The year was 2008, and the letter about a fundraiser for the Scholarship Committee of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church couldn’t have come at a busier time for young Bobby Johnson Jr.
Bro. Johnson, a Tabernacle member, was a 22-year-old Tennessee State University student majoring in aeronautical and industrial technology with a concentration in aviation flight. His proverbial cup of senior-year activities already had “runneth over.” He was knee-deep in classes such as physics, aviation management, airport safety, and airport awareness. The Cass Tech grad — who rose to become drum major of the famed Tennessee State band — also spent loads of time zipping back and forth to the airport, logging solo and other flight hours as an up-and-coming pilot.
Meanwhile, Bro. Johnson recalls, disposable funds available to him during lean undergrad years alternated between very little and non-existent. Still, he immediately took time to dig deep and help the scholarship fund that once helped him. He mailed off a check.
That decision was a no-brainer, said Bro. Johnson, taking a break from his job with the Birmingham, AL Airport Authority to speak with a fellow Tabernacle member.
“You always want to kind of give back,” said Johnson, 26, a college graduate who starts graduate school in aviation this fall. “If somebody provides you with anything, even if you don’t give back to that same individual or group, you try to give back to some cause or organization. The reason I feel that way, I think, goes back to my parents and the way I was raised. One of the best things you can do is give back and help someone else.”
It’s that kind of commitment that has sustained the Tabernacle Scholarship Fund for more than four decades. The Scholarship Committee, established by Pastor Fulton O. Bradley in 1969, has contributed scholarship dollars to eventual lawyers, nurses, teachers, engineers, ministers, and more. Most scholarship funds have gone to Tabernacle members, but a percentage of scholarships annually go to non-members. Well-known past recipients include scholar, author, and political pundit Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Richmond, VA minister Rev. Dr. Lance D. Watson. Local author and clinical psychologist, Dr. Byron Douglas, Ph.D., is a 1976 scholarship recipient who went on to serve several years as chairperson of Tab’s Scholarship Committee and is still an active member.
Founding committee member Dr. Virginia Jones said Tab’s Scholarship Committee long has been on the cutting edge, establishing an endowment fund to ensure a perpetual flow of funds. Money for scholarships is taken only from the interest on invested funds.
“At some point, the members of the Scholarship Committee contributed certain amounts of their own money to establish an endowment,” said Dr. Jones. “That meant that even if there was a year when donations dropped off or when we simply didn’t raise enough funds, we would still have money available at all times. We also helped other churches establish scholarship funds.”
Tabernacle Pastor Nathan Johnson said Tab’s strong Scholarship Fund is a reflection of the church’s historical commitment to education. “When you read the history of the committee, you find that as Tabernacle started the Scholarship fund, the founders felt that education was so important that they wanted to make sure the church championed the cause to eliminate the financial obstacles that could prevent someone from going to college and obtaining an education,” said Pastor Johnson. “I believe now in the 21st Century that the church must continue to minister to the whole person and seek to help individuals overcome the obstacle of finance when it comes to furthering their education.”
Dr. Douglas, an historian as well as a Ph.D. psychologist, said the Black church as an institution long has been committed to providing educational opportunities for African-Americans.
“Very early on, it was the Black church involved in helping our people learn to read…many people learned to read by reading the Bible,” noted Dr. Douglas. “And the Black church was instrumental in developing schools from the one-room schoolhouse all the way to helping develop Black colleges and universities.”
Tabernacle’s longstanding scholarship ministry is a continuation of that legacy. Dr. Douglas believes that virtually every profession or trade represented in the church features a number of people who received educational support from the Tabernacle Scholarship Fund.
Several past scholarship recipients have – like Dr. Douglas – immersed themselves in the scholarship ministry. Matthew Mebane, a North Carolina A&T engineering graduate, received scholarship assistance. Although he was working as an engineer and was a young man still in his 20s, Bro. Mebane served three years as chairperson of the Scholarship Committee.
“Thanks to the contributions we’ve received and an extremely hard-working committee, we’ve been able to help not only hundreds of Tabernacle members but also non-members, including foreign exchange students that Tab members have brought to the committee to get assistance,” said Dr. Douglas.
