Trend — The American church is changing

By CHANDLER WILSON

Most millennials can recall Sunday mornings in their childhood where they sang from a hymnal and listened to a male pastor in a clergy robe while sitting in a pew wearing a suit or dress next to their parents.

But culture is changing, and so is the church.

Nearly one in five (19 percent) Americans is leaving their childhood religion and becoming religiously unaffiliated while only 3 percent of Americans who grew up unaffiliated are joining a religion, according to a 2016 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Across the country, churches are trading in suits for jeans, hymns for contemporary worship music and multi-hour sermons for shorter worship experiences and small groups in an attempt to reach an increasingly non-religious culture that lacks trust in authority and is governed by social media.

“People don’t actually have real relationships with people because they do it all behind a computer,” said Shaina Smith, executive pastor of ministries at Victory Family Church in Norman, Oklahoma. “People are craving relationship and craving connection. The church is changing because the culture is changing. People want real. They want authentic.”

Compared to the mere 6 percent of Americans claiming no religious affiliation in 1991, the now 25 percent and rising religiously unaffiliated people in the United States, according to the 2016 PRRI survey, leave many to wonder if Christianity will fade away or be revived.

Even in the most-religious states in America, such as Oklahoma, where only 18 percent of the 3.94 million population claimed no religious affiliation in 2014, churches are being forced to adapt.

In Norman, one of the state’s largest cities, less than half the population considers itself to be religious, despite living in the Bible Belt.

According to Rev. Rodney Newman, a pastor at Bridgeview United Methodist Church in Norman and a Theology instructor at Oklahoma City University, religion is becoming irrelevant in people’s lives.

“Many now find meaning in relationships and friend groups and turn more to entertainment options,” Newman said. “For instance, some find meaning through popular music, television shows and movies that seem to deal with real issues. Religion doesn’t seem to add anything they can’t get elsewhere.”

Congregation counselor and author Dr. Steve McSwain wrote in a Huffington Post article entitled, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore” that too many leaders in church ignore the fact that the American church is dying.

Though the demographic of the country is changing at a fast pace, the demographic of most churches is failing to catch up.

***

While the church has struggled adapting and growing overall, many churches across the country are still experiencing growth with each Sunday.

According to a blog post from Carey Nieuwhof, pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario, Canada, those willing to reconsider their methods are succeeding in preserving their mission.

In other words, churches don’t have to change what they believe in order to attract today’s culture.

Victory Family Church, a local contemporary church with an influential presence across the metro area and within the University of Oklahoma student body, is located in a large building near the I-35 Flood Ave. exit and the Cleveland County Jail.

Head pastors Adam and Kristy Starling felt called to leave the church they worked at in Oklahoma City to launch Victory alongside members from another Norman church. Shortly after Victory’s January 2013 opening, Hobby Lobby donated thousands of dollars for expansion.

In Victory’s near six years, average attendance has gone from around 100 people to over 4,000 and continues to grow weekly, according to Smith. Now, Victory is doing its fourth building project as well as launching a second location in Newcastle set to open in January 2019.

The Starlings were hopeful their location, along with the different religious backgrounds, races, cultures, struggles and experiences of their 38-person staff, would attract a variety of people and grow their church.

With nearly a hundred small groups, ranging from soccer teams to prayer groups to a money management course, Victory has emphasized creating an environment of genuine inclusion where anyone can find what they are looking for.

“We want people to feel like family, so it doesn’t matter what they look like or what they are wearing,” Smith said. “We just want people to feel welcome no matter what.”

According to a 2017 Pew survey of more than 4,000 people, 48 percent of Christian interviewees said they do not attend church because they haven’t felt welcomed by congregations.

To better do this and create inclusion, Victory goes into the community as opposed to assuming the community will come to them.

“The modern church can offer an updated version of social engagement by servicing, giving voice to the marginalized and meeting the real needs of people,” Newman said. “This might include addiction recovery, criminal justice reform, community organizing and challenging embedded systems of injustice, including issues of race and gender.”

They do pop-up churches, park food trucks, speak with campus ministries and provide services to different members of the church and in the community, such as single mothers and economically disadvantaged people.

Because of this, along with their emphasis on diversity within their staff, their volunteers and throughout the church, Victory has found success in not only attracting a wide range of people, but retaining their attendance and involvement as well, according to Smith.

“Jesus himself certainly upset the current social order,” Newman said. “I don’t think social engagement will necessarily be through classes at the church but in home meetings, pub conversations, feeding the hungry and exploring new forms of prayer.”

***

Newer churches often find it easier to reach people because they are beginning with the most up-to-date strategies as opposed to older, more traditional churches who may have to change their approach, according to McSwain.

But traditional mainline Protestant churches do not have to hang flashy lights and hire a worship band to perform in their stained-glass sanctuaries to better connect with a changing culture, he discussed.

McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church has been in its original location behind Campus Corner and near downtown Main Street since 1924 and has a strong, traditional presence in the Norman community.

