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Letty Russell dies at 77

New York, July 16, 2007 (Yale Divinity School News) – Letty Mandeville Russell, one of the world's foremost feminist theologians and longtime member of the Yale Divinity School faculty, died Thursday, July 12 at her home in Guilford, Conn. She was 77.

"Letty Russell served a whole generation of women who were ordained in the 1970s in a special way," said the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches for Research and Planning. "Mentor and friend, she set the bar high and enabled many women to acquire the skills and depth to take up their vocations and to sustain them."

"Letty is most celebrated as a theologian where her contributions were singular but we remember her as a true ecumenist," Lindner said. "She always sought unity grounded in understanding achieved through dialogue -sometimes uncomfortable but always generative of new insight and bright promise for a more faithful church."

A leader for many years in the ecumenical movement, Letty Russell remained active in ecumenical circles until her death, working for the World Council of Churches and the World YWCA.

She was one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church and served the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York City from 1952-68, including 10 years as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Ascension. She joined the faculty of Yale Divinity School in 1974 as an assistant professor of theology, rose to the rank of professor in 1985 and retired in 2001. In retirement, she continued to teach some courses at Yale Divinity School as a visiting professor.

In an introduction to a festschrift published in Russell's honor in 1999 under the title Liberating Eschatology, fellow Yale Divinity School theologians Margaret Farley and Serene Jones called Russell's influence on contemporary theology "monumental" and wrote of her "uncanny ability to articulate a vision of the church that is radical in its feminist-liberationist critique but that nonetheless remains anchored in the historic traditions and communities of the Christian church."

Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School until her retirement July 1 and a friend and colleague of Russell for three decades, said, "She leaves a legacy of wisdom, integrity, and indomitable hope. Voices will rise from women and men throughout the world to bear witness to her gifts to them, not the least of which is her gift of faithful friendship.

"There is perhaps no other feminist theologian who has been more dedicated to ecumenical, interfaith, and international theological dialogue. Hers has been the influence not of imposition but of partnership. Yet her work has challenged everyone, not only because of its substance but because of her own commitment to making the world both more just and more hospitable."

Indeed, in one of her last major public addresses, the annual Paul Tillich Lecture delivered at Harvard University in May 2006, Russell was as forceful as ever in denouncing injustices. She said, "Our struggle is to overcome the fear of difference and to break the bars that keep us apart. [Others] want what we want. They want to work, they want to change the social structure. They want hospitality with justice."

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the Krister Stendahl Professor at Harvard Divinity School, said, "She pioneered feminist theology not only in theology and ethics but also in biblical studies....Letty was not only a great liberation theologian but also a great church-woman. She knew how to utilize the resources of church and university for nurturing a feminist movement around the world....As a skilled organizer she worked tirelessly for  wo/men and feminist liberation theology."

At various times Russell was employed as a consultant to the U.S. Working Group on the participation of Women in the World Council of Churches and as religious consultant to the National Board of the YWCA. Her first position was as a public school teacher in Middletown, CT in 1951-52. Over the years she served on numerous units of the World Council of Churches, including the Faith and Order Commission; the National Council of Churches, including the Task Force on the Bible and Sexism; and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the successor to the United Presbyterian Church.

In 1999 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) bestowed Russell with its Women of Faith award, and Union Theological Seminary in New York named her a Unitas Distinguished Alumnae. She was recognized as a distinguished alumna with the Rabbi Martin Katzentein Award from Harvard Divinity School in 1998. Wellesley College named her the first recipient of its Emmavail Luce Severinghaus Award for Work in Religion in 1986.

In the East Harlem Protestant Parish, Russell focused her ministry on equipping her congregation of mostly black and Hispanic people to claim their voices as leaders in the parish and the community. Her experiences in Harlem led her to develop Bible studies that encouraged people of color to explore ways in which the Bible gives them voice and liberation.

