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As New College faced turmoil, someone called the campus chaplain

Dwight Henry, the campus chaplain at New College of Florida, poses for a portrait at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

SARASOTA — Dwight Henry was driving home from Bible study when he was asked to pray.

The 48-year-old pastor is the campus chaplain for New College of Florida — the small public liberal arts school in Sarasota that finds itself in the national spotlight after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six prominent conservatives to the left-leaning university’s board of trustees.

One of the new trustees asked to start the board’s first meeting with a prayer, so the school turned to Henry.

He knew things would be tense. He knew there would be protesters, cameras, reporters.

The only other time he’d been asked to give a prayer in his two years at New College was at President Patricia Okker’s inauguration. This would be the largest crowd he’d ever preached to.

As the meeting’s first speaker, Henry felt he had the obligation to set a tone of peace and civility. He still believed such a thing was possible.

Good prayers don’t come from a place of anxiety, Henry believes. He’d given sermons like that before. Words written in haste fall flat, and the message doesn’t connect.

“I don’t know what to say myself,” he said on Tuesday, “but the Holy Spirit leads me to the right places and the right things to say.”

Divine inspiration calls for quiet, Henry said. And this time it wasn’t coming.

With less than a week to write, he tried drafting on the iPad he keeps on his desk next to a copy of the King James Bible and the Hebrew Tanakh. But the words didn’t seem right.

Henry knew that some in the crowd wouldn’t want him there. He’d been told at least one board member had objected to praying before the meeting.

Many in the room would feel frightened, heartbroken and angry. How could he help shoulder their burdens with just a few minutes to speak?

He tried biking to calm his nerves. He lay on the light gray carpet of his study and meditated on sermons and scripture that inspired him. He turned to gospel music, where he feels God in more than just words.

On Monday, the day before the trustees were to meet, Henry woke up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a few hours of quiet. As his wife and granddaughter slept, he put on his favorite shirt — a well-worn black button-down — and made his way to his study, where he knew he wouldn’t be disturbed.

The lights were low, the house silent. Henry put both hands on his desk, palms up. “Lord, fill me with your spirit,” he said under his breath.

It was a Bible verse from Mark that came to him: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

From there, the writing flowed.

The next day, Henry arrived early and asked for a few moments alone in the auditorium.

He made his way through the room, touching each trustee’s paper nameplate, walking up and down each row of chairs where the public would be seated, stopping now and then to ask the Lord for peace and grace.

He made his way to the double doors and said a final blessing. Then the crowd came bustling in.

As Henry made his way to the lectern, his momentary pulpit, some in the audience shouted.

“Separation of church and state!”

“Why is he here?”

He flinched and kept walking.

After thanking the trustees, he took a breath and began:

“Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and the question was asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’

“I’d ask that you look around you and that will answer the question. These are your neighbors.”

Henry prayed that the trustees would have wisdom and patience and that the audience would show grace and strength.

“Father God, help us to remember that nothing is ever in vain,” he said, “for even mistakes and missteps are used for your good.”

At the end, Henry turned and left. He didn’t know if everyone had heard his words, but he felt a sense of calmness in the room.

It wasn’t until the next day that he learned what came next.

In the four hours that followed Henry’s invocation for peace, the meeting unfolded as many thought it would.

The trustees tussled with each other. Audience members shouted and cried, criticized and clapped, outraged.

By the end of the evening, Okker, whom Henry had prayed for at her inauguration, had been fired by the board.

“Oh,” he said later, upon learning of her termination. “I didn’t know it would end like that.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter and Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

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