“I’ve gone to both contemporary and traditional services, and I like both for different reasons,“ McFarlin attendee Amelia Kinsinger said. “As a college student, I think the pastors at contemporary services generally have the messages that are better for my life right now, but I think the thing that’s nice about traditional is the atmosphere generally feels a little more authentic to me.”

With both contemporary and traditional services offered and a live-stream option for the 10:55 a.m. service, along with informative and updated social media accounts, McFarlin’s growth has remained steady as culture has changed.

“We stay current on technological advances and how those advances might help us continue to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Wendi Neal, associate pastor at McFarlin. “Millennials follow the same attendance trends that we see across other age demographics.”

As a leader of a church, there is a temptation to ignore trends or minimize the impact they will have on how the church is operated, Nieuwhof wrote.

McFarlin’s willingness to adapt with advancing technology and current trends while maintaining its traditional Methodist roots is what has kept it successful.

Many older congregations fall apart because of their unwillingness to change what they have always done, according to Newman.

They focus on preserving the institution rather than connecting with people, which leads newcomers to lose interest, he continued, but churches who are willing to adapt will find they don’t have to change what they believe in.

“Because our world is so surrounded by electronics and social media, the only way to interact with our generation is with interface,” OU senior Marykate Motley said. She grew up in a Methodist church and now attends Antioch, another non-denominational, contemporary church in Norman. “Without social media it’s hard to catch people’s attention or draw them in in the first place.”

***

Regardless of the size of the congregation or whether a church is traditional or contemporary, revival is possible, according to Newman, but churches must focus on serving people rather than focusing on their own struggles.

Newman believes revival will happen when the church begins to resemble the earliest days of Christianity.  

“Early Christians were known to help and love non-Christians and provide security to those that felt abandoned or unable to provide for themselves,” Newman said. “Younger people tend to care more about social issues such as racism or sexism. The church of today seems to either not address these issues, talks about them too generically or takes retrogressive stances that come across as out of touch or even harmful, which is another example of how the church is fixated on internal squabbles rather than turning outward to the world we are called to serve.”

According to Nieuwhof, the biggest complaint of non-church goers is hypocrisy in the church, which leads to a declining trust in institutions and authority.

In order to combat the 65 percent of declining or plateauing churches in the U.S., the church would do well to address complaints and create a space where people feel welcome. 

“The reason why we are a church is because we want to tell more people about Jesus,” Smith said. “It’s not the four walls. It’s not the building. It’s just so people can really have an encounter with Jesus, and we truly believe that their lives can be changed.”

Human Interest: #CUZWERESENIORS

By CHANDLER WILSON

While on the elliptical at the gym last spring, Anthony Rayburn found himself reflecting on his three years of college and looking ahead to all that senior year would hold.

With memories involving President’s Community Scholars, life in the dorms and Wednesday afternoons in the Unity Garden on the South Oval, Rayburn longed for the joy and friendships his freshman year gave him.

Despite living in his fraternity, participating in Sooner Scandals and being constantly surrounded by dozens of friends, sophomore and junior year were not easy for Rayburn.

But through the lows of college, he experienced growth. 

“I took a complete u-turn in my life around the time I decided to make this album,” Rayburn said. “Now my friends and I are doing things we should have been doing all of college.”

From those memories of freshman year to the solitude of junior year and every place and emotion in between, the accounting senior was hopeful his last year of college would be different.

With this realization, Rayburn felt there was no better or more funny way to hold onto his highs and lows from college than to create a rap album with the people he had experienced the last three years.

“How else do you capture college and senior year without doing a time capsule or something like that?” Rayburn said. “When I’m 50 years down the road, I’ll look back and be able to say, ‘I remember PCS and Beta Theta Pi and the Crater. I remember Sriracha. I remember chillin’ at Beta. I remember Sammy D and Lane. I remember all my friends and what my years in college were like.”

Still on the elliptical, Rayburn texted his best friend, creative media production senior Rhett Derryberry.

“I need you to executive produce my album,” it read.

“Let’s do it,” Derryberry replied.

That spring afternoon in the gym, #CUZWERESENIORS was born.

***

Following the end of the 2018 spring semester, Rayburn began reaching out to those he wanted featured. None of them are rappers, but he eventually pieced together 20 friends who had played an important role in his time at OU.

While this album was under his name, it was for all of them.

“We just wanted everyone to be on (the album),” said senior economics major Joey Hayhurst. Hayhurst is featured on the track three times under the name Sriracha, a name he gave himself after he poured Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce on his lunch while talking about the album with friends. “Even if our friends were like, ‘No, I can’t rap,’ we wanted them to be on it. Anyone is a rapper. Anyone can do anything.”

After three months of recording with Apple headphones in Rayburn’s house and using GarageBand to produce, the 25-track album #CUZWERESENIORS dropped on Soundcloud on the morning of Aug. 30, 2018.

