Christ Living Through Us Taking the Gospel Where it Needs to Shine Most Brightly
During his first pastorate in the low country of South Carolina, Allen McWhite served as a volunteer firefighter and as the chaplain of the Clarendon County Fire Department. His first experience in any kind of public service, McWhite found this to be an ideal venue for doing ministry outside the “Christian bubble.”
“I saw some terrible things as a firefighter, but I also had the opportunity as a chaplain to pray with, counsel, and share the Gospel with a lot of hurting people,” McWhite says. “I officiated the funeral services of some of their family members. It was also my joy to see two of the county firefighters I served with come to know Christ. I even had the privilege of baptizing one of them and his family as they joined the church I was serving.”
McWhite says these experiences “set the stage” for his desire to continue in public service everywhere he subsequently lived. So, across three pastorates, two terms as an international missionary, and a faculty/staff position at North Greenville University in South Carolina, he has always intentionally sought opportunities to play the role of a chaplain—officially or unofficially—to public servicemen.
“Jesus did not say that I am to be the light of the church,” McWhite says. “He said I am to be the light of the world. It is in those places of greatest spiritual darkness where the light of the Gospel needs to shine most brightly.”
Though he admits he does not shine that light perfectly, nor does he do it to the full extent that he should, McWhite says that in striving to live as God has called His children to live, “there is no reward greater than having someone ask you what it is that makes the difference in your life and then having the opportunity to talk about the Difference-Maker, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He explains, “That opportunity doesn’t happen too frequently in the church or on a Christian university campus (although there are certainly non-believers in both of these settings). It happens all the time, though, when we actually go into those places of spiritual darkness and allow Christ to live out His life through us.”
Seeing a difference in Christians and wanting what they have in Christ had already proven significant in McWhite’s own life prior to his first stint in public service. Throughout middle school, high school, and college, McWhite served in various roles at a Baptist camp in Marietta, S.C. At the camp each week, camp pastors spoke every morning, and camp missionaries spoke every evening. Over the years, McWhite determined that the pastors and missionaries whose messages had the greatest impact on him—and the speakers who always seemed to take the most interest in him—always seemed to be graduates of Southwestern Seminary.
“[So] when it came time for me to apply to a seminary, there was no question in my mind about where I wanted to go,” McWhite says. “I wanted to go to Southwestern Seminary. I wanted what I saw in those folks. There were seminaries a lot closer to me here in South Carolina, but I knew Southwestern was where I was supposed to go. I never really considered going anywhere else.”
McWhite subsequently earned his Master of Divinity (1984) and Doctor of Ministry (1994) at Southwestern. He says the seminary laid the foundation for him in every area of ministry in which he has since been involved.
“Most of all,” he says, “I gained an appreciation for the authority and veracity of God’s Word. I took every preaching class I could possibly take … and that forever impacted the way I approach the study and proclamation of the Word.”
After graduating, McWhite served in multiple ministry roles, ultimately ending up at North Greenville University, where he has served for 16 years as director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Engagement and Global Leadership. Across these roles, he has also kept an eye open for opportunities to serve the Lord in “places of spiritual darkness” outside the church.
Most recently, this has manifested in his position as a part-time South Carolina state constable, working primarily with the police department in Travelers Rest, S.C. In this role, McWhite supplements the police force by putting another patrol vehicle on the road and serving as a backup officer to the full-time officers who work every day. He also serves in a reserve capacity as a chaplain with the South Carolina State Guard.
One of the most vivid experiences he had in this latter role was when a 5-year-old child disappeared and had been missing for more than 24 hours. The Guard was called in to assist with search and rescue operations, and McWhite became the liaison between the Tactical Operations Center and the family.
McWhite kept the family up-to-date with what was happening with search operations on the ground and in the air, and he also prayed regularly with the family throughout the ordeal as they went through phases of both hope and despair. “Thankfully, the child was located after an all-night search,” McWhite says, “and I was able to rejoice with the family, lead in a prayer of thanksgiving, and share the Good News of our Lord, who proclaimed that He, too, came to seek and to save those who are lost.”
In a similar way, McWhite’s role as a law enforcement officer enables him, for example, to counsel runaways, encourage those who have been arrested, and pray with families who have been the victims of crime. Even so, McWhite says his primary ministry in this role is to the men and women of law enforcement.
“This is an incredibly stressful and, in many instances, thankless profession,” he explains. “I have felt angry stares directed toward me when I have been in uniform on the street, in a restaurant, or in a place of business. This is what these officers have to live with every day.”
“They not only have to enforce the laws of the land,” McWhite continues, “but they also—in so many instances—have to step into the role of counselors, social workers, parents, and teachers, and they are expected to do it all without making a single mistake or offending a single person—and they do it all for very little pay. It is a very tough job, and it takes its toll on the officers and their families.”
McWhite says he, therefore, tries to do all he can to help these officers, not only by serving alongside them, but also by providing drinks and snacks for them during shifts, delivering meals to the police department during holidays, and making himself available when these men and women have personal needs or struggles of any kind. This kind of attention, coupled with McWhite’s actually serving alongside them in the line of duty, has earned him the “right and opportunity” to speak into this community.
“I have been able to experience some of the things that they experience, and I have been able to enter their world in a way I never could have if I had not become one of them,” he says. “It seems to me Jesus did something very much like this through the incarnation, and it seems to me that this might be a model worth taking seriously in a lot of different venues.”
Through police officers’ dealing with family and financial challenges, not to mention occurrences such as the shooting death of a fellow officer in the line of duty, McWhite has been called upon to speak into the lives and circumstances of those in law enforcement from a Christian perspective. In these circumstances, McWhite says, his faith “absolutely” informs what he does and how he shares with these officers.
“If my ministry ever gets away from investing in relationships and devolves into just doing ‘stuff,’ then it is no longer ministry at all, in my opinion,” McWhite says. “So, I always need to be on the lookout for those people I can pour into in some way. This is common—and critical—in every ministry role I have ever been part of.”
Seeking the lost, investing in relationships, and modeling Christlikeness have thus all been integral to McWhite’s ministry over the years. So, despite differences among his roles as pastor, firefighter, missionary, military chaplain, university faculty member, and law enforcement officer, he has observed at least one crucial thread of commonality. “No matter where I have served or in what capacity, there are always people there who need Jesus or who need to experience a deeper walk with Jesus,” he says.
Expounding on the need to be a Christ-exalting light amidst spiritual darkness, he continues, “There are always those who are hurting. There are always those who need encouragement. There are always those who need a friend. There are always those who, for a variety of reasons, feel rejected, alone, unworthy, or unnoticed. There are always those who need prayer.”
Story by Alex Sibley. Photos by Adam Covington. Published in the spring 2018 issue of Southwestern News.