Rick Axtell credits a trip he made to Bangladesh when he was a student at Mississippi College with forever changing the course of his life. Axtell spent the summer of 1976 serving as a Baptist Student Union missionary in Bangladesh during a time of famine.
“I looked into the eyes of fellow human beings who were starving to death,” Axtell recalls. “The experience was life-changing and determined the course of my life and teaching more than anything else.”
Haunted by the suffering he saw, Axtell dedicated his life to researching issues of poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and to teaching others about these issues not just in the classroom, but also through life-changing, first-hand experiences.
Axtell earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Deeply concerned about the issues of hunger and homelessness, Axtell served as director of Louisville United Against Hunger and as a case manager in homeless shelters. He has studied the effects of poverty, hunger, and violence in Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and India, as well as in the United States.
Today, Axtell is the chaplain and associate professor of religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. As a part of their coursework, students in Axtell’s Studies in Ethics: Poverty and Homelessness class spend a weekend living in a homeless shelter, eating and sleeping alongside homeless people from all walks of life, including the mentally ill, recovering drug addicts, single mothers with children, and the working poor.
“Nothing is more important for developing compassion than an experiential understanding of what others go through,” Axtell says. “Books are powerful and important, but putting a face on an issue engenders caring. Students come away feeling the pain of others with new sensitivity. The experience teaches them not only about the shelter system and the homeless, but also about themselves.”
Axtell also leads students on immersive trips to Nicaragua and Mexico, where the students live in poverty stricken villages, most without electricity or running water, and work in the coffee fields alongside the village residents.
“These experiences raise questions about what kind of people students want to be in a world of seemingly intractable problems. As my students have played with children of the municipal dump in Managua, harvested coffee in a mountain cooperative, interviewed survivors of a massacre in Mexico, or stayed overnight in Louisville homeless shelters, I’ve known that the resulting questions would fuel ongoing commitments to make a difference in the world.”
His students appreciate Axtell’s unique approach; he was listed in the 2012 book, The Best 300 Professors, which honored professors from across the nation whose students recognized them as inspiring educators.
“My vision as an educator, inside and outside the classroom, has been to ease students across the boundaries of their comfort zones, so that they become committed to finding compassionate solutions to their generation’s most pressing problems. No one can be quite the same after looking into the eyes of the unfamiliar ‘Other,’ the suffering ‘Other,’ and finding there a new connection, a new question, a new path, a new world. This is education.”