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Celebrating the Life, Ministry & Legacy of Letty Russell

July 13, 2007

Letty Russell

Yesterday we lost one of the most valiant and thoughtful theologians, teachers, writers, visionaries and spirits of our generation, the beloved Letty Russell. More Light Presbyterians gives thanks for the life, ministry and legacy of Letty Russell, and we extend our condolence and prayers to her beloved partner Shannon Clarkson.

Dr. Letty Russell was the Professor Emeritus of Liberation Theology at Yale Divinity School. Letty's life, writings and vision touched countless lives and challenged people of faith and the Presbyterian Church (USA) to live into a vision of the realm of God wherein all persons are sacred, all persons are of equal worth, all persons are to be offered full-table hospitality, and all persons are to live together in harmony.

Sylvia Thorson-Smith said of Letty today: "Did you feel a lessening of feminist energy this morning? We have lost one of our most beloved foremothers."

Rev. Talitha Arnold, pastor, United Church of Santa Fe, a student, colleague and friend of Letty and Shannon shared today:

"Dr. Russell, or "Letty" as both students and faculty knew her, was one of the pioneers in Liberation, Feminist, and Justice Theology. Her teachings, writings, and advocacy not only helped shape generations of seminarians, both women and men, but also helped transform the mainline Protestant church in terms of women's leadership and justice ministries. She was an early pioneer to give voice to the rights of GLBT persons in both church and society. Her books, articles, and sermons helped provide the framework for denominations like the United Church of Christ to move ahead in becoming open and affirming of all God's people, regardless of gender, race, orientation, class or ethnicity.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Letty was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Divinity School. The year of her graduation, the Harvard faculty spent an entire week debating whether or not give "Honors" that year to stellar students, since it would mean giving such an award to a woman--namely Letty. They finally did so.

She was also one of the first women to be ordained in the Presbyterian church. She was also one of the first women professors tenured on the Yale Divinity School faculty. A tireless advocate for justice and the way of Jesus Christ, Letty and her partner Shannon spent the last several years developing a Women's Theological Institute to provide education--and scholarships--in feminist and liberation theology for women church leaders and professors from Asia, South America and Africa. "

Mary E. Hunt, sent the following note earlier today as well:

"Letty Russell, feminist theologian, died peacefully at home last night (July 12, 2007) after a valiant and graceful struggle with cancer. Shannon Clarkson was with her. They were accompanied near and far by legions of friends and colleagues. May she rest in the peace she envisioned and worked for throughout her life of scholarship, service, hospitality, and friendship. WATER extends sympathy to Shannon on this great loss. May Letty's memory be a blessing and her work a source on inspiration to the many people around the world whose lives she touched." Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual,

One of the ways we honor a person's life, vision and teaching is to remember... to be ever mindful of Letty's vision of a Church and a world wherein all are embraced as children of God ... and all are invited to be together at God's table of hospitality... and to keep working for the dream of Letty's vision to become a reality.

More Light Presbyterians pause this day in the midst of working for spiritual, ordination and marriage equality to give thanks to God for the life, ministry and legacy of Letty Russell, to pray for her beloved Shannon Clarkson, and all those loved so well by Letty.

with gratitude and care,

Michael J. Adee, M.Div., Ph.D.
National Field Organizer
More Light Presbyterians
369 Montezuma Avenue # 447
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501 USA
(505) 820-7082


Remembering Letty Russell

I was deeply touched by Michael Adee's words on the death of Letty Russell. I wanted to add a few reflections myself and invite Anita Bradshaw, the National Field Organizer, to do the same. Anita and I were both at Yale Divinity School with Letty. Anita worked much more closely than I did with her, and Letty once told a person who was looking for an effective model of what Letty talked about in her work, to look at the work that Anita did as Director of Supervised Ministries at YDS-- particularly in the areas of urban and rural ministries. A very high compliment, indeed!

As I've reflected on Letty's death, I am struck by how much of the model of ministry I hold before me has been shaped by Letty and the movement she helped create.

Much of Letty's early ministry was with the East Harlem Protestant Parish where she pastored for 18 years. My own father did his practical education during seminary at Union with the East Harlem Protestant Parish and worked with Letty.

My own ministry was touched directly when I studied with Letty at Yale Divinity School. In classes on liberation, feminist and queer theology as well as on liberation theology trips which coincided with her work on the international women's doctor of ministry program, Letty was one of my best teachers. In all of it, Letty maintained the discipline of the interconnectedness between the practical and the academic. We read important texts and discussed them over shared meals. We wrote academic papers but never without some kind of practical project to accompany them. We took action for liberation but not without some kind of written reflection on the work that we had just done.

The model of the dialectic between deep biblical analysis, concrete action in the world, fearless theological reflection and intimate community continues to shape what I hope to be as a minister in the world.

When Letty and Shannon published the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, the women's a cappella group in which I sang (The Sacramental Winers) performed. One of the songs we sang was written by Sweet Honey in the Rock in memory of one of their fathers. One of the lines is "I am sitting here, wanting memories to teach me to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes..."

I am aware that I am now sitting here, wanting memories of Letty to teach me to see the beauty, the justice and the right action in the world through my own eyes


May we all seek to carry forth Letty Russell's work...

In peace,

Rev. Rebecca Voelkel
Program Director
Institute for Welcoming Resources, a program of
The National LGBTQ Task Force


Dear Friends,

Thanks Rebecca for these thoughts. I appreciate Michael's comments, as well.

For those of you who did not know Letty, it is hard to describe the vacuum I feel at the moment and the gratitude I have for Letty's influence in my life. I have incredibly fond memories of the ten years I spent working closely with her at Yale; first, as student and then as colleague. Since I left Yale nine years ago, we continued to stay in contact and just last spring she was here in the Twin Cities, preached at my church, and we held a little mini-reunion with local Yale Divinity women, Letty and her partner, Shannon. I did not know then that it would be the last time I would physically be with her, but I am incredibly grateful for that weekend of reunion.

Letty hated to be the center of attention and yet, she always was because of the gifts she brought to people in her teaching, analysis, and work. I learned from her the inestimable value of combining the scholarly with the practical. She had little time or use for theology that did not take into account the real lived lives of human persons. She was amazingly economical in her words and deeds having a tremendous impact with both but without much elaboration. Her methodology moved people to stop, think, act, and reflect. And all were important.

I will be forever in her debt and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have crossed paths with her. The lives of women here and around the world, the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS, the lives of lgbt people, and the lives of people in the church have benefited from her mind, her teaching, her writing, and her wicked sense of humor (which would sneak out every so often).

If you are not aware of her work, I encourage you to find one of books on partnership or feminist theology or biblical studies or the church and get to know not only Letty, but God just a bit better. I know I will continue to learn from her and only be the better for it.


The Rev. Anita L. Bradshaw, Ph.D.
National Field Organizer
c/o The Institute of Welcoming Resources Minneapolis, Minnesota 55408


Human Rights Campaign Statement on the Death of Dr. Letty Russell

WASHINGTON — Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, offered the following statement today on the death of Dr. Letty Russell. Russell was the professor emeritus of liberation theology at Yale Divinity School. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Russell was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Divinity School. She is remembered as one of the early pioneers advocating for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in both the church and society.

Solmonese said:

"In her advocacy on behalf of women and LGBT people, she made all people more free. Her legacy will be seen in the lives and work of her students and others she touched for generations to come. We are grateful for her life, her dedication to her calling and all the lessons we learned from her. Our hearts are with her partner, Shannon Clarkson."

The Human Rights Campaign is America's largest civil rights organization working to achieve gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against GLBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.