Written by Kate Gronewald
Photographed by Tom Barnard
It was October 1989 and one of the best games of his life. Standing in his San Jose State uniform on the 50-yard-line in the Orange Bowl, mid-game against the University of Miami, Kelly Liebengood questioned whether football delivered all that it promised for his life. Despite the scoreboard and screaming fans, he was struck with a thought that was bigger than the play at hand, more pivotal than his life as an athlete: “Really? This is what life is all about? Why am I really here?” The Miami Hurricanes went on to win the national championship that year. Liebengood went on to seek and find the answer.
Two years later, he became a Christian. Suddenly, it all made sense.
“My whole world just came together,” Liebengood said. “I found so much meaning and purpose when I was learning about, talking about, worshipping, Jesus.”
After graduation, Liebengood traveled to Chile, where he worked in the college ministry at the University of Concepción and met his wife, Marietta. They have since served as campus ministers at the University of Kansas and as missionaries with United World Mission in Costa Rica and Scotland, where Liebengood earned his Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews.
“I didn’t know about Jesus until I was 21, so I wanted to make sure college students in Chile, or wherever, could hear about the Gospel,” Liebengood said. “In fact, my whole Christian life I’ve been involved with college students. It’s the common thread that brings the whole thing together. I think it’s a really special age.”
Liebengood’s area of biblical expertise centers upon the General Epistles (1-2 Peter, James, Jude, 1-3 John), particularly the book of 1 Peter. He currently serves on the international steering committee for the General Epistles section of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), through which he helps to shape questions scholars are asking about these books. His specific areas of research interest include the way in which the Old Testament is used by the New Testament authors, the theology of Christian suffering and the interface between Christian theology, work, economics and vocation.
“Researching what the General Epistles have to say about work stimulated me to think more about how we use our resources and how we can leverage those resources for serving people in other places who don’t have them,” Liebengood said.
In 2009, he co-edited a book titled Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception. It is an analysis of what the New Testament teaches Christians to do with their possessions and resources, as well as how the early church understood and lived out these teachings.
Liebengood connects his classroom teaching with this concept, particularly in his Honors course covering the topics of poverty, wealth and Christian discipleship. Yet, he was still searching – this time, for more ways to make an impact through his interests.
“I’d been praying about how I could be more involved in connecting the resources I have or I’m a part of with places where they don’t have these resources or where there are injustices,” Liebengood said.
Just an opportunity presented itself this year, as Liebengood was asked to serve as the director of LeTourneau University’s new Center for Global Service Learning beginning in January 2012.
“That’s one of the major goals of the center, to connect resources that we have at LeTourneau – the expertise, the research we’re doing to meet needs and solve problems all over the world – in particular with places that don’t have these resources,” Liebengood said.
His work will expound on the history of LeTourneau’s hands-on learning to meet needs around the world.
“What we’re trying to do is match professors and their research interests with students who can help them with their research and then connect them with people on the ground in places all over the world who have needs that can be met through this research,” Liebengood said.
Liebengood, a global traveler who has spent time in Egypt and Rome, in addition to his work in South America and Scotland, shares his passion for travel and culture with his students. As part of his Physical Settings of the Bible course, he led students to Greece last year and will take a group to Israel in December to help enrich their faith with a study of historical Christian culture in a modern, global context.
“It motivates me to help shape students’ overall vision of who God is and what their place in God’s world is – to help broaden their understanding of how whatever their career choice is will fit in with God’s mission in this world,” Liebengood said. “My world was turned upside down when I became a Christian at a university. It made me rethink everything about what I think life is, about what I’m here on this earth for. And because of that, I’m hoping that in some way God uses me to do the same kind of thing in other peoples’ lives.”