Arkansas CBF mourns student’s murder

Arkansas Baptist College and the state’s Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are partners in an effort to empower a community and model healthy racial relations in Little Rock.

By Bob Allen

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas joined the campus community of a historically African-American college in Little Rock in mourning the senseless murder of a student Sept. 27.

derek olivierDerek Olivier, 19, a freshman from New Iberia, La., and cornerback on the Arkansas Baptist College football team, was fatally shot by an unknown assailant while helping a friend change a flat tire across the street from the campus. Police do not believe Olivier was the intended target and said the attack may have started as a dispute over gambling.

The incident took place on the street behind the CBF Arkansas office at the opposite end of the block. The state affiliate of the Atlanta-based Fellowship moved in 2008 from an office complex into a renovated 1890s Queen Anne cottage adjacent to the Arkansas Baptist College campus.

The house is one of numerous properties purchased by the college under leadership of President Fitz Hill in an ambitious project to empower and rebuild a community once known as one of the most dangerous places in Little Rock.

“As a partner in ministry with President Fitz Hill and Arkansas Baptist College, the CBF of Arkansas family grieves with and prays for the ABC family,” said Ray Higgins, CBF Arkansas coordinator since 2005.

ray higginsHiggins, whose previous ministry positions include the pastorate of Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church, said the partnership goes much deeper than a relationship between landlord and tenant. CBF churches and people come to the campus, and the college has hosted the Fellowship’s annual spring gathering.

Hill has been the keynote speaker at CBF gatherings. He speaks in CBF churches and leads football clinics with Together for Hope, the Fellowship’s rural-poverty initiative launched in 2001 as a long-term commitment to help break cycles of poverty in 20 of the nation’s poorest counties. Six of those counties are in the Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

CBF volunteers work alongside the Arkansas Baptist College community to renovate campus facilities and revitalize the neighborhood. The groups work together for literacy and prison reform and cooperated in an Arkansas New Baptist Covenant movement, part of a larger vision led by former President Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists in North America across boundaries of tradition and race.

“We are proud to be on the ABC campus and be a part of Christ’s presence here,” Higgins said.

fitz hillHill, a former collegiate football coach who took over as president of the only historically black college west of the Mississippi in 2006, said the tragedy would only strengthen his resolve not only to provide educational opportunities for underprivileged students but also to build up the community.

“Right now, let’s just face it. Let’s be very honest. Black-on-black crime must be addressed and must be addressed within the community itself,” Hill told media the day after the shooting. Hill said he wants to meet with churches and neighborhood associations to tackle the problem. “That was senseless, just to do that and to take the life of somebody,” Hill said.

When Hill came to Arkansas Baptist after four seasons as head football coach at San Jose State, the school founded in 1884 as minister’s institute for black clergy couldn’t afford to pay him a salary. The first building on the campus and the oldest African-American educational building in Arkansas was at risk of being demolished. A remodeled Old Main opened its doors in 2010, forming a symbol of Arkansas Baptist College’s renewed dedication to minister to those traditionally left out of the educational system.

Looking off campus, Hill saw a neighborhood in which businesses were gone, houses were abandoned and crime and violence were rampant. Recognizing the futility of trying to recruit students to a campus where they couldn’t feel safe, Hill convinced his board to purchase a car wash at a street corner known for stabbing incidents, robberies and various assaults.

Beginning with a $100,000 renovation of that property, renamed from Wheels and Grills to Auto Baptism, Arkansas Baptist College went on to purchase numerous buildings and lots to demolish, renovate or repurpose. The goal is to improve safety, remove blight, attract partners and reclaim the school’s historic role as an anchor in the community.

According to comprehensive “Vision 20/20: Clearly Focused on Growing Hope” report unveiled in 2011, student enrollment increased from 287 in the fall of 2005 to 1,193 last fall.

Little Rock media talked to students who said hearing the shots sparked safety concerns, but police said they don’t believe the campus was specifically targeted. The college community planned to gather Tuesday night for a memorial service for Olivier in the Old Main auditorium. His funeral is scheduled Wednesday, Oct. 3, at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Lydia, La.

Arkansas Baptist College released a statement conveying “heartfelt condolences” to Olivier’s family and friends. Grief counselors have been working with students and faculty members and are available to students dealing with the loss or experiencing other problems as a result of the tragedy. College personnel are assisting students who live on campus.

Higgins sent an e-mail urging the Arkansas CBF network to remember Hill, Arkansas Baptist College and Olivier’s family in their prayers. Higgins noted that just days before the tragedy a video documentary on Hill and the college received a local Emmy Award. The under seven-minute video, entitled “Growing Hope,” can be viewed free of charge on YouTube.