Immediately, Instagram blew up. Friends and friends of friends, among others, posted the album to their stories, and before long, Rayburn was getting hundreds of texts and direct messages.

As Rayburn walked into class that morning, welcomed by friends and classmates, sporting a #CUZWERESENIORS t-shirt, he felt confident senior year would be a good year.

***

Freshman year is a time of uncertainty. For many, it is their first time away from home and first taste of independence. It can be lonely and scary yet exciting.

Often, freshman year is when people start making life-long friendships. For Rayburn, it was through President’s Community Scholars, or PCS, that these friendships began to form.

PCS is a service-oriented group and scholarship for freshmen on campus that involves speakers, mentorship and community service, providing 100 students each year the opportunity to be in community with one another, according to its site.

Can’t believe it’s all over now (wow)/ Met a team now we live/ and the goal is to serve and always be there, never swerve (never swerve, swerve, swerve)/ Freshman year, Thursday night, Caf/ Eatin’ good, can’t miss, but I never would/ PCS family on the beat (yup). “PCS (feat. Swaggy J, T-Pain, HQ, and A-Swizzle)”

Three years later, Rayburn felt his friends from PCS needed to be a part of #CUZWERESENIORS, including sports management senior Jack Stagg, who is featured on the track under the name Swaggy J.

“First, Anthony was just telling us about this album he was making about his college experience, and he wanted to get some people from PCS on a track,” Stagg said. “PCS is when we all became good friends, so I was stoked. It sounded fun and even kind of heartfelt. I’ll look back on college and for sure laugh at this because it’s definitely a joke, but we also talk about real and cool stuff, like PCS.”

While PCS is a somewhat small part of a big university, seemingly every OU student has walked the South Oval.

Within the South Oval is the Unity Garden, also called the Passion Pit, but to Rayburn and his friends, it is called the Crater. In the Crater in 2015-2016, Rayburn and his friends held Crater Robotic Wednesdays.

Wednesday afternoon, yeah, we get it on/ Big crater, big head, Jimmy Newtron…The whole world is my big crater, and y’all have no choice but to live in it. “Crater Robotic Wednesday”

Every Wednesday, Rayburn and three friends from class claimed the Crater as theirs, showing up in a different theme every week and inviting those on the South Oval to participate in games and hang out, even holding a big/little ceremony and Crater Olympics.

“It was definitely a club, but it was inclusive of anyone,” Rayburn said. “We did anything and just didn’t care back then. Those Wednesdays are some of my best memories of all of college.”

While Rayburn and friends no longer have Crater Robotic Wednesday, their names can still be found etched into one of the rocks inside the Crater. The freshmen hoped to leave their mark on campus and have fun along the way, as many strive to do.

***

Coming off the high of freshman year, Rayburn hoped his sophomore year would be the same for he and his friends.

For many college students, sophomore and junior year are the most difficult years of college. Classes get harder, adulthood is right around the corner and people begin understanding that the freedom college brings comes with consequences.

“I think a lot of people struggle sophomore and junior year,” Rayburn said. “Like a lot of people, I became really closed off and about myself, which isn’t really like me at all. Sophomore year started off the lows of college for sure.”

Everyone experiences difficulty at some point in life. For Rayburn, this came in the form of losing his grandparents, his sister becoming sick and being turned down by the only girl he’s ever truly cared for.

These circumstances, mixed with finals week and the lack of sleep, seemingly endless hours of studying and taking multiple tests that comes with it, Rayburn found himself reflecting on simpler times. Just two years earlier, he was class president of Norman North’s graduating class of 2015. Amid final exams and ongoing struggles, that seemed a lifetime ago.

Good evening/ My name is Anthony Rayburn, and I am honored to be speaking on behalf of the class of 2015 as this year’s class president/ Graduates, friends, family, faculty and administration, we made it/ Finals. “Finals Mix 2017”

***

As junior year unfolded, Rayburn found himself through the help of friends, bringing him out of solitude.

“I think Anthony just needs an outlet,” Derryberry said. “He’s always doing something creative, and this big project encompasses our entire college career. It was all for fun. I wouldn’t say that serious is a word to describe much of the stuff we do, but I spent time doing it because he worked hard on it.”

In spring 2018, Sooner Scandals, the engagement of a friend and the realization that there was only one year left of college brought Rayburn back to where he wanted to be.

Sooner Scandals takes part each spring and consists of seven Broadway-style acts created, directed and performed entirely by OU students through their respective organizations, according to its site.

Rayburn, alongside others featured on #CUZWERESENIORS, participate in Sooner Scandals every year. While some shine in the front row or have incredible vocals, others are left in the back, despite their best efforts. Through three years of Sooner Scandals, Rayburn remained on the back row.

Scandals, man/ Yeah, it’s really over (wow)/ No more hair gel/ No more makeover (thank God)/ Back to my normal life/ I gotta start over (momma)/ Had a lot of fun/ and got inspired (splash)/ but I did my time/ and now I’m retired (gone). “Scandalous”

After more than a year of experiencing the lows from his sophomore year, Rayburn’s Scandals cast of Beta Theta Pi and Delta Delta Delta gave him more than fond memories. Being a part of Scandals reminded Rayburn how much his friends mattered to him, helping to build the foundation for #CUZWERESENIORS.

