The Rev. Joseph Williamson was well-known and admired as a former senior pastor at the federated Church of the Covenant in Boston, Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University and a tireless activist for social justice. He died on Saturday, June 7 in Baltimore, MD.
Services for Joe will be held on August 9 at 2:00 PM at Church of the Covenant.
The following obituary comes from Princeton University:
Rev. Dr. Joseph Williamson, activist pastor and scholar, dies at 75
Joseph C. Williamson, the compassionate author, scholar and preacher who sought to reveal truth through activism, died of heart failure in Maryland on June 7, after a prolonged battle against Alzheimer's disease. He was 75.
Williamson, who served as Princeton University's dean of religious life and dean of the chapel from 1989 to 2001, was known for his blend of the prophetic and pragmatic, able to intertwine poetry, pop culture references, such as Rambo movies, and ancient philosophy into his sermons while keeping them accessible to his flocks. An advocate for an open church and uplifting the poor, Williamson's life work on the intersection of religion and politics often provoked action and controversy, including his permission of a same-sex marriage in Princeton's chapel in 1997.
"Joe Williamson was an enormously energetic, remarkably sensitive and provocatively intelligent religious leader. He did not shy away from tough issues but rather engaged them analytically, rhetorically and practically, "said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee and former president of Columbia and Rice universities. "He was a terrific preacher -- and also a wonderful colleague and friend. All of us who knew him at the height of his powers cannot but experience a deep sense of loss."
Williamson was one of three children of musician Audrey J. and the Rev. Dr. Gideon B. Williamson, an author, college president and towering figure in the Church of the Nazarene. While he knew both of his parents to be strong and passionate yet tender people, Williamson rebuked the "absoluteness" of his father's day in favor of a focus on "relativities" and modeled inclusiveness as he diversified Princeton's religious focus and expanded its role in the life of the campus.
"The Rev. Dr. Joseph C. Williamson was an extraordinary man whose prophetic witness in the world transformed the landscape of humanity," said Rev. Deborah Blanks, associate dean of religious life at Princeton. "He did it by standing in pulpits, behind university lecterns, and marching during civil or human rights movements sounding the trumpet, to those who dared to listen, encouraging us to live lives that mattered and always do that which would lift and liberate all people. He spoke with a passionate poetic eloquence and elegance that reached the deep places of people's lives. Joe was a giant of a man with a gentle and good soul."
Raised in Massachusetts, Williamson spent formative years in Kansas City, Mo., graduating from Southwest High School in 1950. His early interests included poetry, arts and sports and he lived his life with enthusiasm as he pursued knowledge. He received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College in 1954 and his bachelor of divinity degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 1958. He went on to receive a master's degree from Andover Newton Theological School in 1964, where he remained as assistant professor of theology and preaching for six years. After receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1968, Williamson served as pastor and co-pastor of the federated Presbyterian and Congregationalist Church of the Covenant in Boston. He also was a member of the faculty at Boston University from 1973 to 1983.
Before moving to Princeton, from 1983 to 1989, he was active in the Seattle community --particularly on issues of the day including AIDS and anti-Contra support -- and served as senior minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. While there, Williamson revealed part of his character while explaining, in a 1988 sermon, that he turned his grief from his mother's impending death into a learning process that showed him why constant change, including most people's worst fear -- death, was so necessary.
"So the sequence is death and rebirth and love and growing and death and rebirth and love and growing. Only as the death is faced can the rebirth happen. Only as the rebirth shapes and shakes us can love be born again,"
Williamson preached. "Only as our lives are turned into the fullness of our loving does our human growth take place, that continuously moving shaping and reshaping power in our lives."
Colleagues often praised Williamson for his presence, his ability to listen intently to others and then offer them exactly what they needed and his confident pursuit of "authentic justice and authentic love." Many said he taught them how to lead and be better servants of God.
"His sermons are presented with clarity, intelligence, imagination and a grasp of faith issues that is both wide and deep," one clergywoman wrote in a 1988 reference for Princeton. "As a person whose faith is alive and kicking, he gives space to others involved in faith struggles; as a member of the privileged race, class and gender, he not only listens to but searches for the voice of those whom society does not see or respect; as a religious authority, he challenges the idea of authority in matters of faith except as it is inacted (incarnated) in loving God with the whole being and the neighbor as the self."
Williamson described his own pastoral role as that of celebrant, nurturer and organizer. He often drew inspiration from poets, including Delmore Schwartz and Pablo Neruda. "The minister serves as advocate, as mediator, as negotiator. The organizer works in the matrix of the human condition to address the issues of justice and power. The function of the clergy is to assist in facilitating the equitable distribution of that power to all who have been dispossessed, " he said.
