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Trinity Bible College: A family on the prairie

By Ann Floyd

Words a Trinity Bible College student would never say while on campus: Let’s eat at McDonald’s at noon. Or, Let’s take a break and go to a concert tonight. Why?

The closest McDonald’s is 30 miles away in Aberdeen in a neighboring state — South Dakota. And a concert? Well, TBC in Ellendale, N.D. (population 1,700), is the cultural hub of Dickey County — and its largest employer.

Welcome to rural America. And that’s just the reason many of TBC’s almost 350 students made their way to this 30-acre campus.

Dennis Niles, newly elected president, sees rural ministry as still big, even with the recent emphasis in the Assemblies of God on urban missions. "I have a burden for these small towns," Niles says. "People need Jesus in that little town of 1,000. You can build a good church by being a good pastor. When you travel across the Dakotas, Montana, northern Minnesota and other rural areas, you see a lot of Trinity graduates pastoring."

When I visit in April, mounds of snow still stand in shady parts of the beautiful campus which once belonged to the University of North Dakota — Ellendale branch. But a spiritual prairie fire is evident. According to student leaders, the recent spring break brought the fervor evident in the Friday morning chapel service.

"There’s such energy," Niles says. "The students came back from break saying, ‘God was working through me.’ They didn’t say, ‘I did this …’ or ‘We did this … .’

"I think God is saying, ‘Grow up. Put your roots down. Be discipled.’ We have celebrated. We have been challenged and charged by the Word. Faith is alive in our lives. Now let’s package this and take it into a dark, confused, disappointed world and let the light shine."

Students like sophomore Michelle McEwan have found a way to combine the rural and the inner city. She led a ministry called Hearts Aflame to Minneapolis during spring break. Team members worked with the homeless, addicts, drug dealers and prostitutes.

McEwan, from inner-city Omaha, Neb., says, "I’m able to use my testimony to reach them. I’ve found Trinity is a good place to be if you want to seek God’s face and hear His voice."

Shawn Daniel, 21, of Taft, Calif., finds ministry on campus as a resident adviser and member of the football team. "I came here because I wanted to play ball," Daniel says. "Then God really got a hold of my life. He just grabbed me and shook me."

Daniel looks forward to his summer of children’s ministry in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. He will return to TBC for a fifth year. He wants others to see his involvement at TBC not just as a leader but as "someone who’s willing to fill a need," he says. "We’re training pastors, music directors, youth leaders. I want them to say, ‘Daniel was a servant. I remember the time he opened the door for me. I remember the time he sat down with me and explained the schedule. This guy was an example of Christ.’ "

The close living — Tonya Day of Orem, Utah, says, "People are around you 24/7" — makes for a proliferation of more than 30 ministry groups to get the students involved beyond the campus. "You get the experience here," Day says. "It makes you grow so much." To minister, the teams have to overcome distance, inclement weather and aging vehicles.

"God wanted me here because the atmosphere is so different," says Marcus Montana, 21, of Rougon, La. "I needed to be stretched and He knew this would be a stretching environment for me.

"Jesus is on this campus," he says. "His Spirit has been moving and I’ve just been loving it." Montana’s background as a troubled teen in the inner city, being raised by a single mom, is a reminder to him where God brought him from. He’s confident God can do the same for others.

Niles, on campus since 1995 as vice president of development, says, "This is a generation that wants to make their lives count. God is raising up students who look beyond the paycheck and the perks and say, ‘I want to do something that is going to outlive me; that’s going to make an impact on society; that is going to make a difference in people’s lives.’ There’s a servant desire in these students.

"Maybe today’s young people would prefer to have a more exciting life in the city," Niles says. "We don’t necessarily fight that here at Trinity, but we have to be able to bridge that and express to them the centrality of ministry here. We’re incredibly focused on developing ministers and missionaries. This is a Bible college; it’s not going to happen any other way here."

Family is a word I heard often.

"There are a lot of young people who really don’t have a good, strong family," Niles says. "But they find one at Trinity."

McDonald’s isn’t an option; no mall is even remotely close. So "the family" gathers in the cafeteria day after day. Faculty and staff are there — and many married students. (Families can live economically in Ellendale because rent is inexpensive.)

"We really strive to foster healthy relationships," says David Bauchspiess, 23, of Rapid City, S.D., president of the Student Association. "Our theme this year is, ‘To love God, to love people and to build relationships.’ "

Dan Kuno, dean of students and teacher for 14 years, tells his class of freshmen, "A lot of people in the Bible had to go to a desert place — away from all the comforts."

Students at Trinity Bible College say the prairie works just fine when a desert isn’t available.

Ann Floyd recently retired as associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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