“’Scandalous’ got the whole album going,” Rayburn said. “I was always rapping at Scandals practice and joking about an album dropping ever before #CUZWERESENIORS was a thing. So many memories and friendships came with three years of Scandals, which I think a lot of people would say the same thing.”

Not long after the end of Scandals 2018, Rayburn’s friend Aaron Sapp proposed to his girlfriend, making Sapp the first of Rayburn’s friends to get engaged.

Though Rayburn claims Sapp is a terrible rapper, it was important for him to be on the album because it was something they were all doing together. Under the name A$APP, Sapp, along with Hayhurst and Rayburn, created the song “Sappy Ending” to commemorate Sapp’s engagement and celebrate a new chapter of life.

A$APP, not Rocky/ Got a girl, feelin’ cocky/ Ice on my wrist, hockey/ Cheddar in my pocket, Milwaukie.

In just a few short years, Rayburn and his friends had experienced a lot of life and growth together. While some were falling in love or getting engaged, like Sapp, others, like Rayburn, were just realizing who they were becoming and wanted to be.

***

After texting Derryberry, Rayburn set a goal of having the album completed and ready to drop in August.

While putting the album together, he knew he needed a track that directly talked about what college taught him, but he was struggling to find the right words to tell his story.

“It’s a story,” Hayhurst said. “The album shows growth and how much Anthony and all of us learned through college… It’s the best album that has ever been created at the University of Oklahoma.”

One summer day while on the stationary bike at the gym, Rayburn was looking through Facebook Memories at his previous posts from that date over the years. Immediately, he began writing his hardest and deepest song.

As the 20th track on the 25-track album, “Clout Chasers” symbolizes the growth people experience from high school throughout college.

I don’t even recognize myself from six years ago/ I don’t even know where all of my happiness went/ 2015 Norman North class president/ What I didn’t see coming was my own descent/ Senior year was a blast, so please don’t get me wrong/ 3-time swim state champion, I was still feelin’ strong/ 3-time piano state champion, I can still play them songs/ so of course I didn’t feel like anything could go wrong.

The transition from high school to college is difficult for many, but the transition throughout college oftens prove even harder. Even still, college is frequently referred to as the best years of life and a time many want to remember forever, no matter how difficult it may have been.

According to Hayhurst, there was no better way to remember the best years of their lives than to do something that nobody at OU had ever done before.

“We’re kind of in the rap age with our generation, so we thought we had an opportunity to ball out and make killer rap beats,” Hayhurst said. “Our lives aren’t going to get any better than this. College is the peak, and the only people who would top this would be us again.”

For Rayburn, he likes to try new things. At the end of his life, he hopes to have written a book and made a movie, among other things, so there won’t be anything left he didn’t at least attempt, he said.

Currently, he feels like being Drake. Soon, he may feel like being Ryan Gosling, then he could be Lebron James.

Just as he remembers his graduation speech from nearly four years ago or where he wrote his name on a rock in the Crater three years ago, Rayburn hopes to make an impact and leave a piece of himself in every chapter of his life.

When asked why, he quickly responded, “Why not? You only live once, and I want to do it all.”

 

Chandler Wilson: Story Behind the Story

After nearly 15 years covering college basketball at The News-Gazette in Illinois, The Courier-Journal in Kentucky and for Yahoo/Rivals, Brett Dawson was given a chance to fulfill his dream of writing for the NBA.

He made his debut as a freelance writer, covering the New Orleans Pelicans for The Advocate. One year later, Dawson was hired by The Oklahoman to cover the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the start of the current NBA season, Dawson was recruited by The Athletic to come on as a Staff Writer covering the Thunder.

For The Athletic, Dawson is able to focus more on big feature stories, such as his feature on Dennis Schröder’s childhood, his journey in basketball and fresh start with the Thunder.

CW: In your note to The Athletic readers, you wrote that you hope to inform and entertain, so what does that look like when writing a feature? How do you dive into the feature?

BD: I think the main thing is you just want to do as much research as you can. I’ve got a couple people who really help me on the way and give me guidance. A guy named Chuck Culpepper, who is at The Washington Post now but has worked in a million different places, told me the best features are the ones where you have a ton left over and have way more stuff that you don’t use. That’s the thing – you just want to have so much stuff so you can pick and choose where you want to go. You can pick the best stuff for now, and you save the rest for a story down the road because you never know when you can use it.

CW: Did you experience that with the Dennis Schröder story?

BD: Yes, so I talked to him for like 35 minutes, which is the longest I’ve ever spent with an NBA player. There’s all kinds of stuff about his fiancé that I didn’t use but may use down the road for another story…Hopefully you come across some anecdotes. Like, with this story, Dennis told me about him jumping off those 11 stone steps in Germany, and the minute he said it I knew I’d probably be using it.

