A World Citizen of Church Unity and Endurance

Ray Waddle

Rena Weller Karefa-Smart ’45 B.D. was the first African-American woman to graduate from YDS, a milestone for the School. She died earlier this year, age 97. 

Growing up in Connecticut, her sense of calling was strong. Her parents – her father an AME Zion minister, her mother an educator and church activist – instilled an awareness of the global church and the excitement of intellectual endeavor. Rena was attending ecumenical gatherings for her denomination even as a teenager. 

She went to college at age 15, graduating from Central Connecticut State University in 1940. She then earned a master’s degree from Drew Theological Seminary, studying with Mildred Moody Eakin. She did independent study at Howard University, interacting with Howard Thurman and honing interest in systematic theology before turning to Yale.

At YDS, professors H. Richard Niebuhr and Liston Pope helped deepen her ecumenical passion and ethical themes. Because of transfer credits from Drew and Howard, she was able to complete her YDS work in a year. With Pope’s encouragement, she then entered the Yale Ph.D. program in sociology of religion. However, post-war social forces were gathering – independence movements in Africa, a civil rights movement in the US, a surging ecumenism in denominational circles – that pulled her into far-ranging Christian activism. Before Martin Luther King Jr. and James Cone and Katie Cannon, she would be a theological witness on the world stage when mentors for women of color were rare. 

“Let me tell you, she was strong – very strong from within, very grounded in her sense of call.” says Angelique Walker-Smith ’83 M.Div. 

Still in her 20s, Karefa-Smart was a formative, high-profile presence at the inaugural World Council of Churches Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948 and was a presenter at the second WCC gathering in Evanston, IL, in 1954. She helped galvanize the WCC’s attention on racism in the 1960s: She co-designed the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism, which focused on divestment and non-violence and helped bring down South African apartheid. For years she was also at the center of the World Student Christian Federation, with its themes of peace, women’s rights, and social justice. 

Her destiny turned decisively in 1948 when she married John Karefa-Smart, a Sierra Leone physician, public health specialist, professor, Methodist elder, and political leader. He was instrumental in Sierra Leone’s independence from Britain in 1961. In Sierra Leone they led an eventful life of health reform initiatives, advocacy, teaching, travel, sometimes political persecution – and had three children. His work for his country took them to Nigeria, Liberia, Congo-Brazzaville, Switzerland, as well as the US, where Rena did race relations work with the National Council of Churches. 

In the early 1970s, the family was stationed at Harvard, and there Rena Karefa-Smart pursued further study. In 1976, she was the first black woman to receive a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School – graduating the same day that her younger daughter re-ceived a Harvard undergraduate diploma. Three years later, she became the first female tenured professor at Howard Divinity School, teaching Christian eth-ics. Loved ones marveled at how she moved through the world during those decades with boldness and confidence despite having grown up in a segregated society during the Depression. They credit her belief in the Kingdom of God, commitment to a Christian faith of liberation, and optimism in the human spirit.

“She worked closely with her husband, but she was a leader in her own right, a woman fighting against all kinds of odds, going to school in a white-dominated context of men,” says Walker-Smith, who is completing a book called Ahead of Her Time, which profiles a group of pioneering pan-African women of faith in the global ecumenical movement, including Karefa-Smart.

“She was married to a remarkable diplomat, raising a family, and inspired by her faith – it was a peculiar, rarified space to be in the 1940s and 50s, and it helped shape her character.”

Ecumenism defined her vocational path. She would become an AME Zion minister and a presid-ing elder, later an Episcopal priest – a dual ordination – and played a role in the Lutheran-Episcopalian concordant on shared full communion.

She in turn became a role model – of womanhood and committed belief. Angelique Walker-Smith, a new student at YDS in 1980, was keen to learn about the women of African descent who had blazed a path there. She soon sought out Karefa-Smart, who was living in the DC area.

“She was glad to talk to me – and was candid about her efforts to balance family and vocational life. … Her contributions span at least two generations.”

In 1992, Rena Weller Karefa-Smart returned to YDS to speak at the Parks-King Lecture Series. Her topic: “Racism Revisited: The Anatomy of a Heresy.” In 2015, she was guest of honor of the Yale Black Seminarians Graduate Banquet.

In 2017, she received the YDS Lux et Veritas alumni award for a life’s work of compassion and courage. “It is impossible to measure the distance you’ve traveled – and helped YDS travel,” the award citation declared. “The inspiration you’ve stirred for generations of African-American women at YDS and beyond is incalculable.”

At the award banquet, after sustained applause, the Rev. Dr. Karefa-Smart, age 96, quietly spoke some words of thanks inside the divinity school where she studied more than 70 years before.

“When I think of the people I have known along my long life in theological education, I couldn’t hon-estly say that I deserve a place in it,” she said. “However, when I’m told I do have a place, it gives me a second life … to know that I’ve not been forgotten.”

– Ray Waddle 

1. Various details here are based on a biographical essay generously supplied by Rosalee May Karefa-Smart, Rena Weller Karefa-Smart’s elder daughter.