By Lindsay Peyton
Throughout Dr. Herbert Watkins’ life, the United Methodist Church has been a constant presence – one that guided him through his education and helped him arrive where he is today. “I’m an example of everything the Methodist Church does right,” he said. “I grew up in the church. It wasn’t just where you went on Sundays. It was an active part of my life.”
Originally from New York, Dr. Watkins now lives in Houston’s Rice Military neighborhood, is a member of FUMC Houston and practices medicine with Houston Metro Urology.
Watkins explained that his maternal great-grandfather was a Methodist minister in Jamaica. His maternal grandmother was “one of the holiest women I ever knew,” he said.
Watkins’ parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. His father was a Catholic and mother, a third generation Methodist. “I grew up in a house where religion was always front and center,” he recalled..
As a child in Queens, Watkins fully engaged in church life, including being a Bible champion in Sunday school and a member of the United Methodist Youth Fellowship. When the time to leave for college neared, his minister encouraged him to apply for scholarships available through the UMC.
Watkins was indeed awarded one and attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, graduating cum laude. He turned to UMC again when preparing to head to medical school at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. “I was blessed again with more scholarships,” he said.
Watkins was honored to become a United Methodist World Communion Scholar. The stipends (formerly called Crusade Scholarships) are funded by offerings given by local churches on World Communion Sunday, the first Sunday in October.
The scholarships, established in 1944, are intended to promote world peace and understanding. Since then, the program has supported approximately 4,200 students worldwide. Graduates have included doctors, ambassadors, rural developers, teachers, psychologists, theologians and heads of churches.
There are a number of scholarships offered each year through the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which provides about $5.5 million annually in financial aid to United Methodist students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees.
The programs are available for future leaders in the church and beyond. “When you find a calling, they see you through it,” Watkins said. “In my case, it was for medicine.”
He explained that he initially wanted to pursue a career in research science, but the loss of a family member at a young age to an illness inspired him to change course. “I knew I wanted to go into medicine,” he said.
Watkins’ internship and surgery residency were completed at Baylor College of Medicine’s department of surgery. He also had completed a urology residency at the university. “Then I stayed in Houston, because I loved it,” he said.
Watkins has remained in the city except for the years he moved to Mt. Pleasant, Texas in 2011. While there, he worshiped in the area with Rev. Richard Laster, whom he met while both were living in Houston. At the time, Watkins was a member of Windsor Village UMC, and Rev. Laster a pastor at St. Philips UMC in Houston.
Rev. Laster, now retired, has invited Watkins to speak about his scholarships at several churches. “He is willing to tell his story across the Texas Annual Conference,” Laster said. “He makes a great and even moving presentation.”
Watkins addressed the importance of contributing to the education of the next generation. “These funds make a huge difference,” Watkins said. “I wanted to put a figure behind that. I’m proof that donating to this scholarship fund makes sense. It really does some good.”
He explained that the scholarships he received were about much more than the financial support. “To know that I had the church’s backing, it made the whole thing bigger for me,” he said. “They want you to succeed however you define success. They just want you to fulfill the goals you set for yourself.”
Watkins is available to speak to other churches for Communion Sundays to promote the scholarship funds. “I feel like it’s the least I could do to repay the debt,” he said.
Rev. Laster highly recommends Watkins as a speaker, who shines a light on the importance of the scholarships and giving on Special Sundays throughout the year.
Watkins wants students to know “if you want a college degree and you have the skills, the church can help you.”
“College is getting increasingly more expensive,” he said. “It’s important that the church plays a role in facilitating education.”
Watkins has practiced medicine in the field of urology now for 27 years. “I still love what I do,” he said. “I don’t have any problems getting up to go to work in the morning. To have that joy lets me know I made the right choice.”
There are a number of times patients ask if he is a Christian. “I say, ‘Absolutely. The church actually put me through school.’”
“You can see the relief on their faces and the immediate comfort,” Watkins said. He has prayed with patients before surgery – and most importantly, cares for them in a way inspired by Christ. “The Church made an investment in me,” Watkins said. “The scholarships are important. Knowing that the money came from the church will build your faith, which follows you the remainder of your career and life. Investing in education should continue to be an important purpose of the church.”