"Hello, Reverend...?"

Writer: 
June 1, 2004

In early February, reverends, pastors, deacons, and other members of the clergy across the nation heard a call. Not from God, but from Kristin Clark and A.J. Thomas, M.Div. students, and a few of their classmates who volunteered to participate in the Annual Fund Phonathon, which is basically half-phonathon, half-party when you factor in the Maggiano's dinner and the free candy.

Accounting for accuracy: Skender hands out reward incentive

 Photo: Chris Hildreth

 

Unlike most professional schools at Duke, which use paid callers to solicit alumni, Divinity relies on student volunteers to make cold calls a little warmer and dinner-disturbing rings only mildly irritating, and to connect people who, because they share the same divinity school, might have something to talk about. "I get this instant connection with alumni," says Thomas, a second-year student from Niagara Falls, New York, who is preparing for ordination in the United Methodist Church. "Even if they graduated in the Thirties or Forties, there's just a certain connection among people who've gone through Duke Divinity School."

Even without that connection, though, Divinity students have the added leverage of raising money, albeit indirectly, for God, and that is sure to weigh on the mind. Particularly the mind full of biblical verse--Matthew 19:24 ("It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,") or 2 Corinthians 9:7 ("God loves a cheerful giver.").

And alumni love a cheerful caller. Over the course of the night, Amens and God Bless You's and Grace and Peace Be With You's flooded the lines, and it wasn't long before the dollar amount, scrawled on a chalkboard in Room 208 Hudson Hall, the engineering building on Science Drive, exceeded the calculations of the sprawling equations left over from a class lesson on the Fourier Transform earlier that day. "We're going for $5,000 tonight," announced Julie Anderson M.Div. '98, a Divinity development officer and Mississippi Methodist, who organized the event. "We're almost there. Keep it up. Who wants a prize?"

Incentives, the mainstay of any serious fund-raising effort, lay on the table in plain view of the callers. Raising $100 in pledges would get you a king-sized candy bar; $200, a gift certificate to Bruegger's Bagels on Ninth Street, a Blue Devil baby bib, or a hardcover book (The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here for? or The History of Religion); and the top dollar amount at the end of the day, the grand prize, a night's stay at the Washington Duke Inn. But the incentives weren't really necessary because callers enjoyed the good conversation and, in the absence of a real person, good answering-machine recordings: from a pastor in Ohio, "This is the day the Lord has made. Please leave a message"; from a reverend in California, "Grace and Peace Be Unto You. Shalom, shalom. Beeeep."

Generally speaking, the Divinity School is very good at raising money. As part of the Campaign for Duke, it raised $102 million, exceeding its first goal of $35 million and its second goal of $85 million and all other goals in between that and $102 million. In the last year alone, gifts and pledges to the Divinity School totaled $12.3 million, which will help fund the ongoing construction of a $22-million addition to the building--including the 315-seat Goodson Chapel; a 177-seat lecture hall; classrooms; office suites; a new bookstore; and a dining area with terrace--to be completed in the fall of 2005.

The phonathon callers, however, were raising money to support student financial aid, which depends on the goodwill of people who preach goodwill for a living, which doesn't pay so much. "They really want to give," says Clark, a first-year student and a Nazarene from Nashville. "And if they just can't afford to--like a lot of the United Methodist retirees who get these lousy retirements--they feel really bad about it."

Sometimes people who were thought to be alumni turned out to have nothing to do with Duke except that they shared a name with somebody who did. Still, they would comment on the basketball team. And then sometimes the misidentification went in the opposite direction, like the time Lindsey Cole, a third-year student, was taken for the mistress of the pastor she had asked to speak with: "So, how long have you been seeing Sam?" the woman who answered hissed.

But such cases were rare. "Most of the time, people just wanted to reminisce about their Duke experience," says Clark. "They tell you how much they're indebted to such a wonderful place. They'll say they're sorry, but they can only give $25 or $50. And I say, 'Don't be ashamed of that. Everything helps.' And it just makes you grateful to be where you are."