May 2023 News Perspective Online

Student Spotlight: Tongula Steddum

For years, Tongula Steddum sensed a calling from God, but she ran from it.  That changed one Friday in August 2020.

“I woke up that morning and thought, ‘Today’s the day you stop running,’” she said. “I decided I needed to go over to Perkins and check it out.”

Tongula Steddum with her son Colby.

Steddum headed to campus that morning. She lives in Highland Park, within walking distance, but asked her husband, Chris, to drive her so that she couldn’t turn back.

This was in the middle of the pandemic, and the campus was eerily empty. She had no appointment and didn’t know where to go, so she opened Facebook on her phone. At the top of her feed was a post from Perkins, saying that three spots were still open for the fall semester, which started in three weeks, and that potential students should contact Stephen Bagby in the Office of Enrollment Management.

Steddum found Bagby in his office. She told him, “I’m answering a call and I need you to hear me out. And he did.” Bagby outlined available degree programs. Things fell into place. Now, Steddum is a second-year student pursuing an M.Div. and considering ordination in The United Methodist Church.

Tongula Steddum with her son Colby.

Graduate school became the next season of Steddum’s life, after she had devoted the previous few years to being a stay-at-home mom and volunteering at her son Colby’s school. Before that, she enjoyed a successful corporate career in logistics planning and supply-chain management, working for UPS and Shell Oil, and tried out for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

“My time with UPS made a global sponsorship for my Olympic training possible,” she said. “It was my Executive Leadership Team at UPS that encouraged me to continue my track career.  They inspired me to try out for the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic teams, an opportunity I am still grateful for to this day. It opened so many doors for me.”

A Texas native, Steddum is a graduate of Missouri Southern State University, where she was a standout track athlete, an eight-time All-American and the university’s first women’s national champion after earning back-to-back titles in the triple jump in 1994 and 1995.

Tongula Steddum at the awards ceremony for her induction into the 2020 Hall of Fame for the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) with her husband Chris and son Colby.

This year, 2022-2023, Steddum is the Fellow for Racial Justice, one of four interns participating in the Mark Craig Leadership Network (MCLN) Fellows program at Highland Park United Methodist Church. The program develops clergy leaders and equips them to lead in the church, helping them develop preaching skills and learn the ins and outs of pastoral care, church administration and worship logistics.

However, Steddum still isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of becoming a preacher. But that may be changing.

“People are very comfortable bringing their burdens to me,” she said. “I want to be a good steward and shape the conversations in a way that not only do they get some healing, but it leads them to Christ, too. That is my gift. I’m good at that.”

One possibility she’s considering: starting an ID Ministry. She saw the need after spending almost two years helping her uncle obtain a birth certificate. Because he was born at home in Oklahoma before 1950 –- before birth certificates were required –- no birth certificate was ever issued for him. Her uncle worked all his life (he was a school custodian before he retired), but the lack of a birth certificate never posed a problem until the time came to renew his driver’s license at age 70. New security laws enacted after September 11th added documentation requirements to obtain a driver’s license. No provision was made for people who didn’t have birth certificates. Without one, her uncle was turned away at the door of the license bureau.

Steddum resolved to help him … and hit obstacle after obstacle. Her uncle had no marriage or military records, because he’d never married or served in the military. Steddum made more than 30 phone calls and mailed some 20 registered letters. She tracked down officials in the small town where her uncle was born. Meanwhile, her uncle was forced to drive with an expired driver’s license.

“He could’ve been picked up and sent to jail because he didn’t have a driver’s license,” she said.  “I realized that somebody without a birth certificate is in trouble. You need an ID to get an ID.  That was the frustrating realization in all of this.  To deny him renewal of a license he has possessed for 55 years, because he could not present a birth certificate that never existed posed a problem.”

Steddum finally obtained the birth certificate for her uncle after two years of effort.

“I keep wondering, what would’ve happened if he hadn’t had someone like me to help him?” she said.

Now she thinks the ordeal could lead to a future ministry. Steddum is inspired by the ID Ministry at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., which assists low-income and unhoused residents obtain birth certificates, replacement Social Security cards and other needed documentation to obtain jobs, housing or services.

While she’s still discerning her call, she thinks something similar is in her future.

“I don’t see myself behind a pulpit every Sunday,” she said. “My gift is with the people. My passion is being Christ’s hands and his feet.  I really need to be close to people in their suffering.”