Claflin Alumnus Finds Art of Living in His Ministry

Oct 23, 2020

In many ways, Dr. Samuel Neely’s relationship with art portended his lifeDr. Sam Neely copy before and after college. Neely spent two years at Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, S.C. before he enrolled at Claflin.  In 1971, he earned a bachelor's degree in art education.  Since then, his persistence, determination, passion, and a sense of adventure – key characteristics of a skilled artist -- landed him positions in business, education, government, and eventually -- religion. His life has been a mosaic of unexpected challenges, extraordinary achievements, and profound satisfaction.  

Neely received national attention in September 2020 when he spoke during a memorial service for award-winning actor and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman who died of colon cancer a week earlier. The memorial service was held in Boseman’s hometown of Anderson, S.C. However, he and his family attended Welfare Baptist Church in nearby Belton, S.C., where Neely served as pastor for 30 years. Neely had a close relationship with Boseman and his family.

“When I arrived, Chad was eight years old.  There was not a lot of focus on youth and educational programs, but we changed that,” Neely said. “Chad’s family was part of the church’s leadership.  They helped establish and they have stayed involved with the church. “Chad was regularly active in our Summer Enrichment programs. We taught math, English, and other basic education classes including Bible study.”

Neely recalled that Boseman took trips to church’s state and national conferences and that he was highly respected by his peers because he was a team player. He said that Boseman built a strong relationship with the other kids. 

“Chad was very inquisitive. He challenged you with questions about certain situations, but he was always respectful,” Neely said. He wrote his first play after one of the kids in the area was killed. He presented it at the church and later at the state conference in front of more than 2,000 people. Everyone was surprised that a 16-year-old kid could pull something off that big. Chad was brilliant in his thinking and he once made a statement that it was never his intended goal to be out front. He desire was to work behind the scenes, but his talent placed him in front of the camera.”

Neely said it was important to him that all the youth at the church were prepared to be productive members of the community when they became adults.  He noted proudly that at one time the church had about 20 students attending various colleges and universities. Many who became successful lawyers, doctors, educators, in addition to the famous actor. 

“You never know what young people can achieve,” Neely said. “You have to let them know the world is bigger than where they are and push them to use their talents.”

Neely was the first of 10 children in his family to graduate from college. He said that his father gave his four brothers and five sisters the choice of attending college, joining the military, or finding a job after they graduated from high school.  

“I got a job in a mill, but A.M. Anderson, the principal at Bryson High School where I graduated, met with me and my parents to help me complete an application for Friendship, Neely said. “He knew I had asthma and that I would not be able to work in a mill.”

After two years, Neely left Friendship. That’s when a former Bryson High School art teacher – Robert Jones - encouraged him to enroll at Claflin. Jones was a Claflin alumnus who had also majored in art. 

“At that time teachers had more authority than perhaps anyone else in the neighborhood, and you listened to them,” Neely said. “I did not have anyone in my family to me step out to become what I wanted to be. But God placed people in my life who I was able to learn from. They guided me to places I never imagined I could go. Mr. Jones was one of several mentors in my life.” 

Neely entered Claflin as a junior, but since he was new to the campus, he lived in Asbury Hall, with the freshmen. He also participated in some of the rituals usually reserved for freshmen, which included wearing a beanie.

“Some of my friends who knew I was a junior would tease me about wearing the beanie so I would put it in my pocket when I was around them. I was new to the campus, so I did not mind going to the orientations where they really made you learn about Claflin’s history, including the alma mater.”

Knowing the words and being able to sing the alma mater was very important at that time. According to Neely, it was a prerequisite for free admission to the weekend dances that were held on the campus.

“There was not much to do so you looked forward to going to the dances,” Neely said. “If you did not know the words to the alma mater, you had to pay to enter or go back to your room where the only thing to do was study. I still know the words. 

I could sing it today.” 

Neely was not the only member of the family to attend Claflin. His brother Oscar and cousin Kevin graduated a decade later in 1981. His nephew Braylon is a currently a junior at Claflin.

After earning his degree in art education, Neely married his college sweetheart, Christine Alford and took a job as a substitute art teacher. When he realized that he did not want to teach, Neely accepted a position as a graphic designer with the Appalachian Council of Governments. Neely designed presentations for city and regional planners. The Council assisted cities and towns along the Appalachian Trail between West Virginia and Georgia with assistance from special development grants. Working for the agency, Neely became interested in becoming a city planner and enrolled in Clemson University.  

