The Business Services Special Committee (BSSC) of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) has received a proposal to purchase the Battle House on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The North Carolina Study Center (NCSC), a newly formed non-profit organization, has expressed interest in purchasing the property.
Jimmy Adams is an attorney, a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, and the chairman of the convention’s BSSC. He said NCSC submitted a 15-page proposal and a six-page letter of intent to the committee in August.
The Battle House was purchased by North Carolina Baptists in 1964 for $102,500 as a base for Baptist Student Union (BSU) ministry on the university campus.
The house is named for Kemp P. Battle, president of UNC from 1876-1891, and a former treasurer of the State of North Carolina. It has undergone many renovations and improvements to accommodate BSU ministry during the 50 years of BSC ownership. It sits prominently in the Historic District of Chapel Hill, directly adjacent to the university’s main campus.
In recent years BSU transitioned to the name Baptist Campus Ministry (BCM).
The NCSC website (ncstudycenter.org) describes the organization’s mission. “As a study center at UNC, our mission is to welcome the university community into Christian formation and the pursuit of truth for the common good. Translation: we are a hospitality center dedicated to Christian education and community-building.”
BR photo by K. Allan Blume
There is an offer to purchase the Battle House in Chapel Hill. It was purchased by N.C. Baptists in 1964 to serve as a base for what was then known as Baptist Student Union.
Madison Perry, executive director of NCSC, said the vision was born out of a similar Christian study center on the campus of the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Va. He said the center has had a “massive impact on the university culture, the town of Charlottesville and the state of Virginia. It is a great model, and those who look at it have great hopes for what can be done in Chapel Hill.”
The UVA center was founded by Daryl Richmond, an unassuming Baptist minister from North Dakota who pastored a church near Charlottesville. “He had a passion for discipleship. He got involved in lifting weights and doing other things to spend time with students and professors to get them connected with truth claims. The Lord blessed his work,” Perry said.
The center began with resources aimed at enriching the spiritual life and the mind of the students in the UVA community. It became a hub for initiating many campus ministries and Christian activities.
“When I first learned about the center and visited it, I was immediately jealous,” Perry said. “I wondered why there was not anything similar in Chapel Hill. I learned one of the reasons [was] there was not a right location for it.”
Supporters of the project have been looking for a “hospitable building close to the campus that can be welcoming to students and faculty,” he said.
Perry grew up in Kinston, N.C. He is a 2006 graduate of UNC with a double major in Spanish and political science. He recently completed a law degree from UNC and is taking some divinity classes at Duke University. He plans to graduate in the spring with a master of theological studies.
“I am committed to the truth and integrity of scripture. I have never been to a school where I have agreed one hundred percent with what any professor said. Duke has prepared me well to converse with students who are confused about where to find the truth,” he said.
“One thing Duke is really good at is studying the philosophical presuppositions underlying modern culture. … It can be a tremendous blessing to understand where different people are speaking from. I feel better prepared to take scripture seriously for the rest of my life.”
Perry explained, “This kind of center brings in all kinds of participants, especially when it is close to the university campus. Where a lot of people are transient, a hospitality center is like a good coffee shop, it’s a good ‘third place’ for people.”
They will host regular classes, seminars, discussion groups and speakers. The plan is to engage students and faculty in serious discussions about eternal truth. The hope is to open doors for the discussion of basic spiritual questions with participants.
“When I was a graduate student at UNC, I long-respected the Battle House property and the students groups it hosted,” Perry said. “The more I learned about the UVA center, the more I wondered whether a similar ministry would be appropriate for that property.
“Given where the Battle House is located, it’s hard to imagine a more welcoming place for any stranger to come and know the love of Christ. Christ’s love does not say, ‘Because you agree with me, therefore I love you.’ Jesus welcomes everyone into His transforming grace.”
NCSSC is engaged in consultation with campus ministries and local churches. “We have the strong support of J.D. Greear at The Summit and Pastor Andy Davis at First Baptist, Durham,” Perry said.
The letter of intent submitted to the BSSC includes the names of pastors, prominent attorneys in Raleigh and Charlotte, and a seminary professor who have expressed interest in supporting the project. Their acceptance will be finalized “pending approval of this transaction,” the letter says.
Adams said the Business Services Committee has reviewed the proposal, but has not voted. They are reviewing the value and history of the property before making any decisions.
As a graduate of UNC, Adams said the Battle House “has always been a special place. Carolina was Carolina, in some respects, because of the Battle House for me and a lot of other people. I think from the standpoint of not just me and my family, but a lot of people, the emotional connection to Chapel Hill is at least influenced by our emotional connection to the Battle House.
