A place at the table

By Shelby Dias | Photography by Scott Huck

In June 2014, Mac Sandlin, associate professor of Bible, and his wife, Jenni, moved from Searcy to Cedarville, Ohio, with their three children — Elijah, Josie and Judah — for Mac to pursue a doctoral degree in theology at the University of Dayton. Both born and raised in Beebe, Arkansas, Mac and Jenni were accustomed to frequent family visits and hefty Sunday-afternoon home-cooked meals before moving away from their hometown. After dinner one evening, they discuss how different it was having their first Sunday lunch in their new home.

“We get here that first Sunday, and we don’t know anybody at church,” Mac says before taking a bite of panna cotta Jenni made for dessert. “We come home and cook a big Sunday lunch, and no one is eating it. The walls are bare because we just moved in — it was so sad. We were homesick and lonely. While we are eating, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door. I was so excited to have people there.”

“We were homesick and lonely. While we are eating, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door. I was so excited to have people there.” -Mac Sandlin

“He always wants so many people in the house,” Jenni interjects.

“I asked them, ‘Do you want to come in, sit down and have a glass of tea?’” Mac continues. “They wouldn’t come in. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t come in and visit with us. So yeah, it was a pretty lonely first few months.”

Since then, the Sandlins have made connections at UD and Xenia Church of Christ. Mac finished classes in May, and the family will soon return to Searcy so he can resume his position in the College of Bible and Ministry. Looking back, Jenni says it’s easy to see God’s hand at work over the last three years.

“I was excited because I like a little adventure, but it was also scary because we had never been totally on our own before,” Jenni says. “Our family is very active and involved in our lives, so to come here with no one we knew was kind of scary. But it worked out really, really well. If we had to move away, it could not have happened any better. We love this little place, this little town.”

Making adjustments

Cedarville is a small, quiet college town of 4,000 people located just outside of Dayton. With one school building housing the entire district and mom-and-pop restaurants that close every summer, it has a Stars Hollow or Mayberry-like appeal for the Sandlins.

Twice a week, Mac commutes 30 miles from Cedarville to UD, a Catholic institution with about 11,000 students. Jenni says Mac’s responsibilities at UD are one of the biggest adjustments for them.

“We sometimes wish we were closer to UD because he has his life there and then our life here,” Jenni says. “The biggest difficulty has been how we live together. He was gone a lot, especially that first year. He is occupied with what is going on at school and gets exhausted. He’s a very hands-on dad, so during the busy school times the difference really shows.”

“He’s a very hands-on dad, so during the busy school times the difference really shows.” -Jenni Sandlin

In his first year, Mac took night classes and served as a graduate assistant while considering topics for his dissertation. Continuing his own classes and competence exams over the past two years, Mac has taught Introduction to Religious Studies, one of two required religion classes for UD students. The class provides an overview of religious studies, the Bible, Christian theology, and Christian engagement with other religions.

“On Tuesday, I gave a lecture on the prophets and wisdom literature,” Mac says. “That was one lecture in this course, but it’s an entire semester at Harding. There is some overlap with classes I taught at Harding because the biblical stuff is all the same. There is some new stuff like Vatican II documents that I teach.

“I’m not Catholic, and I tell them I’m not Catholic, but I’m also respectful of the environment. I frequently will say, ‘Catholic doctrine says this on this topic.’ They sometimes ask what I would say, and I feel free to say what I would think.”

Among his own professors and colleagues, Mac says he felt welcomed from the start regardless of religious differences.

“They have been incredibly hospitable to me. There are a number of social customs that are normal to Catholics that are not normal to me, and they are always very accommodating. I think part of that is the Marianist emphasis on community, hospitality and friendliness. They try to make me feel at home, and they are very respectful of who I am and where I’m coming from.”

Finding community

“The joke with Marianists is ‘There will be food,’” Mac says sitting down for lunch with Anthony Rosselli, a friend and fellow graduate student.

UD was founded in 1850 by the Society of Mary, a Roman Catholic religious order characterized by community and hospitality. The university’s emphasis on coming together is visible throughout the campus culture. For example, all university housing has a front porch — a requirement and a gathering place for neighbors.

“There’s really an emphasis on cultivating friendliness,” Anthony says. “Everyone has a place at the table.”

“There’s really an emphasis on cultivating friendliness. Everyone has a place at the table.” -Anthony Rosselli

Anthony is Catholic but not a Marianist. He and Mac recall the new employee dinner where they met and were introduced to Marianist history.

