpened this spring by the General Assembly's refusal to approve proposed funding for the university's library.

"I didn't like that and shared my feeling with the congregation," he said.

Adams said many black churches worry that Norfolk State doesn't get a fair share of state education funds.

"They want to see NSU funded at the same level as other institutions in this area," he said.

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