Posthumous Distinguished Service Award to Bowens-Wheatley

The Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. (Courtesy of Clyde Grubbs)

The Saturday afternoon plenary session included a UUA first* when the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley posthumously received the 2012 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, the Association’s highest honor. Announcement of the award earned a standing ovation and long round of applause from the audience. Bowens-Wheatley died of cancer in 2006.

The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, trustee from the Ohio Meadville District, and former UUA president the Rev. William G. Sinkford presented the award, which was accepted by Bowens-Wheatley’s husband, the Rev. Clyde Grubbs.

Grubbs invited the Rev. Danielle DiBona, a friend and mentee of Bowens-Wheatley, to join him in accepting the award. DiBona, speaking on behalf of all the women of color mentored by and inspired by Bowens-Wheatley, invited those present in the plenary hall to stand. She then invited anyone in the room who was mentored or changed in any way by knowing Bowens-Wheatley to stand as well. This, DiBona said, was “a living legacy of a woman of passion and compassion.”

The Distinguished Service award is given annually to a lay or professional leader who, over a considerable period of time, has “made extraordinary contributions to the strength of our Association, and who exemplifies the values of our shared faith.” The honor has never before been awarded posthumously.

Sinkford noted that while Bowens-Wheatley’s service to Unitarian Universalism only spanned two decades—a relatively short time compared to other Distinguished Service Award winners—her work in that time “helped shape contemporary Unitarian Universalist thought, programs, and practices in significant ways.”

“Our liberal religious movement has lost one of its most brilliant and passionate advocates for justice,” he said, “a fierce, tender, and loving mentor to ministers and religious professionals, a gifted minister and religious educator, and a woman filled with God’s spirit and grace.”

Ordained in 1994, Bowens-Wheatley was a founding member of the African American UU Ministry, served on the board of the UU Women’s Federation, and served on and chaired the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal. She also held positions at the UU Service Committee, the UU Veatch Program, the Metro New York District, and was Adult Programs director at the UUA. She served as a parish minister at the Community Church of New York, as well as congregations in Austin, Tex., and Tampa, Fla.

“Her intellectual rigor and deep spirit helped our collective yearning for the Beloved Community take form,” said Sinkford. “The questions she posed and the resources she developed helped shape the path we still strive to walk.”

Bowens Wheatley helped develop several faith resources, including the Adult Study and Process Guide for Belonging: The Meaning of Membership, and Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity. She was a contributing author to Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, was co-editor of Soul Work: Antiracist Theologies in Dialogue, and was published in numerous periodicals, including UU World and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

“Her contribution to Unitarian Universalism lives on with each step we take on the path toward reconciliation and wholeness,” Sinkford said.

Update 6.27.12: The Board of Trustees introduced this year’s Distinguished Service Award as the “first-ever posthumous” award, but the 1975 award to the theologian Henry Nelson Wieman was presented six days after Wieman’s death. Wieman’s Distinguished Service Award was the first given posthumously; Bowens-Wheatley was the first recipient selected posthumously. The headline of this post has been changed and one sentence removed to reflect this fact. Click here to return to the story.

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