Growing up in the lower-income Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Rick Atchley witnessed first-hand the discontent among white residents at the notion of court-mandated desegregation of the slow-to-integrate Dallas school system.
The comments and attitudes troubled the high schooler, who had known ever since he could remember that he wanted to be a preacher. When the nearby Church of Christ in which his family placed membership asked him to preach, young Rick delivered his very first sermon about the evils of racism.
He was not invited to preach again.
“I watched with disappointment the way the church responded to the change,” Atchley said. “We simply reflected the blatant racism of the day.”
Ever since, Atchley has committed to unity – among communities, races, congregations and denominations. Entering his 25th year as minister of the Word for the 6,000-member Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Atchley’s lifelong ministry has been recognized by ACU, which named him the 2014 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.
Since graduating from ACU in 1978, Atchley has preached for two congregations – Southern Hills Church of Christ in Abilene, and The Hills. In both places, the churches saw enormous growth: Southern Hills’ membership had quadrupled by the time he left in 1989, while The Hills has more than doubled over the past 25 years.
More important, Atchley has focused his congregations outward, into their communities, urged on by the memory of what happens when churches fail to live out Christ’s call to unify.
“I grew up in a very sectarian environment,” he said. “God began to chip away at some of that at an early age, and one of the huge ways God began challenging my sectarianism was how ACU helped plant the gospel in my heart. One of the themes of my ministry is to bring down walls that God didn’t want up in the first place.”
Atchley came to ACU in 1974, majoring in communication and flirting with the notion of teaching or law before confirming his desire to be a preacher. As a single man, his attempts to become a youth minister foundered; instead, Southern Hills gave him the opportunity as a 21-year-old college graduate to begin preaching part-time. Within a year, he was the full-time pulpit minister.
“They were very, very kind to a very young preacher,” he said. “ I hadn’t preached maybe 20, 25 sermons in my whole life. Why they hired me, I don’t know. I don’t know what they were thinking. I did the best I could do, and they let me grow. I’ll forever be grateful for that. I’m sure they heard some pretty lousy preaching.”