CW: So what made you want to talk to Dennis Schröder so much? Did you get assigned that or seek out that story for yourself?

BD: Pretty much we do everything on our own. We coordinate with our editors, so I’ll call, email or slack an editor and just say what idea I have, then it goes from there. One thing that I’ve carried with me from my time with The Oklahoman is that whenever you’re writing a story, I ask what the central question is. What’s the question of the story you are trying to answer? For me, the question of this was, “Who is this guy?” I really wanted to write about Schröder because he was new, and I was pretty confident I could get time with him…Also, I felt like nobody had really written anything on him since he got traded. Nobody had really written a big story about him in the market. The access and the desire led me to want to write this.

CW: How did you prepare going into the interview? 

BD: It was kind of weird because I had never talked to him before, so I did a ton of research. I wanted to learn as much about his life as I could. Some stuff had already been written about him, so it wasn’t all going to be new, but that’s always going to happen, so you’re trying find something different. I knew a lot about him going into it, but I also did not read the big Bleacher Report story about him. I skimmed it, but I didn’t want it to inform my own writing, so I steered clear, but I got the basics.

CW: So how did the interview happen the way it did?

BD: It was a good setting. We were the only people there, which is kind of nice because you’re often off to the side with a lot of activity happening, or there is a PR person hanging out, but there wasn’t. Actually, it was beneficial that he took a long time. He took a shower, he got a smoothie, all these things were going on, so everyone had cleared out of the gym. We were literally the only two people in the gym, so that helped to make it feel more comfortable and conversational. He was in sweats and a t-shirt, drinking a smoothie, so he wasn’t trying to leave or go shower and get away.

CW: He seemed like he shared a lot and was open to conversation. How did you build that level of comfort, or respect, where he felt he could share with you openly and have good conversation?

BD: He had some stuff he really wanted to get across. He wanted me to know he was a guy who was going to adapt well and could be part of a winning team. He had some things in Atlanta that he felt bad about, like the way it ended, so that helped. Then, a weird thing, but I took German in college, and I don’t remember a ton of it, but when I got introduced to him, I told him in German, “I studied a little German, but I don’t remember a ton of it.” He thought it was good German, and he laughed and got a kick out of it, and that, right away, put him a little at ease.

CW: Yeah, it was something a little personal and light-hearted.

BD: Yeah, exactly. It was a little something to connect with. Just having a lot of knowledge about a guy then a little bit of a way to connect.

CW: Last question, but what are you really excited about covering this season with the Thunder? What stories or elements are you most excited for? 

BD: I like the human element of things, and with this job there’s some time to do things. I’m writing off most games but not every game. I’m not going to every game or every away game, but I am in D.C. now for the game tonight. But I’ve got time to dig in and find some stuff. Trying to find ways to help people connect with players as people is always the thing I like the most because players are people, and we don’t think of them in the same way. The most exciting thing for me right now is that I have more time to try and do this.

Crystal Perkins-Carter: A life of service

By Chandler Wilson

No matter where Crystal Perkins-Carter has worked, she has given her all to better the lives of her students.

In 2001, Perkins-Carter and her husband found her efforts were wearing them financially thin. Following a conversation in which her husband addressed the funds she was giving to support her students at Langston University in Langston, OK, Perkins-Carter realized she had to do something more. The adviser couldn’t stop helping her students, but she couldn’t keep spending her family’s money either.

So she sold her car, used her tax return and decided to put her writing talent to action in hopes it could help her provide scholarships to students who desperately needed someone to believe in them.

“They’re here, and I’m sitting in this office telling my kids, ‘I believe in you, I believe in you, I believe in you,’” Perkins-Carter said. “‘But if I only believe in you when the university can put up their funds to help you, do I really believe in you? If I really believe in you, I am willing to make a sacrifice for you.’”

Many years and published books later, Perkins-Carter is on a different campus, but she is still using her resources to invest in the lives of her students.

Perkins-Carter is the assistant director and an adviser for OU’s Project Threshold. The federally funded program is designed to help first generation college students, the economically disadvantaged or those with disabilities. According to its website, it has provided students with numerous resources and guidance since established in 1970 but currently lacks a clear funding source due to campus wide budget cuts and being denied a federal grant.

On any given day, the Project Threshold counselor and assistant director’s office can be found overflowing with students who consider her a sort-of mother on campus. Since coming to OU in the early 2000’s, Perkins-Carter has served her students to the point of paying tuition fees, buying class rings or supporting them in times of crisis or celebration, among other things.

Above all, Perkins-Carter has given hope to the hopeless, passion to the defeated and direction to the lost, according to many of her past and present students.

“There are so many students she has kept in school who were on the verge of dropping out, me being one of them,” BertThaddaeus Bailey, a previous Project Threshold student, said. Bailey is now a policy analyst for the state of Oklahoma.

