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Convocation and Reunions 2007: Worship, dining, lectures... and a little homework

ChapelThis year's Convocation and Reunions was the best-attended in recent memory, with a total of 406 registered participants. They worshipped together, dined together, and heard a number of stimulating lectures. But many of the alumni came away with something more than memories and inspiration -- homework.

Two special projects were introduced during the Oct. 8-11 celebration, both aimed at collecting and disseminating the considerable experience alumni have gathered over the years. The idea is to make that experience accessible to others, such as the current generation of YDS students, so that they can be guided by the triumphs and failures of those who came before.

The "Legacy Project" of the classes of 1961, 1962, and 1963, who met as a cluster during Convocation and Reunions, will gather the stories of members of those classes and disseminate them through publications, periodic convocations with current students and faculty, or other processes that bring together alumni and students. Meanwhile, the new Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale sponsored two sessions during the week that drew almost 150 alumni, soliciting input about their experience in the social justice arena.

At the 60s cluster class dinner, Bruce Rigdon '62 B.D., '68 Ph.D., made a plea for classmates to participate in the "Legacy Project." Said Rigdon, "My friends, I think we must have learned something after these 45 years of ministry. I really mean that. I think together we have stories to tell, wonderful stories and tragic stories, and in those stories there are some terribly valuable lessons."

In "Legacy Project" materials distributed at the dinner, organizers wrote, "Our long March of Care is filled with episodes of extraordinary engagement in the tasks of repentance on behalf of the innocent suffering, reaching across the world in arenas which include peacemaking, heath, education, gender equality, and political, economic, and ecological justice." The vision of the church as a "world society," they said, "will be greatly assisted by our experiences, wisdom, and tools of our struggles and will enable new graduates more boldly to shoulder the pioneering roles required in this century."

Harlon Dalton, professor (adjunct) of law and religion at Yale Divinity School and director of the Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale, invited alumni to become part of a sustained conversation with the Initiative, sharing the expertise they have gained over the years on issues of social justice. He distributed a questionnaire inviting alumni to join a social justice network and inquiring about their specific interests, for example, economic justice, health care, immigration, militarism and peacemaking.

"Many of you have spent your careers, or are working now, on important issues of social justice," said Emilie Townes, an Initiative organizer and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology. "We don't want to go too far without your input."

Shannon Craigo-Snell, assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and another Initiative leader, said the Initiative might help guide many young people who "have not ever been invited to bring their intellectual resources to bear on religion" and "have this incredibly naïve idea that religion doesn't have much to do with the world around us."

Lux et Veritas AwardPlenty of food for thought was forthcoming from a panel of alumni who have been deeply involved in social justice issues during their careers.

Peter Laarman '93 M.Div., executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a group in Southern California, commented, "Our Slogan is 'See, Pray, Act.' We want people to understand as much as possible that the unfettered rule of wealth and the habit of deference to the rule of wealth in the culture is a fundamental challenge to Christian people. It absolutely violates the essence of Christian beliefs in the common table, shared abundance, and a place under the sun for every child of God."

"What energizes me is the work that I do with those individuals who are poor," said Bonita Grubbs '84 M.Div., executive director of Christian Community Action in New Haven. "And I try to do that work not just on behalf of those who are in need; but, I try to do it along with them because there is a process that they have to go through to discover their own voice, to see the opportunities that they have in themselves, to able to articulate a point and to be listened to...so they can have dignity."

And Shelley Copeland '00 M.Div., executive director of the Capitol Region Conference of Churches in Hartford, observed, "The one thing we're really focusing on in this season is the issue of poverty... And the reality is that the reason why there is poverty is because of greed at the other side. And it's not just some people who are greedy, all of us are greedy; so we need to stare in the face that ugly thing that we all need to confront in ourselves... All of us share a part in why people are poor."

One obvious indicator of the large attendance at this year's Convocation and Reunions – there were 166 more registrants this year than in 2006 – was that Marquand Chapel was filled to overflowing for the first of the three-part Lyman Beecher Lectures. The overflow audience spilled into Niebuhr Lecture Hall, where the lecture was projected live on a big screen.

The 2007 Beecher lecturer (click here to view videos) was the very popular Peter Hawkins, who taught at YDS and the Institute of Sacred Music from 1976-2000 and is returning as a professor in 2008. Hawkins, currently at Boston University, lectured on the topic The Preacher's Divine Comedy, in which he explored the implications of Dante's masterpiece for the preacher, whose task in Dante's words is to "remove those living in a state of misery to a state of joy."

Linda Thomas, a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, delivered the Nathaniel Taylor Lectures (click here to view videos) on the subject Theology and Anthropology from a Womanist Perspective, addressing a new theme in each of her three Nathaniel Taylor Lectures, but all related to the life of faith in Africa: the ways in which members of African initiated churches create beauty despite the ugly reality of perpetual poverty; the compassionate response of black South African women to persons with HIV-AIDS; and mission as a way to listen to, rather than discount, the voices of African women.

Nathan D. Mitchell of the University of Notre Dame's Center for Liturgy gave the Institute of Sacred Music's Aidan J Kavanagh Lecture on From Text to Tablature: Reimagining Liturgical Language Today. And Jane Williams, in Berkeley Divinity School's Louis Wetherbee Pitt Lecture (click here to view videos), spoke on Sin and Salvation.

