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How an idea for religion study started

POSTED: September 27, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Sometimes it takes idea decades before it becomes reality. It took only 15 months from when the idea of a Christian education center was discussed in Gainesville for it to open its doors to students wanting to learn more about various religions.

The late Judge Bill Gunter broached the subject of released-time education in a meeting of First Presbyterians. Instead of trying to educate young people about religion in the traditional Sunday school with inconsistent success, he said let’s build a building across from Gainesville High School and offer credits to students taking religion history courses apart from the high school’s curriculum.

The Rev. Bill Markley, First Presbyterian’s pastor at the time, got with one of his members and close friend Sam Harben Jr. to discuss the idea further. Harben, a lawyer, researched it and attended a seminar on released-time education. He came back telling Gunter and Markley that such a program should be broad-based, supported by other churches in the community, not just one because it might smack of proselytizing.

Harben set out talking to other community churches, notably First United Methodist, St. Paul United Methodist on Washington Street and Grace Episcopal Church, which with First Presbyterian became the original sponsors. A board of directors formed from three representatives of each church. Harben became the first chair and is one of the few surviving early involved supporters of the concept.

"There were good people on that first board," Harben remembers. Some of the churches were nervous at first, concerned about sharing control of a Christian education center.

When the board discussed whether to charge tuition, some members wanted the institution to be self-supporting, while others believed it should be open to everyone without cost. Though a Presbyterian representative, Harben came down on the side of the Methodists, who favored no tuition.

The center, officially named Christian Education Center, incorporated in October 1967. After buying property on Elephant Trail across from Gainesville High School, raising money for a building, then building it from a design donated by architect Garland Reynolds, classes started in January 1969. The Rev. Bill Stonebraker, a Presbyterian minister, was its first instructor and director.

When the center started, Gainesville High operated six periods a day with a study hall. Students could take the religion course during study hall or as an elective. Educators were nervous at first about the concept. But a Supreme Court decision had clarified the legality of similar programs, and they came around, especially because classes would be held off the school campus.

Actually, Harben thought at the time and still believes it would be legal for public schools to teach religion in their regular curriculum without released-time. However, again school boards and educators have enough on their hands without inviting legal challenges that could be a distraction for years. Released-time became the way to go without worrying about such hassles.

When Harben attended the seminar to learn about released-time, much of his information came from a Columbia, Md., group wanting to start a program. Gainesville got its center up and running so fast that group eventually called on Harben for advice. And calls from other areas in the country continued as word spread.

While there were similar efforts in other parts of the country, Harben believes Gainesville’s was the first of its kind. It certainly was a pioneer. Others have sprung up across the state and the country, including Ellijay, Habersham County, Gwinnett County and Athens.

The Christian Education Center since has changed its name to Center Point to reflect its expanded roles: counseling, alcohol and tobacco prevention and mentoring. The counseling program is in its 25th year, and mentoring its 15th year. David Smith, the current executive director, is in his 20th year. The building has been renovated twice to accommodate its expanded programs.

The original board included Bill Gignilliat, Tom Wilheit, Dr. Ed Estes, the Rev. Nathaniel Parker, Hammond Johnson, Hiram Thompson, A.D. Watson, Dr. H.E. Valentine, E.B. White, Mrs. Perry Robertson, Mrs. Ray Swetenburg, the Rev. A.A. Markley III and Harben. Smith is amazed that the center from the outset under the leadership of the original board was so attuned to issues in the community at the time. He calls Harben "the Thomas Jefferson of this."

(More about Center Point next week.)

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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