Randal Jelks

Faith and Learning Award


Summer 2013

Former Calvin professor of history Randal Jelks first connected with Calvin as a fan of its scholars.

“I was in graduate school at Michigan State, working on a paper about Rev. Benjamin Mays, the teacher-mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, and was interested in religious subcultures and their influence, so I read Dutch Calvinists in Modern America,” he said. “It was an impressive work. I had to meet the author.”

That author was Calvin history professor James Bratt, and their meeting began a relationship between Jelks and the college that continues, even though he now teaches at the University of Kansas.

Jelks, already an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, was pursuing a PhD in history and working at the Grand Rapids Public Library part-time. Bratt asked Jelks if he would teach an interim class on the civil rights movement—which turned out to be a delightful experience for both teacher and students.

After that class Jelks was asked to teach part-time and administrate Calvin’s multicultural programs office part-time, drawing on his pastoral and civic involvement experiences. He served in that role from 1992 to 2000, when he moved to the history department full time.

“The college was seriously asking, ‘What does it mean for Calvin to be a multicultural community?’ and there was work to be done in many areas—academics, admissions, student life. There was a desire to change the climate on campus,” he said.

Working with many partners on the Calvin campus, Jelks helped academic departments bring in diverse speakers, market the Entrada program for high school ethnic-minority youth, secure grants for retention, establish a multicultural floor in the residence halls and mentor new hires in the student life division.

He cites former professor and administrator Steve Timmermans and student life administrators Jan Heerspink and Rhae-Ann Booker as key collaborators during those years.

“I really had no plans to be a professor,” Jelks said. “I was drawn to ministry—hence my seminary training—but I wanted to be a chaplain on a college or university campus. Because God led me to Calvin, teaching and scholarship became a new calling.”

While at Calvin, Jelks wrote an appreciated book on the black experience in Grand Rapids titled African Americans in the Furniture City (University of Illinois Press) and, just recently, completed a volume on Rev. Mays—the project that first led Jelks to seek out Calvin professor Bratt years ago. The book is titled Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement (University of North Carolina Press).

Jelks said that one of his favorite involvements at Calvin was his work in establishing the Semester in Ghana program, which continues today. The initial idea for this endeavor was to develop a program in Nigeria, where the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin alumni had established numerous ministries.

“Nigeria was not politically tenable at the time,” said Jelks, “but [then-provost] Joel Carpenter introduced me to Ghanaian scholar Kwame Bediako. With Kwame’s help, we started with an interim class that soon grew into a semester program and has since become a pipeline for the admissions office in international recruitment.”

As Ghanaian students began considering Calvin, Jelks assured them he would be available as a mentor and friend, telling them he would serve as “their Ghanaian uncle.”

And it wasn’t only Ghanaian students who Jelks mentored. At the family home, Jelks and wife MariBeth offered a regular respite for many (and all) Calvin students—African and American, students of color and students of Dutch American heritage.

“I have been blessed to know Dr. Jelks,” said alumnus Nathan Jeremie-Brink ’05. “He taught me in my first college semester at Calvin, guided my first experience abroad to Ghana, pastored me through my involvements in student anti-racism advocacy, counseled my premarital and vocational discernment processes, and mentored me toward a vocation of service to the church, academy and world. Dr. Jelks is loved and respected by countless students, colleagues in scholarship and ministry, and sojourners for justice.”

Alumna and current alumni board member Alicia Wilson-Ahlstrom ’93 said, “I feel like I’ve been in an ongoing class—enlightening and provocative—with him for much of the 20 years since I’ve been at Calvin. While I was a student, he was an accessible, engaging role model, capable of somehow delivering both history lecture and sermon in one sitting. Not only did I get a history lesson, but more importantly, I received a charge to understand how that history was to shape my faith and actions in this world. I will always be grateful for God’s placing Randal Jelks in my path and for allowing me to call him both teacher and friend.”

Jelks is known for a fiery and outspoken style, a characteristic that has brought him criticism as well as praise. He understands the various opinions about his manner and acknowledges some “fights along the way.”

Despite leaving the college in 2007, he remains a fan and supporter of Calvin, even from his current academic home of Lawrence, Kan.

“The climate has changed at Calvin,” he said. “I remain a fierce defender of the college. I always loved—and still do—the thoughtful deliberation on all subjects and the high level of discussion that is a hallmark of the school.”