By Laura Sikes
BALTIMORE, Md. — College freshman Shemaiah Strickland suffered with horrible nightmares when she first came to Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Adjusting to being away from her home in Atlanta for the first time, she said she just wanted to belong. Strickland attended a university organization fair and met Southern Baptist missionary Vickie Stewart, who was staffing a booth with fellow campus chaplains for The University Memorial Chapel.
Strickland had prayed to God for help with her loneliness. “I asked God what to do, and He sent me to Vickie,” she said.
Stewart gave Strickland her card and invited her to call whenever she wanted to talk. She made the call and Stewart later led her to Christ.
Though Strickland had attended church off and on, she says she never felt she had a personal relationship with Jesus. She started going to Stewart’s weekly on-campus Bible studies with other young women and says she was impressed right away with the teaching and was inspired with the seriousness of the students’ study of the scriptures.
Strickland remembers telling herself, “I don’t need church. I could just read the Bible. That was my thing. But then I came here and Vickie brought me to Christ with her teachings.”
At first, Strickland says she felt intimidated with how the girls could recall and apply Bible verses so readily during discussions.
“I’m thinking, I’ve got a relationship with God and I can’t even quote a scripture. All I know is ‘I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.’ How can I get closer to God if I don’t read His word and if I don’t know the type of person that He is?”
Reaching students such as Strickland is what Vickie Stewart is passionate about. Simply known as “Miss Vickie,” Stewart energetically moves around campus on mission “to connect,” as she puts it, with students whenever she can. “Not preaching, but connecting and building relationships” with them is the key to her ministry, she says.
“I might say, ‘Hello, my name is Miss Vickie. How can I pray for you?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, really, you want to pray for me?’ And I’ll say, yes, and I tell students, I am here to serve you. Here’s my number, if you need prayer or want to talk. I am available.”
Stewart — jointly funded by the North American Mission Board and the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware — is one of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® (AAEO) for North American Missions. They are among the missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 6-13, 2011. With a theme of “Start Here,” the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Stewart.
The petite, 4 foot-11 inch, 48-year-old’s upbeat spirit seems to draw students and staff to her like a magnet at this Historic Black College and University (HBCU). Founded in 1867, originally as a school to train pastors by the Methodist Episcopal Church, the college became a state university in 1975 and offers a wide variety of programs to its 7,500 students.
Doctoral student Katherine Lloyd meets weekly for lunch with “Miss Vickie” for fellowship and support. Lloyd says it was hard for her, too, coming to a new environment, leaving a rural area to attend school and live in an urban area the first time. But a mutual friend introduced her to Vickie via “Facebook” and she says, “We immediately connected.”
“Vickie is my only consistent Christian woman friend I have,” Lloyd says. “She’s the only person I know here that I can go to as a woman and talk about stuff and know that this is coming from someone who is like-minded in Christ. It’s a quick hour but it’s just good to know that once a week I have that fellowship.
“When you see Miss Vickie, you feel better because she’s excited to see you, and she’ll give you a hug and she’ll talk and say, ‘I’m praying for you.’”
In 2008, when Stewart came to Morgan State as NAMB’s campus missionary, she says God brought her back home to her native Baltimore and gave her the desires of her heart. Since she first felt called to missions in 1981, Stewart had long wanted to work with college students.
But first God led her to work with the urban poor in Brazil as a missionary with the International Mission Board. When she was commissioned in 2000, she was hired to work with students but ended up serving as a church planter while there. Stewart said that she never intended to leave Brazil but she returned home after her father passed away to help care for her mother.
Soon after coming home in 2007, Stewart applied for the campus ministry position, which is supported by NAMB and the Baptist State Convention of Maryland/Delaware.
Stewart was a natural to continue the work begun a year earlier at Morgan State by Ryan Palmer, pastor of Seventh Metro Church in Baltimore. Palmer says his church and others within the state convention had been praying for three years for direction and for someone like Stewart to come along. He says it was “a step back, wow moment” when they found her.
She was the perfect fit, Palmer says, with all of her training and experience with the IMB. In addition, she was a native of Baltimore, young and an African-American.
“Vickie is an evangelist at heart and I don’t use that term loosely. She is sincerely concerned about lostness. That’s just a good fit for the work we’re doing at Morgan State. In addition to that, she follows up on lostness with her strong passion for discipleship,” said Palmer.
Together, Palmer and Stewart lead an off-campus, coed Bible study, called “The Point,” which targets unchurched students. Vickie also holds a weekly Bible study for young women on campus.
Upon leaving Brazil, an upset Stewart says she remembers being comforted by a pastor who told her that perhaps “God brought you to Brazil to show you that you’re unique and that you can do anything where He calls you. God is sending you home to work with women who are hurting.”
Today, those words seem prophetic as Stewart describes most of her students as hurting. The young women in her weekly Bible study have many emotional needs, she says. They are searching and figuring out what they want to do with their lives.
She says she prayed for God to send her students, much like Shemaiah Strickland, who have teachable spirits and for those who are not Christians and who are hungry for the Word.
Each Thursday night, Stewart’s Bible study begins with a boxed meal and a lively praise report, in which students share answered prayers and good things that are happening in their lives. Last spring the group studied from the book, “The Christian in a Post-Modern World,” which stimulated discussion.
“We talk about what it means to love God and what it means to be a Christian,” Stewart said. “Christianity is a way of life. It’s a relationship, not a religion.”
Her enthusiastic teaching style is both intimate and thought-provoking and shows her love of apologetics, which she developed early on as a student at Lancaster Bible College. She often plays devil’s advocate with the students to teach them how to defend their faith.
Don’t let philosophies determine how you think about God. Get in the Word,” she says while tapping on her Bible. “We have something good!”
Stewart gives them basic practical advice, reminding them they have everything when they trust God, and encourages them to memorize scripture verses that are significant to them.
“Trust yourselves. Not me. Not the preacher. Not anyone else. You should know whether or not you are a Christian. Because you can’t say you’re a Christian and live like the devil, right? You can’t say you’re a Christian and never open the Bible and read God’s Word. The Holy Spirit will convict you.”
Sophomore Charlene Thomas, 20, takes it all in and even carries flashcards with verses on them to memorize. She says she likes meeting with a group of young women who share questions and look for answers. And she values having access to Miss Vickie for Godly advice.
“She’s so open, not only to us but to God and you can see God in her. That makes her trustworthy,” said Thomas.
“Her spirit, her smile and the way she talks to us makes us feel like family.”
Laura Sikes is a photojournalist living in Alexandria, Va.