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Connecting Candler and community during COVID-19

By Michelle Hiskey | Emory Report | May 7, 2021

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As a child, Alex Revelle recorded church services for members who couldn’t leave their homes. Decades later, that knowledge proved invaluable during the pandemic and will continue to build connections wherever he serves.

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Alex Revelle was simply a boy watching his father volunteer at their church in Durham, North Carolina, with no inkling that he was preparing for a pandemic decades away.

His father Larry, a former TV journalist, taught him how to record services for church members who couldn’t leave their homes. He also questioned his son every day about what he had learned and whom he had blessed. It seemed natural when the younger Revelle got a journalism degree, with a concentration in broadcast production and started a career in corporate communications.

But then the story made a U-turn back to Candler School of Theology, where a teenaged Revelle had begun asking the difficult questions of life at the school’s 2009 Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) Summer Academy, a three-week residential program in justice-seeking theological education for high school students. The questions — Who am I? Why am I here? — were still simmering after almost a decade, so Revelle left corporate work and enrolled at Candler to earn a master of divinity degree.

After three years at Candler, it seems that his decision was a good one, affirmed by professors, peers and mentors alike. At this year’s Candler Honors Day Convocation, Revelle received the James W. Rustin Award for Prophetic Preaching and was a co-recipient of the James T. and Berta R. Laney Award in Contextual Education. His professional skills have kept the Candler community connected in a disconnected time of Zoom classes and physical distancing.

Candler’s signature program in contextual education (in which students embed in metro Atlanta ministries) and the Westside Fellows internship program prepared Revelle to help support the ministerial staff at Cascade United Methodist Church, Atlanta’s first predominantly Black United Methodist Church, which has a strong legacy of addressing social issues. 

“Alex has given selflessly of his time and energy, especially over the last tumultuous three semesters,” says Sarah Bogue, Candler director of digital learning, who hired Revelle a year ago as a technical producer, supporting students and faculty in the rapid shift to Zoom classes. “His unique blend of technological and pastoral gifts has supported faculty and students in countless ways.”

With video content at a premium during COVID-19, Candler welcomed new students last fall with segments produced by Revelle. From program development to post-production, he has been “a central and grounding presence with the Office of Student Life since he started at Candler in fall of 2018,” says the Rev. Ellen Echols Purdum, assistant dean of student life and spiritual formation. “He’s shaped our programming efforts and media design for years to come.” 

Taking risks and fighting injustice

As president of the Black Student Caucus (BSC), Revelle created events and materials that helped members stay connected as the Black Lives Matter movement grew in the wake of last year's police murder of George Floyd.

“The unjust killing of Black men, the riots in Atlanta, were very challenging and stressful,” Revelle says. “What continues to hold me is knowing that I have a community. I am not in this struggle alone. I am excited for opportunities as a minister, as an African American male who is trying to be a leader in my community, to continue to fight injustice. People are hurting, and you can see it emotionally, physically and spiritually. Now is an opportunity for the church to assert itself as a place for people to go to for care and rest.” 

Revelle has continued his involvement with YTI as a speaker, providing “honest and thoughtful responses about how challenging it can be to bring your childhood faith commitments into conversation with a diverse group of critically thinking people from different perspectives and allow that experience to change you,” says past YTI director Elizabeth Corrie 96T 02G, associate professor in the practice of youth education and peacebuilding at Candler.

“He’s a wonderful example of a person who places himself in contexts in which he is pushed to go deeper and take risks, and has modeled spiritual, intellectual and emotional growth for others — not only YTI participants, but his own peers at Candler.” 

Revelle credits YTI for helping him learn to take risks and to not be afraid to ask hard questions about life. “Prior to YTI, I would naturally run from those questions, but ever since, I often run to them and ask why. I did that in journalism, too. My dad would tell me that even if your mother tells you she loves you, verify the source.”

Asking hard questions comes with the territory in both academic and ministerial settings. Revelle says he constantly asks how his theological education connects to the real world, especially in his contextual education placements.

As a chaplain at Gwinnett Medical Center: How do I reach a patient having a bad day? At Cascade Community Services: How does my theology help a person who doesn’t have a place to live or something to eat? As a Westside Fellow, seeking justice amid gentrification: How is my education practical for someone who is losing what’s been their home for five generations because of rising property taxes?

“Alex is asking profoundly important questions about the role of the church — and of the Black church, in particular — in addressing material needs as well as a crisis of despair in neighborhoods that have experienced displacement and economic disinvestment,” says Letitia M. Campbell, director of contextual education I and clinical pastoral education at Candler.

A passion for digital evangelism

At Candler, Revelle reconnected with his YTI mentor Kevin Murriel 11T, assistant professor in the practice of practical theology who in 2017 became senior pastor of Cascade UMC. The two worked together during Revelle’s second year of contextual education and his time as a Westside Fellow.

“I am excited to see Alex’s ministry unfold as he pursues his passion for digital evangelism and how this will translate into an emerging pedagogy of sharing the gospel in new and profound ways,” Murriel says. “At Candler, Alex has provided stellar leadership and continues in the great tradition of BSC presidents who lead with a prophetic voice and model academic excellence.”

Revelle came from the American Baptist tradition, but hearing Murriel preach and his Candler classmates parse the concept of grace drew him to the Methodist faith. He expects to become ordained in The United Methodist Church and serve in the Atlanta area. 

Ryan Bonfiglio, assistant professor in the practice of Old Testament, is enthusiastic about what Revelle will bring to the churches and communities he will serve.  

“The success of congregational leaders in the next several decades will hinge on their ability to be highly adaptive in how they think about, assess and reimagine the ministries of the church in a post-pandemic world, and on their ability to connect the strategies of adaptive leadership to nuanced, socially responsible reflection on the church’s biblical and theological heritage,” Bonfiglio said.

“Alex has demonstrated the ability to do both. He has embraced what I call the ‘so what?’ questions of biblical reflection, not only in the form of insights for preaching and teaching in a congregational setting, but also in the form of complex questions that get at ethical and social issues that our world is facing today.”