“So that’s a big consideration that I have in my leadership role, [and] I have tried to take this into consideration as I try to do what I am doing [on the committee] in this whole big question of how the convention should use the Battle House, if it should be sold, and if so, how should it be sold,” Adams said.
He came out of the “traditional Baptist background” of First Baptist Church, Columbus, Ga. “When I began at Carolina in the fall of ‘84, I didn’t know anybody in Chapel Hill. The Battle House was where I found my group. I was heavily involved in the BSU for four years. I spent every Thursday night there.
“The folks in the BSU were my college friends and my college family. I met a lot of folks who are still my friends today. Most significant to me, I met my wife there. I can tell you which floor board my wife was standing on when I first laid eyes on her.”
As committee chairman Adams said, “I want to see what’s best for both the convention and the legacy of the Battle House. It’s always been a place for students. I want it to continue to be that way. I’ve told folks that it would be really very disappointing to one day go to … the Battle House and find that it was completely inaccessible because it was either a private residence or owned by somebody that locked it up.
“That is one of the endearing qualities about the proposal on the table from the [NCSC] group. Although its use will be different from what it was when I was there, because the world has changed, the plan is still to have an open, accessible place for students, in addition to the other plan they have to do apologetics and intellectual Christian thought.”
Adams said the university has expressed an interest in the property, but their intention would be to use it for office space.
An appraisal is currently in process. The property has historical value, but that may diminish its monetary value and certainly limits what can be done on the property, according to Adams.
When asked about the committee’s timeline, he said, “I’m more interested that it be done right than it be done fast. I think the speed will take care of itself. I think the folks that are interested in acquiring the house are more interested in doing it right.”
Some other BCM properties have been sold or are in the process of being sold. “A lot of those have been easy situations,” Adams explained. But he does not see the Battle House as an easy decision. “People will disagree with decisions of all types. Sometimes it is more about how a decision was made as opposed to what the decision was.
“Having an understanding of how it is currently being used, I think it is being underused because of the way campus ministry has evolved. Even before the change in ministry strategy that was implemented last year, campus ministry at Chapel Hill has been less focused on the use of the Battle House than it was when I was there.”
Adams believes the proposal on the table “poses the best combination of all things and likely comes closest to meeting all of the convention’s objectives while at the same time being consistent with and not doing any harm to alumni concerns.”
There was a time when everything happened at the Battle House. There were meals, Bible studies, discussions and a lot of fellowship gatherings. But Adams recognizes that ministry trends have transitioned the Battle House away from being the place of gathering. “It has turned into a residential place for a few people,” he said. “The Battle House as a facility has been underutilized as a ministry tool.
“Given the overall shift in ministry and the overall use of the building, I feel like being a good steward in this context will completely change the use of the Battle House. I think it can return to its prior position of being a valuable ministry tool in addition to being a place that evokes powerful and positive memories for the folks that experienced it back in my days.”
The facility is in poor condition, in part because improvements require special permission due to its status as a registered historical building. New owners will be in a position to return the facility to “its former glory,” Adams added.
Although NCSC is not required to be officially endorsed by the UNC administration, Perry said a healthy relationship with the university is important. “We conceive of the university as a place where all voices are welcome. We currently have every reason to expect that will be the case with regard to our activities.
“I have found strong support among alumni and friends who are excited about our vision,” Perry said. “A number of alumni and friends of UNC would really value a voice that consistently turns to scripture. … There are givers who would be willing to donate significantly to insure there is a thoughtful and strong Christian voice on the UNC campus.”
John Butler, BSC’s executive leader for business services, said, “For most of the 50 years that the convention has owned the Battle House, it served us well as a place that Baptist students could gather, study, fellowship and worship.
“However, changes in technology and culture have dramatically changed the way campus ministry takes place in the last decade. As ministry to students moved directly to the campus through small discipleship groups and direct engagement of the campus culture with the gospel, the sheer number of students involved in the ministry limited the use of the Battle House as a central place for students involved in our ministry to meet,” he added.
“We are intrigued by the possibility of this historic property continuing to be used for Kingdom purposes as a Christian study center. God is not through using this property for His glory, and we are committed to being a strong influence on its use and purpose whether as its owner or a partner with another evangelical group.”
BSC also owns properties on the campuses of Western Carolina University, Appalachian State University, N.C. State and UNC Asheville. The Asheville property is currently for sale. Property at East Carolina University was sold earlier this year.
The BSC board of directors voted to transfer the property at UNC Pembroke to the Burnt Swamp association last month. The Associated Campus Ministry Building at UNC Greensboro is partly owned by BSC.