Reprinted from The News House: Link to original Article
Published: May 13, 2020
The Rev. Rick Hill has seen it many times before: a student comes to Syracuse University fresh faced and naïve from high school, and by the semester’s end he or she is too focused on finding the next good time.
“We have students come here in August and by Thanksgiving they’re unrecognizable,” Hill said. “We just want to reinforce what they came here with and have them go back in (a similar form) as when they got here.”
Hill said he and his wife Valerie see themselves as, “stand-in parents” and hold the students they see to the same standard they would hold their own daughter if she were in college.
“I have 33 children,” Hill said proudly. As he began to discuss his children a note of protectiveness and caring crept into his voice.
For six years, Hill has been the chaplain of the Historically Black Church, a campus ministry that provides African-American students at SU with resources about churches and ministries in the area.
In 2007, he founded his own church, Word of Life Bible Fellowship, which meets Sundays at 11 a.m. in Huntington Beard Crouse Hall‘s Kittredge Auditorium on the SU campus.
Lori S. Robinson, a 22-year-old instructional design development and evaluation graduate student who has been attending Hill’s services since her freshman year in 2005, said she appreciates his laid back preaching style.
“He has a Harley, and he’ll … show up in his biker jacket, and jeans,” Robinson said. “He’s not big on you have to get dressed up for church because so many people get turned off by that.”
Hill chose this come-as-you-are approach when he opened Word of Life Bible Fellowship and stresses that he wants to offer options.
In the African American community, on a typical Sunday women and girls will wear dresses and men will often wear suits. Hill insists that he wants people to “relax and enjoy each other as part of the service.”
“The casual dress just works for me and for people who come to Word of Life,” he said.
His more relaxed approach to dress should not be mistaken for a lax attitude concerning the church’s purpose. Hill named his church Word of Life Bible Fellowship because the Bible is the primary focus.
The Rev. Rick Hill shares a laugh with a member of the Word of Life Bible Fellowship. (Photo: Matthew Ziegler)
This emphasis on the Bible and determination to remain relatable to his congregation has attracted not only students but also working adults in the community and has led to a church that is intimate and comfortable.
Troy Allen, a member of the Word of Life Bible Fellowship since May 2009, said he likes the focus on the Bible.
“I really liked the straightforward teaching from Pastor Hill and how he broke down the Bible verses,” Allen said.
Hill deliberately keeps the church service simple.
“Your typical Black Baptist Church — we are hardly that,” he said. “The jumping and the shouting, that’s great, I’m born and raised in that, but everybody doesn’t necessarily respond to that atmosphere.”
Hill’s sermons are accented with personal anecdotes and honesty while offering life lessons at the same time.
“How many of you are sitting here thinking ‘Oh yeah, I’m better than that person beside me?’ ” Hill asked during a July service about arrogance. “You don’t have to raise your hand, but you’ve got that tiny seed of arrogance inside of you, and I’ve got it too. We may not want to admit it but God knows it’s there and we need to submit it to Him.”
Robinson believes that Hill’s 9-year-old daughter Lydia, who attends the church with her mother, influences his easy-to-understand preaching style.
“She is paying attention and she’ll ask questions from time to time,” Robinson said. “So he breaks things down to where a young child can understand.”
His approachable nature and popularity are not a surprise to his childhood friend Priscilla Donai, who has known him since they were five years old and going to Sunday School while growing up in Syracuse’s South Side.
“He was a kid that played all the time … joked around, (but) he was about his business even growing up,” Donai said. “He was motivated, knew what he wanted and went after it.”
Hill doesn’t see himself that way while growing up as a “typical sports jock” on South Avenue. He said people may have recognized the focus and drive within him but it wasn’t clear to him yet.
“I lived every moment for that moment I wasn’t thinking about a plan,” he said.
He attended the University of North Alabama for three semesters and then returned home and started working in retail. In 1995, he lost his job and began to want more for himself.
He graduated from Oswego State University in 1999 then received his master’s of divinity from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2006. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in ministry at the Ashland Theological Seminary.
“At 25 or 27 if somebody had told me I was going to do all of that in academia I’d never have believed it,” Hill said. “School was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Now Hill sees the benefits of his education.
“There’s no better feeling in the world than to know that you’ve impacted somebody’s life in a positive way,” he said. “It doesn’t get better than that.”