"Joe was born with the inclusion gene. While many of us struggle with the concept, in Joe it was an organic impulse," said Penna Rose, Princeton's director of chapel music. "To talk about Joe is also to talk about poetry.
Joe had a love of language and the ability to speak in poetry, whether he was preaching, praying or speaking spontaneously. He lived his life by one of the oft-quoted Biblical passages: 'In all things rejoice.'"
In serving others, Williamson's vision pushed him ahead of his time in taking stands such as incorporating art as an aesthetic expression of grace in religion, in addressing issues such as the role of women and gays in the church as consistent with the Bible, which he said condemns abuses but not acts of the flesh, and in criticizing society for allowing perversions such as drug abuse and teenage pregnancy through cowardice of spirit.
"He answered Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to the clergy," said the Rev. Donna DiSciullo, his wife of 26 years. "He believed the church and society are so intimately related that they inform each other. Social justice was his heart, his passion. He was a sweet man."
"He was a model mentor, pastor par excellence and brilliant scholar who never sought the limelight, but dared to live his life in such a resplendent manner that his life illumined the world," Blanks noted. "He was my dean but so much more, because he was an exemplar of what it means to live out an informed faith that serves every member of the human family. As he was retiring from Princeton, his intention was to increase educational opportunities for the poor. A modern day prophet, he was one always seeking to do justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and he understood that his Harvard Ph.D. privileged him first and foremost to be a servant above all else."
In 2004, Williamson received the Alumnus of the Year award from Eastern Nazarene College. Some of his other awards include the 2003 Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award from Morehouse College and the 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Leadership and Service from the Association of College and University Affairs.
Williamson is survived by his wife, Donna DiSciullo, of Baltimore. They both have adult children from previous marriages. Survivors include: sons Gregory, of Jupiter, Fla., and Brent, of Seattle; and daughters and their spouses, Pia and Alfred May, of Catonsville, Md.; and Elise and Peter Goodwin, of Frederick, Md. He is also survived by two grandchildren, Benjamin Joseph Shay Matt and Eva Clarissa May; a brother, John Williamson, of Olathe, Kan.; and a sister, Maylou Cook, of Anthem, Ariz. His middle son, Clayton, preceded him in death.
A memorial service will be held on Aug. 9, 2008 at 3 p.m. in the Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury St. in Boston, MA. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Williamson's name to the: Alzheimer's Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Floor 17, Chicago, IL 60601-7633.
The following article was published by Princeton University upon Joe's retirement from that institution in 2001:
Joseph Williamson to resign as dean of religious life
by mmarks · Posted January 16, 2001; 05:08 p.m.
After 12 years as head of the Chapel and Office of Religious Life, Dean Joseph Williamson plans to step down June 30.
He announced his resignation during Sunday's Chapel service, which he coordinates each week and helps lead.
Williamson said he decided to retire so he could spend more time with his family and on lifelong interests, such as the intersection of religion and politics and increasing educational opportunities for the poor.
"It's been a good ride," Williamson said Tuesday. "Princeton is such a stimulating environment."
In addition to serving as senior minister to the Protestant congregation in the University Chapel, Williamson is a member of President Harold T. Shapiro's cabinet. He is responsible for ecumenical Christian worship in the Chapel and three University interfaith services each year. His office also coordinates the Chapel music program and the Student Volunteers Council, and works with campus denominational and non-denominational chaplaincies.
"Joe has an extraordinary gift for and sensitivity to words -- and communication through music, as well," said Vice President Thomas Wright Jr. "He has been very important in providing leadership for the music program, and religious life at the University has been greatly strengthened."
Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson will conduct a search for Williamson's successor.
Before coming to Princeton in 1989, Williamson was a pastor in Seattle at Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. He was an active member of the community there and working with ecumenical and civic groups such as the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Pacific Northwest Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, Jewish-Christian Dialogue and Coalition Against Contra Aid.
Williamson received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and his bachelor of divinity degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary. He received his master's degree from Andover Newton Theological School, where he remained as assistant professor of theology and preaching for six years.
After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard Divinity School in 1968, he served as pastor and co-pastor for 13 years at the federated Presbyterian and Congregationalist Church of the Covenant in Boston.
Last year, the Association of College and University Religious Affairs presented Williamson and two others with the organization's first lifetime achievement award. The honor recognized the long and distinguished leadership and service Williamson has demonstrated in higher education.
Williamson "profoundly deepened the humanity and extended the hospitality" of Princeton, the association said. He "developed a kind of collegiality with faculty and students that has led to productive synergy, great programs and worthy risks."