Barely four months into his second stab at a bachelor’s degree, Merv Massey nearly had to throw in the towel.
Four decades after he attended Fayetteville State for a couple of semesters before entering the Air Force, Massey was charging full-steam ahead as he took a second bite at the collegiate apple, this time at Wingate University. A full-time pastor at New Living Word Church in Waxhaw, he was learning more about his cultural heritage to better serve his primarily African American congregation, beefing up his already substantial Biblical knowledge, and fine-tuning his writing skills to improve his sermons.
Then, Massey says, his dreams were dealt a serious blow: “My pancreas quit working.”
Near the end of his first semester, in the spring of 2020, Massey mysteriously started falling behind in his classes and losing weight. He was more tired than usual, something he chalked up to his oversized workload and the strains of the Covid-19 pandemic. But as the fatigue hung around, the religion major eventually relented and went to see his doctor, who asked him some questions, drew blood and said he’d be in touch on Monday.
“I got a call that Saturday morning,” Massey says. “They said, ‘We need you to report to the emergency room right away. And pack a bag.’”
Massey’s blood sugar was over 600. By the time he reached the Veterans Administration hospital in Columbia, S.C., it had topped 700. Massey was placed in a wheelchair and quickly rolled up to the ICU.
“Here I am in the ICU, and they’re asking me, ‘How long you been a diabetic?’” he says. “‘I’m not a diabetic!’ ‘Well, you are now.’”
Massey was stabilized with insulin, and his blood-sugar level dropped enough that he could go home. While recuperating, he prayed and watched what he ate. By the time he made his return visit, he had almost completely recovered. “I said, ‘Lord, you’re a healer. I believe it, I receive it,’” he says. “When I talked to my doctor a few weeks after, he said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve only got Type II. Your pancreas is making it.’ In six weeks I was off of insulin.” And he’s no longer considered a diabetic.
Massey also survived in the classroom, thanks to his own determination and some understanding professors. On the morning of May 17, the 59-year-old religious studies major will experience a moment 40 years in the making as he and 414 other students walk across the stage during undergraduate Commencement in the Academic Quad (he’ll officially graduate in August after taking summer-school classes). Graduate Commencement will be held May 18 at 9 a.m.
Massey has also received the G. Byrns Coleman Excellence in Religious Studies Award, for being an “attentive, curious and diligent student” who exhibits a “deep love and respect for his peers,” according to Dr. Catherine Wright, associate professor and chair of the Religion Department.
During the entire health scare, from warning signs to rehab, Massey was unable to do any schoolwork. His professors allowed him to finish his coursework well after the semester ended, and they were understanding in the fall of 2020 when a lingering “brain fog” hampered his studies.
“I was concerned about school,” he says. “I had just started! I wondered, Am I going to be able to finish? It took me two semesters to catch up. But every instructor was sympathetic and worked with me. And as a matter of fact, last semester I was on the Dean’s List.”
Answering the call
Massey has always had an inquisitive mind, but school wasn’t a priority when he was a young man. “I wasn’t academically driven,” he says.
Massey did, however, want a future that included some of the things he didn’t have while growing up in western Union County, where at times there were 14 family members sharing a 900-square-foot house. “There was no plumbing,” he says. “Running water was you grabbing a bucket and running out to the well to get the water and running it back.”
After deciding that college wasn’t for him, Massey joined the Air Force, where he specialized in security and IT. But during his time in the service he also “felt the calling of the Lord,” he says, and became an ordained minister. During that time, he volunteered with an urban mission, and the feeling he got from helping others stuck with him. When he got out of the service after close to nine years, instead of jumping into IT – which would have put him on a path toward a wealthier future – Massey went to work for Operation Breaking Through, a nonprofit in Newport News, Va., that provided assistance to disadvantaged people.
Later in the 1990s, Massey moved into IT, but in 2004 the ministry called again – even though the money he was making in IT was certain to provide better for his wife and four children. “I told my wife, ‘You tell them kids to go on and finish college and everything else, because the Lord is knocking on the door and he’s going to kick it in. I know it,” Massey says. “And he did. I went to church one morning and I got on the altar and I bowed and said, ‘OK. You got me.’”
The charismatic Massey took over “a little church in the woods” of western Union County near the South Carolina line, building it up to a congregation of over 100. Eventually, that church merged with New Living Word, for which Massey serves as senior pastor.
But his lack of a four-year degree kept gnawing at him. When he heard University President Rhett Brown say at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast held at Wingate that there was a scholarship available to pastors who hadn’t gotten a baccalaureate degree, Massey was intrigued. “I’m not quite a nerd, but I’m studying something about all the time,” he says. “I said, ‘You know, maybe I could just transfer all that energy over here, get a degree.”
Getting the Coy Muckle Scholarship was the easy part. Pastoring a church during a pandemic while working toward a degree and fending off diabetes proved to be a substantial hurdle. Once Covid kicked the United States in the teeth in March of 2020, Massey felt that his recently restarted college career might stand in the way of his serving his congregation during a crisis.
“When Covid hit, there was no, ‘I’ve gotta do schoolwork,’ and I’m not pastoring,” he says. “I told my instructors, ‘Listen, folks. I’m called to be a pastor. I’ve got to pastor this church, these people, through all of this stuff.’ Covid wasn’t just a physical assault. It was a mental and emotional assault. People’s finances and everything were being threatened.
“I said, ‘I’m here to improve myself, but pastoring is what I’m going to have to do. I’m going to have to quit. I hate to do it, but I’m going to have to quit.’”
Their response? “They were like, ‘Unh-uh, Merv. We will work with you.’”
"It’s improved my preaching. It’s improved my presentation. I’ve really gotten an education since I’ve been here."
Massey started figuring out how to be there for his congregants without breathing the same air as them. He created content for an online audience, producing new messages three days a week rather than just one weekly Sunday sermon. Monthly board meetings became weekly video gatherings to go over the state of the church.
“We’ve done church any way you can,” he says. “We did church online. We did church in the parking lot. And now we’re in-house. And we’re still streaming.”
And he’s still studying, doing double duty as a college student and a pastor. It’s been far from easy, and it would have been understandable if Massey had pulled the plug on the whole collegiate enterprise in the name of his health, but he’s made it through.
And his newfound knowledge is already paying off. Massey says he’s a better speaker, writer and leader after a couple of years at Wingate. “I can see light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “It’s crazy, but it’s improved my preaching, it’s improved my presentation. I came to school to improve myself. I wanted the church to improve. I’ve really gotten an education since I’ve been here.”
May 3, 2022