“In all of the rhetoric from the school, there’s an emphasis on community,” Mac says. “Hospitality and community are key Marianist traits, and they take it seriously. For them, community is best expressed by the table, the sharing of a meal. For our orientation, they did a Marianist table setting ceremony, and it was beautiful.”

From tablecloth to bread, salt to plates, every portion of the ceremonial table setting signifies an important aspect of the Marianist tradition. Even though no one in their graduate cohort comes from a Marianist Catholic background, Mac and Anthony agree all of them embrace the ethos. This statement is reiterated as they debate who will pick up the check.

“You’ve fed me too many times at your house; let me pay,” Anthony insists.

“I guess we will just have to invite you over again now,” Mac counters as Anthony takes the check. Anthony explains how community has colored his experience at UD.

“It’s a different environment in this program compared to others,” Anthony says. “We all work closely in this one space and grow close throughout the process. There’s
a feeling of collegiality among all the graduate students you won’t find on other campuses. That’s what I value most about being here at UD. It’s a strenuous program, but people are glad to be a part of it because of that community.”

That feeling of collegiality persists even as students of various faith backgrounds sometimes clash.

“Part of what happens here is I fight and argue with my Catholic friends about various topics, but I also learn a lot from them,” Mac says. “Our conversations can get heated, but there is a spirit of charity and agreement in our attempts to understand each other. We want to come together.”

A perfect fit

Finding his place at the table at UD was beneficial to Mac, but it was finding a church home that helped the whole family adjust to their new surroundings. When deciding on which congregation to visit first, Mac’s dad insisted they visit Xenia Church of Christ — he had lived with some members while selling Bibles during summer 1969.

“I told him it was silly that he thought anyone would remember him or still be there,” Mac says.

Sure enough, the greeter at the door remembered Don Sandlin as the young man who lived with his parents one summer decades ago. As the service continued, the family was impressed in other ways, and it was enough for them to come back without visiting other area churches. They felt that Xenia had what they needed.

“They were very inviting,” Jenni says. “Judah was going to the nursery, and there were two ladies in there who were so nice. They just loved the kids. I kind of get teary-eyed thinking about it. They loved my kids, and they doted on them. For a momma, that’s a pretty big deal. It made me feel comfortable.”

“On that first Sunday, the preacher called an audible — ‘I was going to preach this sermon, but I don’t think it’s ready yet,’ that sort of thing,” Mac says. “I was impressed that he said that, and I was curious about what his pocket sermon would be. His hip-pocket sermon was this textual sermon where he walked us through the book of Lamentations. I was amazed.”

“They also had a small group program, and that was what really sold us,” Jenni adds. “That was a huge thing for us because it was an instant community. We started with a group and have been with them the whole time.”

Their small group comes together and shares a meal every Sunday night. Jenni mentions the congregation is smaller than their church in Beebe, and there are fewer families with small children like them.

“There are some people our age, but not many. That’s been good and bad.”

“It’s nice to know you have people there with a lot of wisdom who care about you,” Mac says. “There are people there like Dick and Diane Moore — we see them and think that’s how we’d like to be. We like them, and they are our friends, but I also admire them. They are like surrogate parents or mentors to us.”

“It’s nice to know you have people there with a lot of wisdom who care about you.” -Mac Sandlin

While it’s clear how Xenia Church of Christ was the perfect fit for the Sandlins when they were in need of community, the church was also in need of them. The members are quick to explain how the Sandlins have affected the congregation.

One woman states very seriously that she is already mourning their departure. During Mac’s class, there are so many people that some latecomers edge around the multipurpose room and sit on the floor.

“Mac and Jenni have this really positive, helpful spirit of encouragement,” says the church’s preacher Chuck Forsythe. “They immediately came and got engaged. They have been a source of great encouragement. In addition to Mac’s great scholarship, he embodies the principle of Barnabas, of serving and blessing other people. I have tremendously high regard for that.”

The church in Xenia is accustomed to people coming and going because of its proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Several congregation members are currently serving in or retired from the Air Force. Just as it is with some of the military families, the congregation knew the Sandlins’ stay would be temporary.

“When they leave, it’s going to leave a big hole in the church on a lot of levels because they’ve made substantial contributions,” Chuck says. “I actually believe the church will go through a period of mourning or grieving, but I think that’s good. Certainly we’d love to keep them, but we understand he’s needed.”

