Battling cancer, Yolanda Smith goes on long-term disability leave

Faced with a continuing battle against breast cancer, Associate Professor of Christian Education Yolanda Smith has stepped down from teaching at Yale Divinity School to go on long-term disability leave.

SmithDespite the distress of ongoing chemotherapy treatments, however, Smith remains determined to continue her academic research and writing, including the project undertaken several years ago with Moses Moore ’77 M.Div., “Been in the Storm So Long”: Yale Divinity School and the Black Ministry, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Black Theological Education.

Smith, one of five Black members of the regular YDS faculty, had been on a reduced teaching load in the fall semester to allow her to devote energy to battle the disease, but the need for more chemotherapy prompted her decision to go on long-term disability.

“It is with great sadness that I have decided to take a long-term disability leave,” Smith said. “Although I had hoped to return to teaching in the spring of 2011, it became clear that I would not be able to do so due to my battle with breast cancer and ongoing chemotherapy treatments. By taking a long-term disability leave, I will now be able to focus more energy on my health and healing.” 

Dean Harold Attridge notified the Divinity School community of Smith’s decision on Jan. 7.  “We hope and pray that her treatment will be successful,” said the dean, “and that she will return to health soon, although the continuing treatment would make it difficult for her to conduct her classes this semester . . . Please keep Yolanda in your thoughts and prayers as she continues her battle with cancer.”

Emilie Townes, associate dean of academic affairs, said, “Yolanda Smith is one of most creative minds in religious education we have today.  Her decision to go on permanent disability is a wise one so that she can devote her energies to her health and healing, and I am one of many who agreed with her decision to do so.

“As I look at our curriculum, it is clear we will miss her presence and her insights into not only the area of Christian education and its importance for helping build healthy, vital churches to respond to the needs of today; but also for the ways in which she helps us think about teaching and learning as faculty colleagues here at YDS”

Over the years, Smith has taught a variety of course in the areas of Christian education, including, for example, Introduction to Christian Religious Education, Spirituality and Religious Education, Christian Education in the African American Experience, Preaching to the Whole Congregation through Multiple Ways of Knowing (co-taught with Tom Troeger), and Women in Religious Education.  She also led a travel seminar to Ghana in 2004 with Bonita Grubbs '84 M.A.R., '85 M.P.H.

To fill the immediate void during the current academic term, lecturers Shannon Clarkson and Kate Ott are teaching, respectively, two other courses Smith has taught: Teaching Bible in the Congregation and Youth Culture and Christian Education.

Smith plans to focus on three book projects during her convalescence:

  • Women’s Spirituality and Education in the Black Church, under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, explores the role of spirituality as it informs the educational practices that have inspired black women’s empowerment, social activism, and personal/communal transformation.
  • Great Prayers of the New Testament: Contemplative Practices through Christian Education is under contract with Westminster John Knox Press. Still in the early stages, the book will explore New Testament prayers through the lens of Christian education and consider the wisdom embodied in these prayers for contemporary Christian living.
  • “Been in the Storm So Long”: Yale Divinity School and the Black Ministry—One Hundred and Fifty Years of Black Theological Education, attempts to make a modest but important contribution to the history of theological education of blacks at some of the most prominent and important centers of theological education.  It chronicles the history of the black presence at Yale Divinity School from the 1830s to the mid-1980s.  The study aims to elucidate the impact that theological education at YDS had on the lives and careers of generations of church and community leaders and to ascertain effective new paradigms for black theological education. Moses Moore ’77 M.Div., Smith’s collaborator on the project, is associate professor of American and African American religious history at Arizona State University.


In addition to the books, Smith has some smaller projects in the works, including articles on empowerment of African American female adolescents; Christian educator Anne Streaty Wimberly of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta; and Mary A. Goodman, a black 19th century New Haven resident who left her entire savings to Yale to fund scholarships for black ministerial students.

“Amid medical appointments, treatments, and taking care of my new puppy (Precious Princess), I do hope to participate in and support YDS activities when I can,” Smith reported.  She also plans to remain active in her church and organizations such as the American Academy of Religion, the Religious Education Association, the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and the Association of Practical Theology.

“I want to thank Dean Attridge, the YDS faculty, staff, students, and alumni for your ongoing prayers and support throughout my battle with breast cancer,” said Smith.  “Since my initial diagnosis in 2005, I have been surrounded by the care and concern of the YDS community and for this I am most grateful. Word’s cannot express my sincere gratitude for all of the cards, calls, letters, emails, flowers, meals, visits, prayers, and words of encouragement I have received over the years from my colleagues, students, and friends.

“It has truly been an honor to serve on the YDS faculty for nearly eleven years. And despite my health challenges, I hope to continue a positive and productive relationship with the YDS community.”

Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, has served as a member of the YDS Women’s Initiative on Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa and as a board member of the AIDS Interfaith Network and the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

She welcomes correspondence from the broader YDS community at her email addresses -- and -- or at home at 232 Opening Hill Road, Branford, CT 06405.

Townes called Smith “a cherished colleague and mentor” and “as fine a faithful witness to God's glory as there can be found in today's world.”

Posted: 02/07/2011