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Merger means salvation for tiny Christian college


Small numbers are Eastern Christian College's pride and its sorrow.

The 11 students who graduated yesterday from the tiny Bible college in Harford County will be among the last to receive degrees there.

Unlike other schools in the Baltimore area, such as the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Eastern has struggled to maintain enrollment and to recruit enough church sponsors to make ends meet almost since its inception 35 years ago.

Eastern, with a student body of 40, will merge with another Christian college in Illinois next year. And some of the 40-acre campus will be sold to pay debts -- a bittersweet move for a school that places a premium on its small size, independence and Christian values. "It's a close, close atmosphere," said Alexander Sholomitsky, 19, a freshman and native of Belarus.

In lean years, the school has survived by paying faculty members half their salary. "We have continued to say, 'Let's see how we can make this work,' " said Terry L. Silence, academic dean at Eastern since 1979.

Through next year's merger with Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Ill., Eastern will provide classes from an accredited school with more name recognition. Eastern will start offering the Lincoln classes in its current location in the 1995-1996 school year, but probably will move the next year, according to Eastern President Robin W. Underhill.

"If the college can succeed at some other place in some other form, then that's much more important" than trying to preserve the school in it's current form, Mr. Silence said.

Yesterday's graduation, held in the modest sanctuary of Creswell Christian Church next to the campus, was filled with indications of what makes Eastern a rarity.

"You're mission for Jesus Christ is far more important than material wealth, power or glory," the Rev. William I. Kidwell, a Delaware minister and member of the board of trustees, told the graduates during his commencement address from the pulpit.

The hourlong ceremony was punctuated with the hymns "Be Thou My Vision" and "Blessed Assurance."

Students received awards for Biblical achievement and spiritual emphasis. Six graduates were named to "Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities."

Degrees at Eastern's commencement were awarded in Biblical studies, with emphasis in Christian ministry, Christian education, music ministry, missions, early childhood education, deaf ministry and urban ministry.

For Patricia Holley, a 54-year-old mother of four, receiving her diploma was a stellar moment. "It's by the grace of God that I did it," she said afterward, hugging friends and relatives after the ceremony.

She came to Eastern as a cook 14 years ago when her daughter enrolled in the school. "I wanted to start over, so I came down here and started taking classes slowly," Ms. Holley said. Her bachelor's degree has an emphasis in early childhood education.

"I know this is the end of an era," said Ms. Holley, who lives on campus along with many of the faculty and staff. She doesn't know where she will live once the land is sold or even what she will do. "I have to find a new goal. All I know is I want to do something for God."

Her desire echoes that of other Eastern students and alumni.

Several graduates will work in churches associated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, a loose network that has provided financial support to Eastern, or go on to get higher degrees from other Christian colleges.

"The people at the college, they just have a passion for helping Christian young people develop into strong leaders" for churches, said the Rev. Joseph Wilson, a 1987 graduate of the school and senior minister of Fork Christian Church in Baltimore County.

The school is rare in more than its Biblical academic emphasis. Students have a midnight curfew every night, with exceptions for those who work. Cable television and VCRs are banned from the dorms.

And you won't find the torn jeans or sweat shirts that are fashion staples at some colleges. Eastern requires students to dress "modestly." No T-shirts, jeans or sweat clothes may be worn to class.

The school had a basketball team and a championship volleyball team this year, but instead of competing against other schools, they played area church teams in a gym that was originally built as a church.

The banners in the gym commemorate Christian youth nights and spiritual retreats, not sporting victories.

Eastern began as Eastern Christian Institute in 1946, meeting in a church in East Orange, N.J. The school moved to Creswell, halfway between Bel Air and Aberdeen, in 1958 and opened as a college with five students in 1960.

A French provincial mansion built in the late 1800s is a campus landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The school's enrollment has fluctuated since it moved to Harford. Enrollment climbed to a high of 78 in 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War when men were seeking deferments. But the number of students has ranged from the 20s to 40s since 1989.

The school's lack of accreditation has kept enrollment low, according to Frank Harris, administrative vice president.

But low enrollment and financial woes have kept the school from being accredited by the established associations that accredit most of Maryland's well-known colleges and universities. Eastern RTC is one of about 19 religious colleges in Maryland that are exempt from state standards by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

"It's kind of the vicious cycle," he said.

Sue Crider, director of special projects for the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities -- Eastern is not a member -- said large Christian colleges are thriving. Smaller, lesser known schools, especially schools without accreditation such as Eastern, continue to struggle, she said.

Eastern officials are dealing with that trend.

"Having big numbers has never been a priority for us," Mr. Harris said. "But you have to have certain numbers to have an efficient operation."

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