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Campus Baptist Minister Reflects on Almost Four Decades at ODU

It's the end of the school year, and like many faculty members, the Rev. Rob Sandford is looking ahead to summer.

But this year is a little different for Sandford, minister with the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM), formerly the Baptist Student Union, part of the Old Dominion University campus ministry consortium. After 39 years of serving students, he's retiring.

"There's relief that we're reaching the end of the school year. But it's filled with a little bit of nervous anxiety," Sandford said. "I'm going to drive away on June 5, and I'm not coming back in August."

Sandford will retire June 5, on his 66th birthday. He'll have spent more than half of his life at the school where he arrived in 1970, fresh from completing the master of divinity program at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He later received his doctor of ministry degree from the same school.

When Sandford arrived at ODU, the BCM didn't even have a permanent home. It moved into its current location on 49th Street in 1973.

But Sandford soon made ODU his professional home, and stayed, partly because of "the openness and cooperation we received from the university, from the very beginning.

"The university, from the president on down, has been supportive of campus ministry at ODU."

It's with obvious pride that Sandford talks about the growth of ODU as an institution. "The change here has been incredible. There were about a dozen buildings under construction last summer; that's more than there were back in the '80s," Sandford said.

At a surprise party for Sandford in April, some of the 40 Baptist Collegiate Ministry alumni who attended hadn't been on campus in several years. "They said they couldn't believe what the campus looks like now," Sandford said.

"Old Dominion was a nice place when I came, but it was very limited in what it could offer. Now it's quite diverse. It's bringing people from all around the country. It's really been a tremendous accomplishment."

That's not to say there haven't been challenges.

Sandford said it's different doing campus ministry now than it was 30 years ago.

"The kids have to work so hard now just to afford to go here," he said. "People don't believe me when I tell them that we used to have a full Bible study group, 35 to 40 people, meeting every Friday night through the school year.

"Now, kids leave right after school on Friday and spend all weekend working at local jobs."

Sandford said that's unfortunate, because getting involved in your school - whether in a faith group like the Baptist Student Union or a social club - "is a far more positive way to spend your time as a young person."

He believes the need for ministry, whatever form it may take, is greater for students today.

"They often don't have time to reflect, don't have time to really think about why some things that are happening in their life are happening."

The Baptist Student Union has evolved in recent years. Membership has been constant at a few hundred students per semester, but Sandford said students meet in smaller groups, sometimes doing activities far removed from the traditional Sunday worship service.

"You have to hold kids' attention, keep them interested," he said. "We've tried to do some innovative things with the club, reaching out to students who maybe aren't part of the Student Union, or any faith group on campus."

Sandford gave an example of the prayer walk on campus, where his students held prayer services in front of campus landmarks such as Webb Center, the dorms and the President's House. There was also a worship time in Pretlow Planetarium, which was preceded by a lecture by an astronomy professor about the universe.

The BCM has also been involved in some on- and off-campus mission work, such as a 2006 spring break trip to New Orleans to help the city rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. "We actually had students who weren't involved in our group come up and tell us they wanted to take part in that mission," Sandford said.

So what will Sandford do after he retires?

"I'm actually looking forward to having the freedom to do things that I've always wanted to do, without the constant demands of work," he said.

He and his wife, Bettina, plan to put their house up for sale in Norfolk and move to Richmond, where daughters Larisa and Melanie live with their families, including Sandford's two grandsons.

What will he miss? The first thing out of Sandford's mouth isn't too surprising, given that he was a scholarship basketball player at the University of Tennessee in the 1960s.

"I'm really going to miss the basketball team. I was talking to Gerald (Lee, the Monarchs' star forward) at the student recreation center, and the team is really excited for next season," he said. "I've got to talk to (coach Blaine Taylor) about trying to get back for games."

Sandford says he'll also miss the bonds he formed with students over the years. He pulled out a record recorded by the Baptist Student Union choral group in 1975, and pointed to a few of the young men wearing wide-collared paisley shirts.

"I've had a few of these kids' children in my group."

This article was posted on: April 29, 2009

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