One of the contributions cited is the improvement of the church’s adult education program. Mac worked with an education committee to develop a five-year curriculum plan, and he invited professors from Harding to lead a Bible teacher seminar in order to better equip teachers in the church. Dick Moore, the elder over education, says connecting members to those educational resources has been a huge blessing.

“One of the challenges that we’ve always had is having really good classes. We always had plenty of people willing to teach, but they didn’t always have the skills to help. There always needs to be a sharpening of the saw where we take our own people and equip them to be better teachers. That’s why we started having the teacher seminar.”

The annual seminar has been offered four times with more than 30 people in attendance each year, including some from other area congregations.

“We were here about two years before the Sandlins came,” says Jamie Fee, a friend and small group member with the Sandlins. “It’s just a night and day difference in the teaching of classes because people are really internalizing how to teach a class better — how to teach a Bible class better. That has been a huge contribution from Mac, and it leaves a legacy.”

According to Dick, Mac has led a class every quarter and has been a popular teacher.

“It will be a challenge to replace him, but we are much better equipped for it now than we were. He has gotten to know people. If you walk into a new place with 200 people you aren’t going to know everybody, but if you stand up front for class they are going to know you. He has done a very good job of knowing people and paying attention to people.”

It’s those personal relationships that seem to have made a quieter but bigger impact on the members.

“Mac has been supportive privately and publicly of the ministry I’m engaged in,” Chuck says. “He’s also been a great sounding board for me. It’s refreshing to have someone you can talk to as a peer, who can give you new insight and can challenge your thinking — and give you an outrageous reading list.”

“I talk to Mac much more as a peer than as a person who is younger than my son,” Dick says. “He’s wise and gives good advice. It’s refreshing to talk to him because he has insights and perspective.”

As the Sandlins’ time in Xenia comes to an end, Dick admits it’s hard to acknowledge the impending goodbye.

“Being in the Air Force and moving every three years or so, I’ve had that experience where you build friendships and then have to move on. I still have ties with people and still visit them,” Dick says. “So we will come to Harding and visit, and they will always have an invitation to be here with us.”

Coming home

Mac finished his classes and exams at UD in May and will now return to Harding to teach and work on his dissertation about ethics and the Holy Spirit, which he will complete in one to two years.

He plans to teach an upper-level Bible class about the Holy Spirit — a topic he says he wouldn’t have felt competent to teach before coming to UD. In addition to teaching ethics and theology courses, he hopes to continue teaching freshman Bible.

“Oh, I love freshmen,” Mac says. “They come to us and don’t yet know what college is. I love getting to help teach them that. I always give a speech and say, ‘College is a place you come to read books, so we are going to read books in this class.’ I also want them to know college is a place to be nurtured and to be challenged. For me, teaching the text of Scripture every day grounds the more philosophical and abstract thought that I do.”

Feeling prepared to teach some more challenging material, Mac admits getting to this point was no easy feat. Pursuing a doctorate has been one of the toughest things
he has done.

“If I had not done well in my master’s program, it would have been a disappointment to me and my family, but that was still only my thing,” Mac says. “What I’m doing now reflects on the University, so I feel pressure not just to get it done but to do it well. If I do poorly here, then I’m letting down all the people who made it possible for me to come and do this. So I have to do it quickly, and I have to do it exceptionally well. It has to be the best I can do.”

The pressure is on, but for a good reason. Mac is the only person in his program at UD who has a job waiting for him, and he says that’s an enviable position to be in. As part of Harding’s academic leave package, he has continued to receive a portion of his salary while pursuing his degree.

“Harding makes it possible for me to be here. Their generosity makes it possible.” -Mac Sandlin

“Harding makes it possible for me to be here. Their generosity makes it possible.”

As part of his contract for academic leave, Mac has committed to teach for twice the length of time he’s been away.

“I wouldn’t want to leave anyway,” he says with a grin. “I want to be at Harding until I die.”

Nearly three years later, the scene in the Sandlin dining room is a far cry from Mac’s lonely lunch anecdote from when they first moved. There are family portraits on the wall and children’s toys stacked in the corner. There is a heaping platter of pulled pork barbecue and extra chairs pulled up to accommodate guests from church. It’s noisy and friendly, and if anyone knocked today, they’d still find room at the table.

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