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Sharon Watkins ’84 M.Div. delivers sermon at National Prayer Service

Sharon WatkinsSharon E. Watkins ’84 M.Div., general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ, delivered the sermon at the National Prayer Service on Jan. 21, held at National Cathedral in Washington, DC at the conclusion of the inaugural activities for the nation’s new president, Barack Obama. [Read the complete sermon text here and view a video of the service.]

In her sermon, Watkins painted a picture of an America where there are “crises banging on the door... trying to draw us off our ethical center.”  But, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Isaiah, the words of “America the Beautiful” and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the imagery of the Statue of Liberty, Watkins encouraged Obama to “stay centered on the values that have guided us in the past, values that have empowered to move us through the perils of the present, of earlier times, and can guide us now into a future of renewed promise.”

Although the instinct in financial hard times is “to hunker down, to turn inward, to hoard what little we can get out hands on, to be fearful of others,” Watkins counseled, “In times such as these, we need you, the people, the leaders of this nation, all of you, we need you to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to work for the common good, for the public happiness, the well-being of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail.”

In some ways, the sermon echoed themes sounded by Obama himself in an inauguration speech the day before in which he vowed to stay true to America’s founding principles, despite challenges that might tempt a more expedient course.  The president was seated in the front pew of the cathedral, flanked by his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joseph Biden.

Watkins, the first woman ever to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service, concluded, “Even in these hard times, rich or poor, let us reach out to our neighbor, including our global neighbor, in generous hospitality, building together communities of possibility and of hope. Even in these difficult times, let us... listen to the better angels of all our nature.”

Other participants in the service also have connections to Yale Divinity School, including:

  • John Chane ’72 M.Div., Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Washington, who gave the invocation.
  • Carol Wade ’03 M.Div., ’04 S.T.M., canon precentor at Washington National Cathedral, who was one of eight persons leading responsive prayers.
  • Otis Moss Jr., pastor emeritus of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH, who delivered the opening prayer.  Moss gave the Beecher Lectures at YDS in 2004 and is the father of Otis Moss III '95 M.Div, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which Obama attended for a number of years.
  • Cynthia Hale, founder and senior pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, GA, who read from the Book of Isaiah.  She was the Luccock Visitor to YDS in 2005.

"I am truly honored to speak at this historic occasion," said Watkins when her selection by Obama was announced earlier in January, according to a report from the Presidential Inauguration Committee. "My prayer when I preach is always that God will use me to bring a Gospel message that is uplifting and appropriately challenging to those who hear it. I hope that my message will call us to believe in something bigger than ourselves and remind us to reach out to all of our neighbors to build communities of possibility."

Students watch inauguration

Watkins, who gave the opening sermon at YDS during Convocation and Reunions 2005, has served as general minister and president of the 700,000-member denomination since 2005, the first woman to hold the position.  In that capacity, she serves as general pastor of the denomination and chief executive officer, responsible for overseeing the work of the church's various structures. She is serving a six-year term that extends through 2011.

A Jan. 11 story about Watkins’s selection in the New York Times said she caught Obama’s attention at a meeting he held during the campaign last summer to introduce himself to a politically and theologically diverse group of ministers. At that closed-door meeting the Times reported, some of the conservative ministers bluntly questioned Obama on certain issues, and Watkins was asked to give the closing prayer.

The Times quoted the Rev. Joshua DuBois, director of religious affairs for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, who was at the meeting, as saying, “Sharon was able to conclude in a way that tied everyone together... It left folks on a buoyant note, with a degree of hope and optimism that we could find some common ground.”

Watkins has an extensive background of service both in this country and abroad. She is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches based in Geneva, and serves on the WCC's Permanent Committee for Consensus and Collaboration. In 2006, she was a representative at the World Council's General Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil. She is the former pastor of Disciples Christian Church in Bartlesville, OK, where she served for eight years. Watkins holds a doctor of ministry degree from Phillips Theological Seminary and a bachelor's degree in French and economics from Butler University, in addition to her master of divinity degree from YDS.  She is married to the Rev. Richard H. Lowery, interim dean and vice president for academic affairs at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, KY. They have two children, Bethany and Christopher.

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