“Words can’t even express what she has done. This isn’t book stuff. They don’t teach this stuff. I hope I have expressed all she means to me and so many others.”

***

Perkins-Carter credits her mother and her faith in God for her desire to serve so willingly. As a daughter of teen parents and an absentee father, Perkins-Carter said her mother, Karolyn Lewis, gave everything to make sure Perkins-Carter didn’t repeat her mistakes and was raised in a way that broke the cycle and trend of street culture in Detroit.

“It was really by the grace of God my mom decided that even though she made a mistake she was going to do something dynamic and powerful out of the decision she made and make sure her kid didn’t repeat her mistake,” Perkins-Carter said. “My mom made sure I didn’t get lost in the shuffle of what was happening in the streets of Detroit, and so I grew up in church and was taught to love the Lord.”

Throughout Perkins-Carter’s childhood and into young adulthood, she had people she admired who she considered servants and givers. Years after she was born, her mother married her stepfather, and their family later moved from Detroit to Oklahoma to start a new General Motors location. While her stepfather and mother supported her and her younger half siblings, giving them everything they ever needed, she also had godparents who funded her college education outside of her scholarships.

It all taught Perkins-Carter to live a life of gratitude, hard work and service that modeled the love and selflessness of those she grew up around.

According to Perkins-Carter, the sacrifices her mother and family made set her up for the position she is in now, a first-generation college graduate who is able to make a difference in her student and her three children’s lives.

Not only did Perkins-Carter’s mom love her well, but she loved others and served them well also. Growing up, there were many occasions where Lewis took in other children, cousins, nieces, nephews, the neighbors, her brother’s classmate who lost his family and anyone who was in need of a place to stay or someone to be there for them.

“Even in her struggle, she was a servant to me,” Perkins-Carter said. “I pray that if anything were to ever happen to me, somebody would show my kids the same kind of compassion that I show to the students that I serve…I know that has everything to do with the seeds that my mother planted in my life.”

***

While Perkins-Carter leaned on her mother for guidance, Lewis relied on her daughter as well. Not only did their relationship lead her to generosity and gratitude, but it led her to creativity and confidence, according to her mother.

“As a kid, she used to walk up the streets preaching to people,” Lewis said. “She wanted to grow up and take care of the needy and the poor. She was always a leader, responsible, mature, creative and outgoing. In a way, we grew up together. In a way, she kept me grounded.”

While her love for serving others was instilled in her at a young age, Perkins-Carter was exposed to situations early in her career within the juvenile justice system that taught her more about compassion and turned her love for service into a passion for trying to change young adults’ lives.

Initially, Perkins-Carter went to college with the self-proclaimed strange desire of being a mortician but quickly changed her mind and set her hopes on law school. It wasn’t until she began working within the juvenile justice program that Perkins-Carter felt certain about her calling. Through her work, she was exposed to kids who had experienced abuse, were pregnant by adults, were neglected or who felt lost in their mistakes.

Suddenly, her passion changed.

“I just felt like, ‘God, I can make a difference,’” Perkins-Carter said. “‘Use me.’”

This work inspired Perkins-Carter to get her masters in human relations with an emphasis in clinical counseling from OU so she would be able to more closely work with at-risk youth and troubled families. It was this passion and drive that later encouraged her to start writing.

Once Perkins-Carter started working with college students at Langston University, she realized she wanted to do for students what many of them couldn’t do for themselves.

“She does so much for her students,” Lewis said. “She gives scholarships when they have needs, and if they are sincere in what they are doing, she gives to them. That’s why she wrote a book. She started putting her thoughts to paper. She sold her BMW to finance her first book.”

Perkins-Carter never expected what happened next. Her second book, “Hood Rich: Sex, Status, and a Baller’s Confession,” which came out in 2005, quickly affirmed that Perkins-Carter had made the right decision to sell her car and use her tax return to kickstart her writing career. The novel ended up on Essence Magazine top-sellers list, and her writing has since been mentioned in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times.

Though her books have received a lot of attention, eventually leading her to need an agent, start her own publishing company and do book tours, her purpose never changed. She began writing to help kids, and no matter how much she achieved, her profits continued to go toward scholarships and bettering the lives of her students.

“It blessed me to bless my students in the manner in which I wanted to,” Perkins-Carter said. “To be a servant to somebody else is the greatest reward ever.”

***

Years later, Perkins-Carter continues to invest in the lives of her students at OU.

As the future of Project Threshold remains uncertain, the students look to Perkins-Carter for guidance and comfort. According to OU President Jim Gallogly, the program was denied a federal grant it applied for and will be out of funding by late October, forcing the university to take over expenses. While he assures the program will continue, students and faculty worry restructuring could lead to the dismissal of one or all of the counselors, among other things.

Even still, Perkins-Carter plans to be there for her students no matter what happens. According to her, the students have become her family and she loves them in the same way she loves her three daughters and three younger siblings.

Countless students have been changed by all that Perkins-Carter has done for them, Project Threshold director Deborah Binkley-Jackson said.