“While a student at Clemson, I had an internship with the city planning office in Easley, S.C. I figured if I could handle the work, I could earn a degree at Clemson.” Neely said. “I attended Clemson for two semesters and a summer before being called into the ministry.”

Neely thought he knew the appropriate steps to begin his ministry. After all, he had a bachelor’s degree in education. But one of the deacons at his home church informed him that he needed to learn about pastoring and leading a congregation. “He drove me to the American Baptist Extension Unit in Greenville. To make sure I enrolled in the school, he enrolled with me,” Neely said.  

After receiving a certificate and diploma at American Baptist, Neely continued his education and earned a Master of Divinity degree at Erskine Theological Seminary, and later, his doctorate at McCormick Theological Seminary based in Chicago. He took spent the final two years in Chicago enduring the cold temperatures while living in the city’s tough Southside.

“Living in Chicago was not easy, but I was determined to finish,” Neely said. “I was looking forward to graduation which was held in the historic Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.” 

Rockefeller Chapel is described as the ceremonial and spiritual center of the University of Chicago and a major civic presenter of performing arts. The institution’s website claims the chapel was modeled after the medieval collegiate chapels of Europe and built in 1928.

Neely returned home to Mauldin, S.C. ready to begin a new chapter in his life with a Doctor of Ministry Degree. He first served as pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Laurens, S.C. from 1980-85. Among his achievements at Mt. Zion were providing the foundation for building the June Kennedy Fellowship Hall; establishing a church council; revitalizing the prison and nursing home ministries; and publishing the first church newspaper, “The Zionette.”

But it was at Welfare Baptist Church, where Neely’s visionary leadership in his ministry truly emerged. In addition to sharing his passion for the gospel and empowering youth and other members of the church and the community, Neely renovated existing facilities and upgraded the pews to increase the seating capacity to 600 in the church’s sanctuary. He also spearheaded a $4 million fundraising drive that added a new gymnasium, fellowship hall, child development center, and expanded the church’s footprint from 16 acres to 136 acres. The congregation grew to nearly 1,000 members and the church had a $1 million budget.

Neely held numerous leadership positions in the Baptist church including Dean of the Baptist State Congress, and Dean of the Progressive National Baptist Convention based in Washington, D.C. He was also the first president of the Anderson County Ministerial Organization (ACMO), and for over 15 years, the Anderson County Independent News recognized him as one of the top 10 religious leaders within the county. 

“Even in my younger days, I participated in protests,” Neely said. “We protested at Friendship after the Orangeburg Massacre and I was part of a protest at Claflin during Dr. (Hubert V.) Manning’s tenure as university president.  

Dr. Manning listened to our concerns and we became good friends several years after I graduated. On many occasions, Dr. Manning assisted my leadership as president of the Greenville Alumni Chapter.”  

In addition to helping residents of his community, Neely’s outreach has extended beyond the borders of the United States to distant shores. He has led missions and relief efforts in Haiti, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Egypt and other countries.  In Haiti, his group aided local leaders to educated orphans, church leaders, and provided food to starving populations.

When asked what resonated with him from his experiences at Claflin, Neely was quick to respond; “You had to study and do the work. It was a family atmosphere, but the professors were committed to preparing us to achieve our goals after we graduated. Claflin was a small campus but it was bigger than what I was accustomed to. I studied under Dr. Arthur Rose (former chair and an associate professor of art) and he instilled in me so much more than what we learned in class. He taught me about life. We had deans and professors who taught us how to take responsibility and be men.”

Neely can look back at a lifetime of inspirational accomplishments. He achieved success in academics and in multiple professions before his circuitous pilgrimage returned him to Welfare Baptist Church.  

“God worked it all out for me,” said Neely who pastored at Welfare Baptist for 30 years before his retirement in 2015. Welfare Baptist invested in me and that is one reason why I never left. The church financially assisted me in earning my degrees and supported me throughout my ministry.”

Neely and Christine will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage in August 2021. They have four children and six grandsons. All four graduated from college – Bernard from Tuskegee University; Kazon from Johnson and Whales University; Kristin from Louisiana State University and George Washington Law School; and Brittany from Winthrop University.

“Life has been challenging, but God gave me the vision and allowed me to move forward. I have a wonderful wife who saw things in me I did not see in myself. When I retired from Welfare Baptist, I said ‘Thank you, Lord,’ because I had a good ride.” 

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