Still, Dr. Douglas acknowledges that not every past recipient follows the example of Bro. Bobby Johnson Jr. and responds to appeals from the committee to “give back.”
“The help that we give can only go as far as the help that we receive,” Dr. Douglas reminds.
The workload involved in collecting applications, corresponding with college officials, summarizing information, interviewing applicants, troubleshooting, and the like may not be apparent to those not involved in the work. Chairperson Yvette Pinchem- Stewart said the committee benefits from solid cooperation and commitment.
“The committee runs well because each person on the committee is willing to step up to the plate,” said Sis. Stewart. “They do more than help people financially. They reach out to people, sharing ideas and offering suggestions. For example, one young lady was interested in accounting and asked if we could find an accountant in the church who could serve as a mentor and help keep her motivated. We were happy to help because we do provide services other than just giving them money.”
Over the years, the Scholarship Committee has developed offshoot initiatives such as a series of workshops for high school students featuring young Tabernacle professionals working in a variety of fields. That career conference was part of the Scholarship Fund’s 20th Anniversary celebration. Also, experts such as the late Agrippa Jones (husband of Dr. Jones) contributed expertise in college exploration and in understanding financial aid. For the last two years, Dr. Jones has hosted workshops in which she shares information, including little-known websites, about hundreds of other scholarship opportunities.
“This is critical because Tabernacle’s scholarship provides assistance to undergraduate students, but we do not – and could not – provide funds to cover the entire cost of a college education,” explained Dr. Jones.
June is Scholarship Month, and the church is saturated with information about the fund throughout the month. Special scholarship envelopes are placed in the pews, and Scholarship Committee members wear conspicuous ribbons identifying them as committee members and helping remind the congregation to contribute to the scholarship cause.
Trustee Eddie Johnson has been a vital member of the Scholarship Committee for more than two decades. He has served as treasurer for the entirety of his 20 years. Trustee Johnson said it is inspirational to see the lengths some Tab members go to support the scholarship fund. He points to individuals such as the late Deacon Roscoe Bryson.
“Deacon Bryson contributed a significant amount of money to the fund and left money to the scholarship fund because, he said, he did not get a chance to go to college. He felt education is important, and he wanted to help youngsters make it to college,” said Trustee Johnson. “Longtime committee member Dorothy Pugh, who has passed away, is another example. She contributed much to the fund and now every year, someone contributes an amount in the name of Sis. Pugh.”
The earliest fundraisers for the Scholarship Fund were annual banquets. More recently, concerts or special services have raised the bulk of the funds, along with individual contributions, memorial gifts honoring loved ones, and gifts from wills and bequeaths.
“There has been a slight drop in the number of applications in the last few years, and we still encourage people to apply,” said Dr. Douglas.
Trustee Johnson also noted that the challenge in getting past recipients to remember the scholarship fund (and contribute) once they graduate stems in part from the fact that many move away from Detroit and Michigan after they earn a degree.
“Once they finish college, they don’t tend to stay in Detroit or this area,” said Trustee Johnson.
Trustee Johnson encourages Tab members to contribute to the scholarship fund throughout the year – not just during the June awareness-raising month.
“Anyone who sends us a contribution can just note on the envelope that it is for the scholarship fund, and it will get to us,” said Trustee Johnson.
Pastor Johnson said contributions to the scholarship fund are a solid investment.
“The scholarship ministry affords members of Tabernacle an opportunity to invest in the lives of individuals as they begin their journey of higher learning,” said Pastor Johnson. “By doing that, we are also investing in the future of the community and society at large. It’s another opportunity to practice good stewardship.”
For more information about the scholarship fund, call (313) 898-3325.
Sis. Yvette Pinchem-Stewart, Chairperson
Sis. Denise Busch
Sis. Shanika Coach
Sis. Clara Crowell
Dr. Byron Douglas
Sis. Marquia Gibson
Sis. Marie Jackson
Trustee Eddie Johnson
Dr. Mary Jones
Dr. Virginia Jones
Bro. Matthew Mebane
Bro. Ronnie E. Phillips
Sis. Edna Shaw
Sis. Winifred Shaw-Bailey
Sis. Essie Stevens
Deacon Danton Wilson