By Maria Monteros
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee shared his personal faith experience, including the death of his first wife and his journey from businessman to politician, with the Trevecca community in Tuesday’s chapel service.
The Tennessee governor agreed to share his testimony when a Trevecca student invited him to speak in one of university’s worship services.
Lee told students about the tragic death of his first wife when their four children were young and how that time solidified his faith.
“The Lord does his most powerful work, I’m convinced, in the midst of struggle and difficulty and pain,” he said. “I could speak for hours about what God did in the nearness that I felt in the most broken of days. I believe that to the degree a person is broken they can experience wholeness.”
Lee highlighted how his experience as a businessman, his mentorship program with men in prison and his involvement with various passion projects led him into the political scene.
“That brush with public policy and state agencies started making me think maybe, maybe I should use my life in a greater way. Maybe I should consider the next step,” he said. “This had not been something I planned on or aspired to or thought was really in my path was being the governor of the state of Tennessee, but it was on my heart.”
Trevecca President Dan Boone spoke before and after Lee spoke on stage, initially introducing the governor and asking students to be respectful with their comments when Lee left the building.
In his introduction, Boone noted Lee’s work with Men of Valor, a prison ministry founded by a Trevecca alum, and showed a picture of when Lee signed a declaration honoring Homer Adams, a former Trevecca President. Adams was present and offered the opening prayer.
When Lee was alone on the podium, two students stood up directly in front of him carrying signs in protest of his policies on immigration and his decision to follow through with Donnie Johnson’s execution. At the same time, a group of seven to 10 students also walked out of chapel.
“I thank you for your passion. I appreciate that,” Lee said, addressing the protesters. “I had to make the decision to allow the criminal justice system as designed by this state and desired by the people of Tennessee my decision to follow the law of Tennessee and allow that execution to take place.”
He also encouraged students to stand up for what they believe in and be leaders in their own way, even within their own friend groups.
“I encourage you and challenge you in your days ahead to be courageous to stand up for what you believe just like these two people,” he said. “These two people have stood up for what they believe in quite frankly a respectful way.”
The two students stood and held up their signs throughout Lee’s time on stage.
“I decided that I would rather be remembered for what I did not what I didn’t do,” said Rachele Stanley, sophomore social justice major, who held up a sign advocating for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. “I believe it is very scary for a lot of people here on campus who are children of DACA who are frightened that this man was coming to speak to us especially if he opposes their existence here.”
Trevecca is one of the universities in Tennessee that partners with Equal Chance For Education (ECE)— an organization that provides scholarship for DACA recipients.
Erykah Lewis, junior social justice major, said she didn’t participate in the walk out because she wanted the governor to see minority students.
“I think there is more strength in staying and letting him see my face,” Lewis said. “I feel like if we keep moving towards walking out and protesting, then we’ll never understand what happens when we engage in conversation where we can come to a compromise.”
Michael Carlson, junior religion major, was motivated to go to chapel because of Lee’s work with his father, Carl Carlson, in Men of Valor— an organization meant to equip previously incarcerated men to reintegrate into society.
“I thought [Lee] handled the protest gracefully,” he said. “I think he tried to make his point clear, of his priorities and service. His motivation is to serve Christ for others.”
Anthony Senecal said he “appreciated the humanity” behind the message of Lee’s testimony.
“I hope [Lee] makes decisions grounded in the freedom that God desires for all people,” he said.
The university requires students to attend chapel at least 24 times each semester, but for this service, students were given credit regardless of whether they were present.
A blank card and a pen was place on every chair in chapel for students to write letters of feedback or gratitude to the governor. Boone said he plans to deliver the cards to the governor on behalf of Trevecca students.