Kathleen Todd of New York City, who worked for many years on the ecumenical front with the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches, met Russell when the two were freshmen at Wellesley College. Their lives continued to intersect in the East Harlem Protestant Parish, the Presbyterian Church, the World Council of Churches, and at Yale Divinity School.

"Letty's classmates will remember her as an extraordinary woman for her gifts, her strength of purpose, her deep commitment to human liberation and her capacity to change the lives of people who knew her as well as the direction of institutions with which she worked throughout the world," said Todd.

"My own family will never forget her prayers at chapel worship for our son Sam, his family and the YDS community when he disappeared over 20 years ago, and her administering the Eucharist at the YDS special service remembering Sam at his class reunion a year ago."

At Yale Divinity School, Russell's influence extended far beyond the confines of classrooms on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. She was the inspiration behind creation of the school's international travel seminar program—now known as "The Letty Russell Travel Seminar"— under which Yale Divinity School students have traveled to countries around the globe for direct encounters with the realities of religion on the world stage, frequently in impoverished countries.

Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said that, through the travel seminar, Russell’s “legacy of commitment to a universal vision of engaged theology will continue as a vital part of Yale Divinity School.”

"Letty Russell was a beloved member of the YDS community who inspired generations of students with her passion for the Gospel's message of liberating justice and her practice of warm hospitality,” observed Attridge.  “Through her prolific scholarship and her active engagement with major issues in the life of the global Christian community, she made dramatic contributions not only to feminist theology but also to the overall revitalization of the Church in our day.”

Kristen Leslie, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at YDS and representative of a younger generation of scholars, commented, "Letty's international scholarly work was matched by her significant teaching and mentoring of students and colleagues. As both her student and then her colleague, I recognize the world has been changed by Letty's willingness to speak truth to power."

Among other things, Leslie said, Russell will be remembered for the shalom meals she hosted at the end of each semester for students in her courses. Students would come to Russell's home on the shores of Long Island Sound, where they would play games, sing songs, tell stories, eat and drink—and offer praise to God.

M. Shawn Copeland, an African-American scholar and associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College, said, "Letty Russell has been the towering feminist theologian of her generation. She devoted her theological career to making it possible for women in various parts of the world to do theology, to dialogue and to collaborate with one another, and with all women and men of good will in mending creation. The seeds she has sown have flowered and will bear fruit for years to come.

Russell graduated with a B.A. in biblical history and philosophy in 1951 from Wellesley College, and she was among the first women to receive an S.T.B. from Harvard Divinity School, in theology and ethics, in 1958. She earned an S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary in New York in Christian education and theology in 1967 and two years later received a Th.D. in mission theology and ecumenics from Union.

A global advocate for women, Russell was a member of the Yale Divinity School Women's Initiative on Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa and was co-coordinator of the International Feminist Doctor of Ministry Program at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The author or editor of over 17 books, her book Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretations of the Church and her co-edited work, Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, characterized her commitment to feminist/liberation theologies and to the renewal of the church. In 2006, she co-edited a book with Phyllis Trible of Wake Forest University entitled, Hagar, Sarah and Their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives.

Letty Mandeville Russell was born in Westfield, NJ in 1929. She was predeceased by her sister, Jean Berry of New Jersey and former husband, the late Prof. Hans Hoekendijk. She is survived by her partner, Shannon Clarkson; her sister, Elizabeth Collins of Salem, OR; seven nieces and nephews; 14 great nieces and nephews; and a great-great niece. In addition, Russell felt that her wider family included generations of feminist and womanist activists and scholars around the world.

Memorial contributions can be sent to the Sarah Chakko Theological Endowment Fund, US Conference of the World Council of Churches, 475 Riverside Dr., Suite 1371, New York, NY 10115; the Global Women in Theology Fund at San Francisco Theological Seminary, c/o Pat Perry, 105 Seminary Road, San Anselmo, CA 94960; and the Letty Russell Travel Seminar Fund, Office of External Relations, Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.


NCC News contact:  Dan Webster, 212.870.2252, NCCnews@ncccusa.org


 

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