Stories & Commentaries

Students Surround SAU Professor with Circle of Compassion

Southern Adventist Univeristy Biology Department Professor Ben Thornton, Ph.D., wrote his students this touching, cathartic email in which he thanks them for representing all that’s good about Christian community during crisis. Thornton’s extremely personal letter is immersive and comes close to putting you in a chair in his Hickman Hall classroom. We solicit your prayers both for Thornton’s family and for the students on our campus. — Southern Adventist University

To my students:

Many years ago I was beginning my teaching career at Battle Creek Academy in Michigan. We were living on campus and my wife and I hosted a Friday evening vespers in our home for students. There was a faithful group of six to eight students that worshiped with us week after week. We would have a meal, to which the students contributed, before we worshiped. Tears were often shed as trust grew and we all learned to be open and real. We shared our struggles, fears, hopes and dreams. At the academy across the street I began a daily prayer time in the science department, which helped all of us to stay focused and allowed us bring up things and present them to the only One that can really heal and make all things new.


One day, a student came to me and said that there was a group of students in the science department that really felt a need for prayer. I dropped what I was doing and walked down to the room. When I entered, the students were all sitting around in an imaginative circle with an open seat in the middle, the seat that the one seeking prayer usually sat in. I walked in and asked, “What’s up?” There was a little awkward silence and then one of them spoke up and asked me to sit in the empty chair in the circle.

They told me that I had been grumpy and that it looked like I needed prayer. My heart was convicted and I was humbled. They gathered close and they all reach out and laid their hands on me and began to pray prayers of petition, grace, and forgiveness. I shed many tears that my students would care enough to reach across the divide to pull be over and treat me like a human being. I was humbled that they loved me enough, dared enough, trusted enough, to call out my sin. Not to condemn me or shame me, but call out my sin and then pray for me. They affirmed my humanity and reached out and touched me. 

This September, my brother was battling for his life in an ICU in Dallas after a bone marrow transplant gone bad. I had just returned from visiting him when he took a decided turn for the worse. His kidneys shut down and now he had refused intubation. It was just a matter of time. I told my students at SAU that I would probably be gone at the end of the week to bury my brother. I shared with them his struggle and what his family was going through. The room was silent and a few stared back with eyes of understanding. I had a prayer for my brother and his family, committing them all into His care.

Instruction continued and we talked about succession and the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, topics of which I am sure can act as a potently as a sleeping aid. As I was handing out the daily quiz at the end of class I spied a note that was being passed around in class. It didn’t appear to be suspicious in nature. As the students turned in their quizzes they uncharacteristically hung around and then one of them asked those who were interested to stay by so that they could have a season of prayer for me and my family.

As they maneuvered into an imaginative circle, my phone buzzed and I read the message before looking up and softly saying, “My brother is dead.” They all moved in unnaturally close and began reaching out and laying their hands on me.

Droplets of grief began tracing my worn cheeks as one male college student after another, man after man, reached out through prayer to draw my heart close to theirs. Then a soft, yet strong-as-a-sparrow student reached up to God one more time as she closed their expression of care and love. One by one they hugged me, some long and hard, others were tender and brief. Some held on an awkwardly long time until the awkwardness melted into oneness and compassion. They embraced me. They touched me. They confirmed my humanity. They gave me what I needed most, human touch from people who didn’t have to care, but they chose to. They dared to reach out across the divide and pull me into their circle. They chose to reach across the imaginary divide and unite with my loss and pain.

I have the privilege of serving at Southern Adventist University where students and professors can be real and human. Where the divide that can separate students and professors is often broken down so we can experience each other’s pain, hurt, grief, loneliness, sorrow, longing … and take it to the only One who can make all things new.

Thank you, my students, for allowing me to be simply broken and human, and still respecting and loving me. Thank you for trusting enough to reach across the imaginary divide.

— This letter was originally published with permission in SAU's Sept. 2016 alumni e-newsletter, QuickNotes; published here with permission.