“She just has a way about her when it comes to interacting with people,” Binkley-Jackson said. “The way she talks about her students, and the way they have come in and there has been a turnaround…it just engages people. Her community is just thankful and grateful in every way for the services she provides them. She is a human service asset.”

While Perkins-Carter has created change in people through mentorship, she has also kept students in school and provided them the means to achieve their goals as well. Bailey is one of these students.

During the first few weeks of Bailey’s freshman year at OU, he was debating dropping out due to the difficulty of his classes compared to his prior education and because of financial difficulties. In seeking out the guidance of Perkins-Carter, she set higher expectations for Bailey than he had ever been held to before, which led him to believe in himself and eventually propelled him to his current career as a policy analyst, Bailey said.

“Miss Carter was so intentional about going beyond a normal adviser,” Bailey said. “I came to her not just for counseling or to get advised for my courses, but I came to her for a lot of issues that really had nothing to do with me being in college. She even kept my money in her savings for me when I was looking to buy a ring to propose to my (then) girlfriend, and she did all the decorating for my engagement party. She said she wanted to do it out of love and never mentioned it again. That just shows her character.”

According to Perkins-Carter, she knows what she does is not an obligation, but her upbringing and faith have taught her that if her students are in need, and she is able to help, she should give to them.

“I can’t even say how many students tuitions I have personally paid for myself,” Perkins-Carter said. “I can’t just sit on my funds and think it’s all my money and be like, ‘You’re in need, but I’m not going to help you.’

“I help them because I care about them.”

Bailey is just one example of a student who came onto campus as one person and left completely changed because of Perkins-Carter’s generosity and love. She never lets her students miss a class, and she gets to know each of them well enough to understand what courses they should take, according to Bailey. While she does this because she cares about their success in the classroom, it is more so because she cares about their minds and character.

Perkins-Carter knows many of her students will never be able to pay her back for what she gives them, but she doesn’t want them to. Instead, she hopes they pay it forward because she believes helping someone like she does is an opportunity to not only change their life, but the lives of their children and their grandchildren’s lives as well.

No matter what happens to Project Threshold and her job as an adviser and assistant director, Perkins-Carter will never stop being a servant to those in need. Everything she has accomplished has been to support her family and students, and that is not congruent on whether she works at Project Threshold. Rather, it is a part of who she is and what her mother instilled in her, Perkins-Carter said.

“I would not be half the person I am today if I hadn’t met Miss Carter,” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t have the job, I wouldn’t have my degrees, and I wouldn’t even be married.

“I would say Miss Carter completely changed my life.”

Q&A: Mikey McCareins, coming home as himself

By Chandler Wilson

Until 13 months ago, senior journalism student Mikey McCareins had never told anyone his secret. Growing up in an Illinois suburb and attending a Catholic private school in northern Chicago, McCareins never felt as if he could be honest about his sexuality.

As a young teenager, he knew he didn’t fit the flamboyant, feminine stereotype that everyone in high school associated with being gay. He loved hanging with his guy friends and playing sports, things straight people he knew did. To him, this stereotype and his lack of fitting it did not make sense, leading him to internalize his confusion for years, never telling anyone anything.

After a few years attending the University of Oklahoma, McCareins not only saw how accepting the people around him were, but he had grown exhausted from hiding who he was for so many years. In the fall of 2017, McCareins left Norman, OK to study abroad in Europe. While abroad, he gained the boldness he needed to tell his friends and family his long kept secret, and by the time he came home last December, he had told everyone he loved the truth.

One year later, I sat down with McCareins to discuss what that time abroad did for him, what led him to finally decide on coming out and what it has been like since returning to the United States nine months ago.

—————

CW: At what point were you like ‘this is who I am, and I am okay with this’?”

MM: That’s tough. I think I hadn’t totally accepted it until, like, January of 2018 after coming back to Norman from study abroad because I hadn’t been out in the States ever until after I got back. Once I got back on campus last semester, my close friends knew and word had spread a little bit, so it was once I was able to hang out with them and see that nothing had changed at all, like everything was the same with them.

CW: Were you scared of it being different?

MM: Yeah, and it was surprising. I was kind of concerned not that we would never talk again, but that it would affect our relationships in some way.

CW: Did everyone receive you well?

MM: Yeah, they really did.

CW: Your family too?

MM: Yeah, I wasn’t as concerned with my family, just knowing them. But I am bad with serious conversations and always have been. I’m just a very light-hearted and joking person, so I never found the right time to bring it up with my family. But yeah, everyone has received me well, and I haven’t felt any negativity from anybody close to me.

CW: So all of this happened when you were abroad. That’s when you decided to come out as gay. Tell me about that.

