As a child, Cecil Taylor made a decision that would eventually affect the lives of thousands across the world.
“In my heart and life, as a child, I surrendered to missions if the Lord wanted to send me,” he recalled. “I’ve come to think the Lord planted me here at the University of Mobile so I could plant missions here.”
Tilling. Planting. Weeding. Feeding. Growing. It is not hard work for a man who has invested much of his life in teaching college students to use their intellect and passion to reach all nations for Jesus Christ – ¬¬¬¬it is simply being obedient to the Lord.
His June 30 retirement marked the end of one chapter of service and the opening of new mission fields for the theology professor, former School of Christian Studies dean, and founder/director of the University Missions program. Cecil and wife Reeda, who graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, will use their talents to serve God based out of their new home near family in Marshall, TX.
But what is past is not ended. Rather, 24 years of teaching, preaching, mentoring, challenging, inspiring, sharpening, and preparing college students to be obedient to God’s calling in their own lives is just the beginning.
It’s easy to see how one person can change the world when you are changing lives.
In the Beginning
Taylor’s mission was clear from the moment then-president Dr. Michael Magnoli interviewed him in 1989 for the post of dean of the School of Religion. Previously, he had served as a pastor for 26 years in churches across Texas, Louisiana, Kansas and Missouri.
Taylor said Magnoli asked him, “Can you give me a religion department that pastors in churches in Alabama can trust?”
“Dr. T,” as students would come to call him, said he would. Building on the department’s foundation, he aimed to increase the academic rigor and inspire a passion for missions, instilling in students a desire to bring the nations to Christ.
“One of the things I set out to do was build a program here that involved rigorous academics. The early Christians not only out-loved and out-died (their persecutors), they out-thought them. They won the intellectual battle,” he said.
Taylor assembled a faculty intent on operating academically on a seminary level. But knowledge alone wasn’t the goal.
“We wanted to develop a keen mind and a hot heart. It’s been said, ‘Would you rather have a fool on fire or a scholar on ice?’ Neither,” he said. “We want a scholar on fire.”
Igniting that fire was the new University Missions program that provided opportunities for students to put their classroom learning to the test in the field. International mission trips led by the university’s religion professors would not only give students academic credit for field experience – it would open their eyes to a lost world in need of salvation.
The combination worked.
Taylor led the first team of five students to Esmaraldas, Brazil in the summer of 1992 to help build a chapel. Since then, University Missions has raised funds and sent teams to build 21 chapels for Baptist mission congregations in Brazil “from foundation to finish.”
The 2013 University Missions Report tells a cumulative “by-the-numbers” story of influence. From 1992 to 2013, University Missions has:
• Formed, trained and sent 132 teams
• Totaling 1,624 people
• To 49 nations
• Raising more than $4.4 million including team expenses, construction funds, building supplies and gifts-in-kind
• Recording 13,143 first-time professions of faith, plus many others uncounted
• Creating an experience that led more than a dozen churches and associations in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to begin their own missions programs
• And planting a heart for missions in too many people to number.
Behind each of these numbers is a story.
Billy Parchman ’05 recalled how his first University Missions trip to Berlin showed him the importance of sharing the Gospel to all nations.
“While serving there, God blessed me by allowing me to help lead a Muslim man to Christ. Throughout my time at Mobile, I was able to serve in Germany, Japan and Ireland. During each trip, I learned something new about God’s love and grace,” Parchman said.
Now guest services manager at Embassy Suites in Louisville, KY, Parchman said he has had opportunities to serve overseas alongside his wife in India, Peru and Ecuador, using skills he developed on trips with Taylor.
“His example overseas, in the classroom, and in everyday life gave me a picture of Christ’s love. When I look back at who the Lord used in my life to grow me closer to Him, Dr. T is at the top of my list,” Parchman said.
Taylor opened the University Missions program to churches and individuals outside the school. The practice expanded opportunities for international missions to church groups and individuals, many of whom were inspired to start mission programs or begin a life-long personal commitment to supporting missions. It also led to partnerships and connections between the university and congregations throughout the region.
“What it does for those who go is teach us to see the world with new eyes,” Taylor said. “It enlarges your vision of the Great Commission and your personal responsibility. You can’t ever come home again and just sit on your front porch and rock.”
Dr. Doug Wilson, dean of the School of Christian Ministries, said due to the transitional nature of ministry, and sometimes for security reasons, the university doesn’t have accurate statisticss for the number of career missionaries, journeymen, hands-on mission volunteers, mission team leaders, as well as pastors, church planters and ministry staff members who have been impacted by Taylor’s ministry at UMobile.
“Only eternity will tell how many students he touched to answer God’s call to missions and ministry,” Wilson said.
For his part, Taylor said he is “gratified that, over the years, pastors in the state have vigorously trusted” in the university’s theology program.
“We assembled a faculty that trusts scripture. We may not all agree on what a particular passage of scripture means, but we all agree that it is God’s word,” he said.
