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Evangel scores $10M gift for construction campaign

Hobby Lobby owner has history of aiding Christian universities

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The Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., made a historic $10 million gift to Evangel University this month, the largest in the university’s 67-year history.

The donation will pay for a set of initiatives previously announced by Evangel President Mike Rakes, and it is the lead gift for a $22 million campus construction campaign, according to a news release from the university.

The Green family previously donated $5 million to fund a 2013 merger of Evangel University, Central Bible College and Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. At the time, Juleen Turnage, communications director for Assemblies of God USA, told Springfield Business Journal the Green family is committed to Christian higher education.

“They are very interested that the Assemblies of God develop a world-class university,” she said.

Upgrades in the works
The construction campaign includes four components, and it begins as Rakes completes his first year at the helm of the university.

These development projects are planned:

  • Renovation of a residence hall.
  • New arena for basketball and volleyball, as well as concerts and chapel services.
  • New field house to contain the football program, coaches’ offices, athletic training facilities and a weight room.
  • Construction of a lighted intramural field with artificial turf.

Construction timelines have not yet been announced.

Rakes previously told SBJ a priority of his administration is to elevate the Evangel student experience. His initial plan called for a $1 million investment to build outdoor basketball courts and remodel the student union, and these have been completed. He also planned to upgrade theater lighting, funded by a private donor at a cost of $50,000, and to establish a scholarship program for 100 marching band members.

Additionally, a new monument entry sign, built this year, marks the northern entrance to the campus.

The release called the construction projects the top strategic priorities for Rakes as he both enhances student experiences and advances the brand of Evangel.

Evangel had a total enrollment of 2,129 in the 2021-22 academic year, including its seminary and college of online learning.

The Green family
In a statement, Rakes credited the Green family for kicking off the financial campaign.

“We thank the Greens for their landmark contribution,” Rakes said. “This gift fuels growing momentum as we expand the university’s footprint to raise up Spirit-driven students full of compassion with the skills to innovate in every vocation. This investment is the spark needed to continue transforming the student experience and move the university into the future.”

Rakes and other Evangel officials declined SBJ’s request for follow-up interviews, but Michael Kolstad, Evangel’s executive vice president, provided a statement via email: “This gift will allow us, under Dr. Rakes’ leadership, to continue to elevate the student experience and enhance our campus as we advance the mission of Evangel University, to educate and equip students to impact both the church and society worldwide.”

The Green family owns both Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts store established in 1972, and Mardel Christian & Educational Supply Inc., a book and gift store with a Christian focus established in 1981. Both enterprises were founded in Oklahoma City.

David Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, has a net worth of $6.2 billion, putting him at No. 382 on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires.

A decade ago, Forbes reported Green donates half of Hobby Lobby’s pretax earnings to evangelical Christian ministries. BeliefNet.com has named Green the largest individual donor to evangelical Christian causes in the United States.

In addition to his two donations to Evangel, Green has supported Alabama-based Highlands College with a $20 million gift, helped save Oral Roberts University from closure with a $70 million pledge after President Richard Roberts’ resignation, and donated a 72-acre university campus, vacated by bankrupt St. Gregory’s University, to Oklahoma Baptist University. The list goes on.

The Green family and Hobby Lobby have also been in the news for controversies. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had seized a smuggled Sumerian artifact, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, from Hobby Lobby. Previously, in 2017, the DOJ announced Hobby Lobby forfeited $1.6 million worth of looted artifacts, including Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, and was fined $3 million.

The company was in the news in December for plans to increase its minimum wage to $18.50 in 2022, but it was also critiqued for asking employees to use personal paid-time off and vacation benefits in the early stages of store closures due to COVID-19, though the company would temporarily pay 75% of average wages, according to a company statement.

In 2014, the company appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case. Justices sided with the store by a 5-4 decision, allowing privately held companies to block employees’ access to insurance coverage of birth control for religious reasons.

The Green family did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Aside from Kolstad’s emailed reply, no one at the university was available to be interviewed for this story.

Erin Hedlun, Evangel’s director of marketing and communications, told SBJ Rakes and the board were too busy, citing CBC’s centennial celebration event, but said Rakes would be available for an interview in August.

Messages to two Evangel board members were not returned by press time.

Christina Stratman, a 2017 Evangel alumna and nonprofit program coordinator in Kansas City, expressed her enthusiasm for the donation and the construction campaign.

“The renovation of the dorms has been necessary for years,” she said. “Even when I lived there from 2013-17, we had issues constantly. The maintenance crews did what they could, but some problems, such as mold or tiling breaking off, were things they simply could not keep up with.”

Stratman noted, though, that she is less enthusiastic about expenditures on sports, aside from the intramural field, as she said intramurals are a big part of Evangel’s campus life.

“They’ve been spending so much money on sports – and they’re not the highest ranking,” she said. “I think the arts at Evangel deserve more funding.”

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