The Class of '52, a powerhouse of loyalty and generosity to YDS, marked its 55 th reunion, traditionally the last to be officially organized by the school.

The class kicked off its celebration a day before Convocation and Reunions officially began with a banquet at which full honors were accorded to classmate Gaylord B. Noyce, who served for 34 years on the faculty of YDS, retiring as a professor of pastoral theology. With great fanfare and good spirit, the class awarded Noyce the degree of "Doctor of Pastoral Theology and Ministry."

At the gathering, class secretary Dick Stazesky marveled at Noyce's unsung accomplishments. "One reason that many of us don't know of all that Gay accomplished," Stazesky said, "is that he is too self-effacing to talk about it, despite the fact that he has contributed to the Class Letter in 51 of the 54 years."

Noyce, who has Parkinson's Disease, served eight years in the parish ministry and held several positions at YDS, in addition to teaching pastoral theology: coordinator of field education, dean of students, and associate director of Berkeley Center.

Throughout Convocation week, Class of '52 members were easily identifiable with their Yale blue fleece vests designed specially for the class. In a nod to the class's appreciation of Dean Harold Attridge's five-year tenure at YDS, the class voted to make the dean an honorary member and bestowed upon him one of their treasured vests.

Indeed, amid all of the activities that took place throughout the week, there was more than a little good humor.

IRPY workshopWhen Will D. Campbell '52 B.D. rose to the microphone at the Alumni Awards Banquet to receive the William Sloane Coffin '56 Award for Peace and Justice, he said, "I had the privilege this morning to look around the room at the Class of '52 reunion, and I suddenly realized where my friend Ernest Gaines got the title of one of his fine novels, A Gathering of Old Men. If you haven't read the novel, y'all should."

One story recounted at a Class of '57 50 th anniversary gathering was about legendary YDS professor Robert Calhoun. In his neighborhood, he was known as "Bob the egg man" because he had chickens and would distribute them to neighbors. One day one of his customers heard about a lecture being given at YDS by a famous theologian by the name of H. Richard Niebuhr and suggested Calhoun might enjoy it. "Bob the egg man" showed up, asked a few erudite questions and completely amazed his neighbors.

Alumni from around the world returned to New Haven for this year's celebration, and among those who traveled furthest was Justice Ofei Akrofi '76 M.Div., Anglican Bishop of Accra (Ghana) and Archbishop of the Church of the Province of West Africa.

He said, "I was in the US for seven years and there was a temptation to settle here in USA, to be ordained and minister here because of the comfort and good facilities. But I went back home because I wanted to serve my people. It was my prayer then that I would be able to come to the United States frequently. Today I am tired of traveling to the US for meetings and conferences. God is faithful."

On the second day of Convocation and Reunions, an alumni luncheon was held under a tent on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle in honor of Margaret Farley, Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, who retired over the summer after more than three decades of teaching at YDS.

Later that day, five YDS graduates—including two from the Class of '57 50 th anniversary class—were honored with awards at the Alumni Awards Banquet:

  • The William Sloane Coffin '56 Award for Peace and Justice, Will D. Campbell '52 B.D., Mount Juliet, TN. Civil rights activist and writer, author of the highly acclaimed memoir Brother to a Dragonfly.
  • The Alumni Award Lux et Veritas, Frederick H. Talbot '57 M.Div., Brentwood, TN. The 90 th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, long and distinguished record of service as an AME bishop but also as a pastor and teacher, in the diplomatic service of Guyana, and in ecumenical relations.
  • The Alumni Award for Distinction in Congregational Ministry (two awards), Rita Ferrone '83 M.Div., Mount Vernon, NY. Writer, speaker, consultant and workshop facilitator, who has played a vital role in liturgical reform in the Roman Catholic Church and the challenges of training clergy, parish staff and thousands of non-professional parish ministers. Otis Young '57 B.D., Lincoln, NE. United Church of Christ parish minister in Chicago, Missouri, and Nebraska, active in equal rights for African Americans, women, gays and lesbians.
  • The Alumni Award for Distinction in Theological Education, Joseph C. Hough, Jr. '59 B.D., '65 Ph.D., New York, NY. President of New York's Union Theological Seminary, where he led a $39.6 million campaign in 2004 and developed a strategic plan that has made the seminary fiscally viable while invigorating academic programs.

Meanwhile, Berkeley Divinity School awarded honorary degrees, to three women: Amy Lee Domini, founder and CEO of Domini Social Investments; Martha J. Horne, retired president and dean of Virginia Theological Seminary; and Jane Williams, author and lecturer.

Convocation preachers included Don E. Saliers '62 B.D., '67 Ph.D.; Julia Lambert Fogg '96 M.Div.; Harold T. Lewis '71 Berkeley Divinity School; and Geoffrey M. St. John Hoare '82 S.T.M.

At the annual meeting of the YDS alumni, three new members were elected to the Alumnal Board: Joan Cooper Burnett '04 M.Div., Middletown, CT; Ann Hallisey '75 M.Div., Davis, CA; and Clinton Miller '94 M.Div., Brooklyn, NY.

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