"You can always measure an institution by its products," is a favorite saying of the Rev. Andrew Fowler, president of the Washington Baptist Seminary.
So when the seminary awarded degrees to its graduates last week, it was one of the School's most distinguished products who delivered the baccalaureate sermon.
The speaker, the Rev. William A. Johnson, pastor of St. John Baptist Church of Chicago for 36 years, delivered his sermon exactly 50 years after he graduated from the seminary. Johnson, a native Washington, is the only survivor of his class of five.
The seminary awarded degrees to a class of 10 during its 53rd annual commencement last week. Though the class was small, 700 persons attended the commencement at Metropolitan Baptist Church, 1225 R St. NW, which shares its chapel with the seminary.
In his sermon, Johnson, 78, encouraged the graduates to use whatever skill they have to help them be effective ministers. He cautioned them to "never overestimate your power and never understimate God's power."
Johnson said that the value of the Washington Baptist Seminary today is its flexible admissions standards, which make religious training available to those are capable of "reaching the people in the streets." Johnson's delivery was so effective that before he finished his sermon, the audience was shouting and stomping.
The commencement address was given by the Rev. William Holmes Borders, pastor of the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta.
"In 200 years, the United States has built the greatest democracy in the history of the world," Borders said. He reviewed some of the medical, scientific and electronic achievements but he told the graduates to remember that "all knowledge comes from God."
Borders ended the ceremonies with a recitation of his well-known poem, "I'm Somebody," about contributions by blacks to American civilization. The poem is used widely in schools and by dramatic readers, according to Borders. The Rev. Jesse Jackson often uses it in speeches to students, Borders said, adding that he filed the copyright on the poem a year before Jackson was born.
At the end of the ceremonies, Fowler announced that he has raised $100,000 to upgrade the curriculum at the seminary and to raise the faculty salaries. The next goal, he said, is to obtain certification from the District's Board of Higher Education to enable the seminary to award degrees and honorary doctorates. The seminary does not offer college degrees, according to Fowler.
"We are not training scholars; we train Christian workers," Fowler said.
The seminary classes meet Monday through Friday evenings at 1600 13th St. N.W. This year the school enrolled 66 students between the ages of 20 and 50. Each student is required to take nine courses a year, choosing from a class list that includes theology, biblical geography, church history, biblical interpretation, and English, French and German literature.
During the graduation ceremonies, Fowler, Johnson and Borders demonstrated that not only do they share an old-fashioned Baptist style of religion that is a part of Afro-American culture, but they also share a sense of humor.
Both Johnson and Borders peppered their sermons with jokes and anecdotes. At times, Borders, who wore a red shirt, tie and handkerchief under his robe and red socks that peeked out when he gestured, had the audience rollicking with laughter.
"We have a special gift of humor. Some people think its a sign of weakness, but it's not," he said.
They also share memories of childhoods that were not not easy. Johnson, who said that as a youth he often walked through the mud of northeast Washington, drove a half-ton truck before he entered the seminary.
Fowler, who lived in South Carolina, carried fertilizer for 75 cents a day during his early childhood. Fowler said he was the first boy from his home town to go away to school, attending Tuskeegee Institute for eight years - four years in high school and four years in college.
Borders, born in Macon, Ga., in 1905, said he picked cotton and tobacco before he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. He said he was admitted on probation because he had not completed high school, but finished with honors.
Both Fowler and Borders have been active in the civil rights movement. During the early 1960s, Borders said he led the movement to desegregate buses in Atlanta.
In 1944, Fowler helped draw up a manifesto against segregation in the armed forces, public transporation, employment, education and housing, which was presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1952, Fowler and five other black clergymen from the District met with president-elect Dwight Eisenhower and made 14 requests, including one to appoint a civil rights commission. Fowler said that the present U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stemmed from that meeting.
In addition to his work at the seminary, Fowler is also pastor of the Capitol View Baptist Church in northeast Washington. CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. William A. Johnson, the Rev. Andrew Fowler and the Rev. William Holmes Borders. By Joe Heiberger - The Washington Post