MM: My family first in August. My brother was actually visiting me. We were doing a trip around Europe before my classes started. He took a week off of work to do that with me for my birthday, which is Aug. 23. We were in Brussels, and we both got kind of drunk the night before my birthday. We came home, and I was so tired and drunk, and I ended up hitting my head on a bed frame and bleeding everywhere. I’m laughing because I didn’t even care because I was that drunk. Basically, I had no care that night at all, so I just pulled out my phone and texted my sister a long message basically saying, ‘I know this is pretty random, but I’m drunk right now, and I just wanted to tell you that I’m gay. I’ve known for awhile, but I could never tell anyone.’

CW: So did you tell your brother that same night?

MM: No, he was literally in my room. Like we were sharing a hotel, but I didn’t tell him even though he was right next to me. I just texted my sister with him sleeping next me, but he didn’t know. I told my sister she could tell my parents.

CW: Your sister told them for you? How was that?

MM: Yeah, she told them for me. When I sobered up, I figured I might as well tell mom and dad and that I would just talk to them about it over the phone or on FaceTime, but in the meantime my brother still didn’t know and I was doing this trip with him the whole time. So yeah, I came out to my sister and parents around the time of my birthday, then when he got back home, they told him for me.

CW: Was it easier to do it over the phone or text rather than in person?

MM: Yeah, I think so.

CW: Were you scared to do it still?

MM: Yeah, well… okay, actually it was easier because I was drunk, so I just didn’t care at all. If I was sober, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But it definitely was easier to do it over text because I could think out what I was going to say and give them time to think in return before they had a response, which was the same case with my friends too.

CW: So your friends came next.

MM: Yeah, I think I would have told my friends in person if I was in the States but since I was abroad, I really only had text or call.

CW: What made you feel like that time abroad was the time you were going to tell everyone?

MM: Well my family had known for like three-and-a-half months by the time I told my friends in December on my way back from Copenhagen. It was a solo trip because my best friend’s from study abroad were busy that weekend, so I just went to Copenhagen, which is like a three hour train ride by myself for two days. It was a lot of alone time and a lot of thoughts to myself.

CW: What about that made you want to tell your friends?

MM: I was on the train back, and it was midnight on Sunday night in the middle of nowhere, and I was just, I don’t know, I felt comfortable, I guess. I felt comfortable with myself, and I was just thinking that I’m gonna have to tell them eventually. I was thinking about how I had to tell them before we graduated because I just want them to know. I don’t want us to go separate ways without knowing because either I’ll never tell them or it will be super hard or awkward to tell them. Something clicked, and I just drafted out this long message. I asked them to take me seriously, that I wasn’t joking and that I was being serious. I literally said that like four times, that I wasn’t joking around and for them to please take me seriously.

CW: Would they think you’re kidding?

MM: Yeah, like they aren’t homophobic, but we all joked around about stuff. So I copied that text and sent it to six people, them immediately sent another message that said, ‘I’m gay.’ Then, like, their responses pretty much just started flowing in from there.

CW: Were people surprised?

MM: Oh yeah, people were really surprised. Either they thought I was joking or they were just in disbelief.

CW: Do you think that has anything to do with the stereotype that being gay means, like, being flamboyant or feminine or that gay men are only friends with girls, or any of those stereotypes that are not necessarily true at all? Did that play into people being surprised at all?

MM: Yeah, definitely. I had always been concerned about that. Like, I have known since I was mature enough to know, so like 14 or 15, but I just tried to push it to the side until, like, the last two years. My initial perception when I was younger was like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. I love everything that straight people like.’ I don’t come off as, like, a gay person or whatever, but like obviously this is who I am, so as a young kid that really confused me.

CW: You seem like you don’t think like that anymore. What has changed?

MM: As I got older, and especially now, since I’ve met more gay people I’ve realized, just like you said, that there is a notion that is wrong about gay people, that we’re all super flamboyant. I don’t know.

CW: Did you struggle in high school?

MM: It’s hard to say. Deep down it was hard because I had to get really good at faking that I liked girls. Like when my friends would make comments about girls, I think I was pretty good at playing along, but it was just tough hiding it. I was already starting to get tired of hiding it. Eventually it got to a point, about a year and half ago, where I was just tired of lying and hiding. It was tough, but I am so fortunate with the people I surround myself with, and I am lucky to have a good circle around me. Everyone has been really good to me, which has eased the transition, and I know a lot of people aren’t as lucky.

CW: That’s a blessing for sure.

MM: Yeah, a lot of people don’t see themselves ever coming out to their families, so they have to hide it their whole lives. It hurts even thinking about that, like keeping that secret your entire life and just hiding something that important… I can’t imagine. Overall, I am really lucky.

CW: Now that you’re settled into who you are and your friendships, are you dating?

MM: I started looking to date once I got back from abroad, but yeah, I am dating. The past nine months have been so different for me because I had never dated before, but now I’m out and I can, and I’m mostly comfortable with it. I’m actually seeing someone who went to LSU now.

CW: Oh, that makes me smile. Are you happy?

MM: I’m happy and life is good. It’s still so recent, so I have some lingering emotions and effects and stuff with it, but overall and in the long run, I’m on the up and up.