Dr. E.E.Cleveland: A Black History Giant
He was no more than 6’3, but to the world he seemed larger than life. Dr. E. E. Cleveland. I actually heard him before I saw him. As a child, we’d listen to the recording of his 1966 evangelistic campaign in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the close of that meeting over 1000 people were baptized – a first for the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Born in Huntsville Alabama in 1921, he was a man of amazing gifts and scholarship. He authored 15 books, lectured regularly at prominent universities, trained over 1000 ministers, and served the church effectively at several levels. He was the most prolific evangelist in the SDA church, baptizing over 16,000 people.
He had a passion for people-especially people of color. He organized a campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. at Oakwood College when he was a student. He participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. He crossed paths with Dr. Martin King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy during the civil rights movement and he was clearly the equivalent of Dr. King to the Adventist Church. He was the co-founder of the Human Relations Committee for the General Conference of SDAs. He was a tireless champion for social justice inside and outside the church.
But the personal encounters and connections are what marked me. Four of them influence me to this day.
Encounter Number One
Dr. Cleveland left the General Conference and came to Oakwood University in 1977. His class on Public Evangelism was probably the most popular class on campus. Attended by religion majors and non-religion majors alike, it was literally standing room only in the classroom. The class was already full when I registered in 1979, but they told me to just go to class and perhaps someone might drop out.
I could hardly get in the door for the press. Somehow I was able to enroll in the class and everyday was amazing! It was part revival, part evangelistic campaign, part college class. The stories, the testimonies, the humor, the passion, the insight. I had never had a classroom experience like that and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to reproduce it in my own classroom ever since.
Encounter Number Two
As a religion student, I got to know Dr. Cleveland well. Frankly, I was in awe of him. I would soak in every suggestion and hang on every word. In the late 70s the campus and church community were always struggling with some legalistic teaching or off-shoot group- Shepard’s Rods, Brinsmeads, you name it. I set up an appointment to speak to Dr. Cleveland about salvation and sanctification.
He spoke about grace in a way that I’d never heard it before. Tears rolled down his face as he told me:
- “We are justified, before we are qualified.”
- “We are accepted, before we are acceptable.”
- “We are trusted, before we are trust worthy.”
- “We are declared perfect, while we are being perfected.”
This from a man who preached passionately against sin and who many felt was amazingly arrogant. They didn’t quite get him. As powerful a figure as he was, he was sensitive, almost overly so. What I saw was a man who was so grateful for what God had done, that he had no filter sharing it. He was so confident in his salvation, that at times it could be mistaken for overconfidence in himself…… and he could be a bit arrogant.
Encounter Number Three
When Dr. Cleveland retired from Oakwood, I was the Director of Church Growth and Discipleship in the Southeastern California conference. For a couple of years, they split his courses across the faculty, but in 2007 they asked me to join the Religion faculty of Oakwood University. My concentration is Church Growth and Evangelism, so I was effectively Dr. Cleveland’s successor. I taught his classes.
That year, I accepted the position after the class schedules were printed. Dr. Cleveland’s name was still on the class schedule when the students came back from summer break. In short, the students came to class expecting to see E.E. but instead they saw me! It took a minute or two for the students to realize the cruel switch, but when they did….it was Not pretty!!
I knew how they felt. There was no way anyone could fill Dr. Cleveland’s shoes. Certainly not me. But he was always there for encouragement and counsel. I spent hours listening to him. Even as his steps slowed, his mind remained sharp and he was a blessing until the time of his death in August of 2009.
Last year I became the Director of the Bradford, Cleveland, Brooks, Leadership Center on the campus of Oakwood University. Our lives intersect again. Today we are teaching a changing church the unchanging principles that marked these men’s ministries. There will never be another E. E. Cleveland, but his contributions live on. I’ll make sure of that.