May 2022 News Perspective Online

Student Spotlight: Lael Melville

At Perkins’ graduation ceremonies in 2016, the Rev. Dr. Lael Melville (M.Div. ’16) was recognized twice: with the Dr. and Mrs. Glenn Flinn Senior Award, for the graduating class member best exemplifying the aims of the school and the church for its ministry, and the Harry Hosier Spirit Award, for the student exemplifying Hosier’s spirit in his “elocution of faith: I sing by faith, preach by faith, pray by faith, and do everything by faith.”

Lael Melville (right) with Dr. Joan Hunt (left.) Melville was the inaugural recipient in 2021 of the Hunt-Francis Research Grant in Pastoral Care and Counseling, funded by a gift from Dr. Richard and Joan Hunt. The grant provides financial support to a student undertaking faculty-supervised research in Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Perkins School of Theology.

Six years later, Melville is still exemplifying those aims. Having just completed another degree from Perkins – a D.Min., in 2021 – she’s now devoting herself to her position as CEO of the Melville Family Foundation, which she co-founded with her husband, Randy, in 2018.  The Foundation is dedicated to serving children in the southern sector of Dallas.

Lael Melville’s Perkins education guides her in this work. Her D.Min. thesis examined disparities affecting Black and brown children in Dallas’ southern sector.

Dallas is one of the biggest cities with the least connectivity,” she said. “Many kids in the neighborhoods we serve don’t have WiFi. They disproportionately lack access along racial lines.  With my thesis, I explored the question: If we are lovers of Christ and we believe God talks about justice, where and how do we promote that justice where there are considerable disparities?”

Lael Melville says the Foundation was partly inspired by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, who writes, “It’s actually in proximity to the poor that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see.”

She says, “This is imperative to respond to the underserved families we serve as the Melville Family Foundation. Many nonprofits are doing good work. But Christians get to do this with the love of God.”

A Family Endeavor

Lael and Randy Melville met at Princeton University, where they both earned their undergraduate degrees, and have been married 38 years. They have three adult sons, all of them active in the Foundation. Sterling is a graduate of Colgate University and serves as President; Tyler is a graduate of Dartmouth College and is Vice President of Marketing and Communication; Myles is a graduate of Northeastern University and is Director of Operations.

“As the parents of Black sons in a racialized America, we knew that getting our sons through college was a success,” she said. “But to be significant, we had to engage others who may not have had the opportunities our family had regarding access to an education that is not defined by ZIP code. Through conversations, research and exploration, we determined that a Foundation could begin to respond to disparities that exist in impoverished communities.”

The Foundation works in three key areas – food security, economic stability and academic excellence – with many of its efforts focused on Black and brown children.

The pandemic made food security the most immediate priority in recent years. The Foundation has been partnering with the North Texas Food Bank and another nonprofit called Mentor, Inspire Nurture and Train (M.I.N.T.)

“Unfortunately, in our partnership with M.I.N.T., we’re setting records in the amount of food we are giving out on the first and third Saturdays of each month, compared to pre-pandemic distribution,” she said. “People start lining up at 5:45 a.m. every day for our distribution at 9 a.m.”

To improve economic stability, the Foundation leverages its corporate experience and partners with corporations in the North Texas area, providing internships and scholarships to deserving students in south Dallas. The Foundation also has partnered with telecommunications company Ericsson to donate more than 1,500 Chromebooks to Uplift scholars to aid in their virtual learning environment. The Foundation also offers an elevated literacy program for students at White Rock Elementary School in Dallas.

The Foundation also partnered with Uplift Education Schools (located in largely under-served communities) to “… to empower students to reach their highest potential …” Uplift’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program encourages personal and academic achievement in a way that enhances personal growth and encourages a mindset to achieve beyond the classroom. Partners include Uplift Education, Ericsson, Toyota, PepsiCo, North Texas Food Bank, M.I.N.T., Preface, Propac, LEAD and the Girl Scouts of America.

Melville added that nonprofits can help in one of two ways: “You can decide what to do, or you can go to the community and say, ‘What kind of help do you need?’ It’s a good thing we asked. Information and instruction from those serving in these spaces longer and with tremendous success do not always intersect with what you think will be helpful.”

Sustaining her through her work are two key passages: her favorite Bible passage, Romans 8:28 (“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”) and the words of theologian Henri Nouwen.

“He wrote about using our wounds as a source of healing for others,” she said. “These wounds are originally a source of shame and defeat. But we can use our wounds to become a source of a healing for others. It’s about Christ. As the Bible says, ‘By His wounds we are healed.’ ”

To stay grounded through all this, Melville starts each day in prayer with her husband. “We want God to be the first person we talk to,” she said. “I am looking for God all day long. I’m looking to hear or see or feel Him in a different kind of way.  When you look for Him, you find Him.”

A Life’s Calling

Serving in ministry is a dream that Lael Melville has nurtured since childhood. She grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion denomination, with an inspiring female role model: her mother, who returned to school and became an ordained AME minister.

Today, she’s a member of Grace Church in Plano, a nondenominational, multicultural congregation. After working for years in the field of psychology – she had a concentration in psychology at Princeton and earned a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) degree from Rutgers University — she began to consider going back to school and attending seminary.

“My pastor, Gerald Brooks, told me, ‘You should go to Perkins; That’s where you need to go,’” she recalled. “And that’s where I went!”

She took to Perkins immediately, serving as president of her class, president of the Perkins Student Association and as a member of the Student Senate.

“At Perkins, I’d sit in these classes with these amazing professors who were giving me permission to think deeply about God,” she said. “After class, I could barely leave. Just, wow.”

While pursuing an M.Div. at Perkins, Melville came to two realizations: first, that she was called to serve in the community, rather than in a church setting; and second, that she didn’t want to leave Perkins because “it became abundantly clear that knowing God is a lifelong journey to be pursued with those you both love and respect.”

She continued her studies in the D.Min. program and finished in December 2021.

“I love that Perkins led the way in integrating SMU, and rightly so, as lovers of God,” she said. “I love how the Perkins community filled me up and how I get to live out of the overflow.”