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Tribute to Rev. Dr Rena Joyce Karefa-Smart

Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith, a member of the WCC Central Committee and of the WCC Commission on Ecumenical Education and Formation, pays tribute to a pioneering Pan African woman leader in the ecumenical movement.

17 January 2019

By Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith

A young Ms Rena Joyce Weller
Karefa-Smart during her work with the
World Student Christian Federation

The Rev. Dr Rena Joyce Karefa-Smart passed away this week and leaves an extraordinary legacy for all of us. Her contributions span at least two generations. I refer to the season of her contributions as “Ahead of Her Time” (1940’s until now) which is part of the title of the book I am writing about a very special group of Pan African women of faith like her long before one may have expected this.

When I entered graduate school at Yale University Divinity School (YDS) right after college, I was only one of two young Pan African women privileged to be a part of the entering class.  This necessarily prompted my seeking out of other Pan African women in the school and the University. This search led me to Ms Bernice Cosey Pully who was the second Pan African woman to graduate from YDS. She, in turn, told me about the Rev. Dr Rena Joyce Weller Karefa-Smart who was the first Pan African woman to graduate from YDS in 1945, and the first to receive the Th.D. from Harvard University Divinity School and tenured professorship at Howard University School of Divinity.

It wasn’t long before I found my way to visit Dr Karefa-Smart. She was delighted to visit with me but was also candid about both the hardships and joys she faced. At that time, she was also serving as a representative of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on the World Council of Churches Central Committee and as an AMEZ Presiding Elder. She became one of my earliest mentors during graduate school.

Right to left: Ms Bernice Cosey-Pulley, Rev. Dr Rena
Karefa-Smart, Dr John Karefa- Smart, Dr Arthur Pulley

Later, in my research, I learned she participated in the first Assembly of the WCC and was a procession leader and author of the liturgies at the second Assembly in Evanston, Ill. She was also a pioneering leader in the World Student Christian Federation and served globally in Africa, the Caribbean, the USA and Europe. She and her husband, Dr John Albert Musselman Karefa-Smart traveled together with their family. He passed in 2010 and was a Sierra Leonean politician, medical doctor and university professor. He served as the first Foreign Minister under Sierra Leone's first Prime Minister, Milton Margai. He was also an ordained Elder of the United Methodist Church.

One of the last times I saw Dr Karefa-Smart was when I sat at table with her and her family when she was awarded the Lux et Veritas award at YDS in 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJXWNYnOrdE). Thank you Dr Karefa-Smart for all you have meant in my personal and vocational life, other Pan African women who have followed you and so many throughout the world. May you rest in peace until we meet again.