Any conversation with Cecil Taylor will always include one important ingredient – laughter.
“There are two pieces of philosophy I share with students – Beatitudes, you might say,” Taylor said.
• “Blessed is the man who knows what things in life are truly sacred – then nothing else needs to be taken seriously.
• “Blessed is the man who has learned to laugh at himself, for he shall have no end of amusement.”
“I’ve laughed my way through life,” he said, and appreciates a good joke at his own expense.
K. J. Pugh ’04, associate pastor of education and missions at Open Door Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, AL, even mentioned that laugh in the dedication of one of the books he wrote in his Query the Text Series available through Amazon.
The dedication page for “3 John for Small Groups” reads:
Dedicated to Dr. Cecil Taylor, Whose voice (and laugh) have echoed through the corridors of the University of Mobile for many years, making their indelible impact on the lives of many students. I am blessed to be one of them.
When asked about the impact Taylor had on his life, Pugh added, “Dr. Taylor made me a more generous Christian. He modeled uncompromising commitment to all things essential, while also showing charity, salted with humor, in all things non-essential.”
Dr. Jason Lee ’91, the new dean of the School of Biblical and Ministry Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio, said Taylor “influenced me at an early age to wed an academic study of the Bible with a heart for ministry.”
Lee, who went on to earn a Master of Divinity at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Ph.D. at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said Taylor led University Missions teams to help in outreach ministries at Stonehaven Baptist Church near Aberdeen, where Lee served as pastor while pursuing his doctorate.
“During those weeks, we led Backyard Bible clubs off-site, held a Vacation Bible School, participated in street witnessing, led Christian coffee house gatherings for Scottish teens and helped conduct a youth camp,” Lee said. “He and Reeda were as active as any of the college students in sharing the love of Christ with the Scottish children and teenagers.”
Lee added, “Nobody gets far in life without the investment and encouragement of a few significant people in his or her life. Much of who I am and where I am are a result of Cecil Taylor’s academic and pastoral investment in me. I am grateful to the Lord for him.”
Taylor’s position as dean, his strong voice, and his penchant for furrowing his brow and asking, “What makes you say that?” when a student would present an opinion or idea the professor was curious about, sometimes intimidated students, Taylor learned.
That perception bothered him so much, he figured the only thing to do was eliminate the question from his conversation, since there wasn’t much he could do about his position as dean or his voice.
“Students who went on mission trips would come back announcing to the world there was nothing to be intimidated about. I’m a softie,” he said.
My Favorite Things
Ask Taylor about his favorite things, and there is a long list of “most favorites”: his students, the faculty he taught side-by-side with, the opportunity to serve as interim pastor at 19 churches in the Florida panhandle and southwest Alabama during his tenure at UMobile, and teaching “Mission and Message of Jesus” or “Intro to New Testament” for theology majors.
He had the most fun with a class he developed, “Contemporary Religious Faith.” He brought in religious leaders from different faith traditions, various cults, and denominations other than Southern Baptist. They told students about their belief system during one class session, then Taylor gave a “debriefing” for students at the next class.
“We talked about how you go to the Bible and answer these questions,” Taylor said. Many times, students had never come face-to-face with these viewpoints – and Taylor intended for them to learn how to cope with the beliefs they would encounter.
“You need to be as hard-nosed about biblical truth as they are about their error. You need to be able to confront it,” he said.
Still, if there is one particular place he is passionate about, it must be Brazil. When the 22nd chapel he helped build was dedicated on June 14, 2013, the congregation dedicated it to the glory of God and “in honor of Dr. Cecil Ray Taylor whom God, through the Holy Spirit, entrusted with His message.”
The honor was a surprise for Taylor, and he is quick to say that his ministry was not his alone.
“They acknowledged my hard work,” he said. “I never thought of it as hard work. It was a labor of love. What I have done, WE have done. I couldn’t do what I do without Reeda doing what she does.”
The Next Mission
The couple has looked toward this day for many years. Reeda earned her nursing degree at UMobile specifically in order to do medical missions when Taylor retired.
Currently she is a travel nurse, serving at hospitals in different cities for about three months at a time. Their aim is for Taylor to accompany her to her assignment, where he plans to “find a little Baptist church and see what I can do to help, from preaching in order to let the pastor take a vacation, to cleaning toilets.”
With his skills and reputation, the options are many. They might return to Singapore, where Taylor took a sabbatical from UMobile and taught for six months at Baptist Theological Seminary. There are tours to lead in Israel, or preaching and teaching to do at churches and institutions through the International Baptist Convention.
There are alumni scattered across the world to visit, chapels still to be built in Brazil, and laughter to be shared with those who need to know the Lord.
“It’s always a bittersweet thing when you leave a place,” Reeda said. “There are wonderful memories, fun times and life-changing events. You drive out in tears.
“But when we get to Texas, we’ll take a deep breath and look ahead to what God has in store.”