After walking through a difficult time in her life, Mary D. Lyons knew she needed to find a community where she could heal. Lyons began to search for a place that would offer her belonging and acceptance, one that would extend relational as well as spiritual support. Not long afterward, Lyons discovered the Chi Alpha campus ministry at the school she attended, Columbus State University in Georgia, where she studied journalism.
Lyons decided to attend the ministry’s fall breakaway and immediately fell in love with Chi Alpha Campus Ministries and its people.
“During that weekend, I didn’t feel like I had to be polished and put together,” Lyons says. “They accepted me and all of my brokenness, and basically loved me back to life.” After that experience, Lyons knew she wanted to be involved long term in Chi Alpha, a department of U.S. Missions.
During her search for additional events on the Chi Alpha website, Lyons noticed an employment section. Lyons inquired further and learned that U.S. missionary Ouida Bradford, Georgia District Chi Alpha director, had started an internship program for aspiring Chi Alpha leaders. An intrigued Lyons reached out to learn more and connected with Jordan Napoli, U.S. missionary at Columbus State University. Napoli told her the details about the internship program, including the reality that she would need to raise her own financial support.
“I was definitely nervous when I found out about the fundraising,” Lyons says. “But after spending time in prayer and receiving confirmation after confirmation from God and my parents, I decided to leap and hope that the net would appear.”
In a few short months, in the fall of 2014, Lyons became the first Georgia Chi Alpha intern.
“The internship was like a refining fire that pushed to the surface all of my weaknesses, but also revealed to me strengths I never knew I had,” Lyons says.
After serving on staff with Chi Alpha at Columbus State, Lyons received an opportunity to become interim director for Georgia Southern’s Chi Alpha. Lyons, who is a missionary associate, recalls being terrified of failing, yet Bradford encouraged her to seize the opportunity. Lyons, 27, accepted the challenge, and has been serving as the interim director since August 2017.
For the past school year, Lyons has been pouring into student leaders by having consistent one-on-one discipleship, holding weekly leadership meetings, and coaching students to become biblical leaders. In the interim director role, Lyons says she has had to shift from serving students in the trenches to co-laboring with student leaders who are already out of the mud.
“Right now, I want to simply encourage these kids to live a life that God wants them to lead,” Lyons says. “I want to challenge them, but also encourage them by using the fivefold ministry approach from Chi Alpha.”
Lyons has given students a lot of latitude in trying new approaches to help minority students integrate their ethnic background into services and meetings via mime, dance, singing, and so forth. For instance, recently, a student-led worship service featured a praise dance to Tasha Cobb’s gospel song “Gracefully Broken.”
“We shouldn’t ask the students to conform,” Lyons says. “But we should ask them to bring their own gifts and backgrounds, and to celebrate those.”
Bradford, Georgia Chi Alpha district director since 2013, says Lyons is a dynamic part of the state’s ministry team.
“While it was easy to tell early on that Mary had a lot of talent and leadership abilities, she has done better at Georgia Southern than I could have ever imagined,” Bradford says.
After she concludes her interim position, Lyons says she feels called to pioneer a Chi Alpha chapter at Spelman College, a historically black school in Atlanta for women. In recent years, Chi Alpha has more aggressively seeking ways to be a presence at some of the nation’s 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
U.S. missionary Belkis Lehmann, Chi Alpha Campus Ministries diversity specialist, says the group has established chapters at a pair of HBCU campuses: Xavier University in New Orleans and Virginia Union University in Richmond. In addition, nascent groups have started at Winston Salem State University in North Carolina and Texas Southern University in Houston. Grambling State University in Louisiana became the first HBCU to have a Chi Alpha ministry.
“Our goal is to see campuses become a training and sending site for reaching HBCUs and to raise up minority missionaries, especially African-Americans,” Lehmann says. Some of the pioneering teams have incorporated white students, working cross-culturally.
“While we have and continue to recruit African-Americans staff, we are also modeling the urgency of reaching forgotten students with what we have — not waiting till we have what we think we need,” Lehmann says.