Joseph Williamson, activist pastor and scholar, passes away
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Baltimore, Maryland
Joseph C. Williamson, 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.

"Joe Williamson was an enormously energetic, remarkably sensitive, and provocatively intelligent religious leader.” said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee and former president of Columbia and Rice universities. “He did not shy away from tough issues but rather engaged them analytically, rhetorically and practically. 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 speaker, author, and musician Audrey J. and Gideon B. Williamson, an author, college president, and influential person in the Church of the Nazarene. He knew both of his parents to be strong and passionate yet tender people.

“The Rev. Dr. Joseph C. Williamson was an extraordinary man whose prophetic witness in the world transformed the landscape of humanity,” said 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, Missouri, 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 Seattle. He 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 worse 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.

“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.’”

“He answered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to the clergy,” said 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. They both have adult children from previous marriages. Survivors include: sons Gregory and Brent; daughters and their spouses Pia and Alfred May and Elise and Peter Goodwin. He is also survived by two grandchildren, Benjamin Joseph Shay Matt and Eva Clarissa May; a brother, Nazarene pastor (Olathe, KS Christ Community) John Williamson; and a sister, Maylou Cook. His middle son, Clayton, preceded him in death.

A memorial service will be held Aug. 9 at 3 P.M. in the Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury St. in Boston, Massachusetts. 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.
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