The following story was written after our 2010 graduation. Enjoy!
FAMILY MEMBERS ENJOY PEER PRESSURE,
FAMILY TIME AT DIVINITY SCHOOL
Some fellow students called them “The Divinity School Mafia Family.” Gene Whitehouse and Dr. Rick Hollings, who graduated in May from the Campbell University Divinity School, are the “godfathers”—and the biological fathers. Preceding them in graduation were Christina Whitehouse Suggs and her husband, Matt; and Al Whitehouse and his wife, Mary Hollings Whitehouse. There is only one adult in the immediate families who did not graduate from Campbell Divinity School—Gene’s wife, Marta, who has a stellar career in teaching.
All of them spoke of peer pressure—positive peer pressure to encourage each other and help each other succeed. They knew firsthand many of the tasks that their family members were facing. “It also helped in sharing notes, study guides, etc., when studying for the tests,” says Matt Suggs. “I think my Old Testament and Church History study guides made it around to all the family,” he adds. “It was always helpful because we each tended to get something out of the lectures that one or the rest of us didn’t get.” Mary adds that they were able to advise each other on courses to take when and how best to balance them in any given semester. “Don’ t take theology and history together,” she advised. “It’s not pretty.”
How do you take a family systems class with your family? That could be a tough one. For Al Whitehouse, Mary Hollings Whitehouse, Christina Whitehouse Suggs and Matthew Suggs, it was a memorable experience.
Another interesting situation was the first day of “Evangelism and Missions” class for Matt and Christina. “Christina started out as a front row student while I was a back row one and Dr. Carolyn McClendon’s reaction when calling the roll for the first time . . . which was actually on our anniversary.” (The Divinity School in her 14-year history has had other couples and parent-child situations but the combined Whitehouse-Hollings clans are the largest group of relatives.) Matt chuckles about the fact that the family atmosphere at Campbell appealed to him. “Oddly for me, it was the family atmosphere of Campbell that drew me in, among others: proximity, theology, etc.” Even though he and Christina were married when they enrolled, there was little expectation that other family members would join them. While students, their daughter, Kara, was born, which eliminated the possibility of them taking classes together, since they alternated schedules to provide child care for her.
Actually, Matt and Mary, no kin at the time, were the first students in the fall of 2002. Then Christina and Al joined them the following semester. Al and Mary started dating that semester and got married in October 2005 during her last semester. After 26 years as associate pastor at Central Baptist Church, Miami, FL, Gene started Divinity School in fall of 2004. Rick, who started in the fall of 2006, had worked in a counseling center on campus under the auspices of Baptist Hospital and knew many of the faculty. Rick graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson, with a bachelor of arts and a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN, and a doctoral degree in school psychology from North Carolina State University, Raleigh. His daughter, Mary, in addition to her M.Div, has a master of science and is now working on a Ph.D. in school psychology at State.
When Gene moved from Florida and started to pastor a church, he felt the strong need to attend seminary, although he had been in church work for many years. “I thought it was really neat that my kids were so proud of me undertaking this degree at my age,” explains Gene. “Just seeing them two to three times a week, having lunch with them, even being in class with them was a privilege. I was able to observe firsthand their responses and interaction at the graduate level.”
“Campbell was the place that brought us all together. . . and formed a bond that will last a lifetime,” explains Mary. “All of us fell in love with Al, Mary’s future intended in the fall of 2003,” says Rick. “The bond was instant. The two families spent Christmas together at our home in Fayetteville. Who would ever have known it would be our last as a family." Part of the bonding came through tragedy. Rick’s wife of 33 years and Mary’s mother, Nancy, died unexpectedly in April 2004. The Whitehouse family and the entire Divinity School family walked beside them during this difficult time. “I often said, in my next life, I would want to obtain a theology degree. In a strange, new way, my next life was here.” says Rick.
In 1973, Rick had indicated that he wanted to practice psychology in a Christian counseling context. Two years later, he checked out a seminary but it was not a fit for him. Since 1983, he has been a counselor at a faith-based counseling center under the auspices of North Carolina Baptist Hospital. Following Nancy’s death, he had an increasing desire to do a ”better job of integrating theology and psychology with patients.”
Gene says coming to Divinity School has been a new life for him as well. “Little did I know that being the pastor of a church, continuing to be husband and provider for my wife and the absolutely preposterous notion of going back to school for a master’s degree was truly a new beginning in my life.”
Matt and Christina live in Columbia, SC, where he is a hospice chaplain and she is associate coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. Al and Mary live in Apex, where she is continuing her schooling and working as an adviser in the School of Psychology at NC State. They have a son, Ryan, whom they adopted from Ukraine.
While some students may call the Hollings-Whitehouse clans the “Divinity School Mafia,” another term more fitting might be “the God squad” as six of them have given their lives to His call.