On Father’s Day, Rory Marshall’s ’84 phone is jammed. His house is full. Well over a hundred young men come and call, send cards and e-mails to the man who has been the best father they’ve known.
It started one afternoon when Marshall was a sophomore at Calvin. Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church had asked him to work with them in their inner-city neighborhood.
“We didn’t know where to start,” Marshall recalled. “I looked out the window and saw something like nine boys cussing on the parking lot. I went out and lined them all up on the wall, and I said, ‘How dare you guys come here cussin’ and direspectin’ God’s house!’ I took them inside and gave them a lecture and Bible study and told them to meet me every Monday thereafter.”
One of those boys was 11-year-old Marvin Sapp, now a six-time Grammy-nominated gospel singer and founding pastor of a Grand Rapids church. In 1979, he and his friends were the first members of the Nehemiah Club.
Marshall named his boys’ group, and later his church, after the Old Testament leader who rebuilt Jerusalem. “I saw there was a need in Grand Rapids to rebuild because of the racism and ignorance that divided blacks from whites,” Marshall said.
Helping kids and building bridges between races have defined all the years of Marshall’s ministry since.
While still a Calvin student, Marshall also became chaplain for the Kent County Juvenile Court—work he literally took home with him. He and his wife, Jacqueline, took in over 40 boys, black and white. “They weren’t just foster kids,” Marshall said, “they were our kids, and some of them stayed for years.”
Marshall made sure all of those boys graduated from high school. “To see them accept Christ, be baptized and, some of them, go on to college, was a reward beyond measure,” he said.
Mentoring kids—especially black males with no father figures in their lives—Marshall calls the “burden and driving force” of his life. He was one of those kids until a white student at the University of Illinois’ Chicago Circle Campus mentored him. “I couldn’t see race because God used that white boy to touch a black boy’s heart and make a winner out of me,” Marshall said.
At Calvin, too, Marshall had mentors. “Professors Roger Rice and John Primus took me in and spent time with me. Those white men were like fathers to me.”
In 1996, Marshall left his work in Grand Rapids and moved his family to Chicago to pastor a church there. At a high school reunion a former classmate and school principal challenged him. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you really do some ministry and bring it into the schoolhouse?’”
Marshall soon found himself in a test project: a classroom with 44 inner-city boys. He got the members of his new Nehemiah Urban Church Ministries involved, too. “We made men out of those boys by being there,” he said. “Of those 44 boys—none of them with fathers—26 of them are in college today, and not one of them is, or has ever been, in prison.”
That motivated Marshall to become a certified elementary school teacher. Today he teaches fourth-graders at Stagg Elementary in Chicago’s Englewood district and pastors NUCM as well. In 2005, the United Covenant Churches of Christ acknowledged his gifts and ordained him bishop of the denomination’s men’s department.
Titles and positions aside, Marshall says his calling hasn’t really changed in 30 years. “I’ve just had a drive from God to put love on kids.”
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