The life of Rev. Dr Rena Joyce Weller Karefa-Smart is being remembered and commended this week by the World Council of Churches (WCC) fellowship after her passing last week. Karefa-Smart was the first Pan African woman to graduate in 1945 from Yale Divinity School (YDS). She was a champion for global ecumenism over the course of a long and distinguished career. An attendee of the first WCC Assembly, she was also a procession leader and author of the liturgies at the second WCC Assembly in Evanston, Illinois (USA).
Karefa-Smart served as a an ordained pastor and presiding elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, as an ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., as professor of Ethics at Howard University, and as an associate of the Center for Theology and Public Policy in Washington, D.C.. One of her proudest achievements was becoming a living symbol of ecumenism with her joint ordination as an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister and Episcopal priest.
Her pioneering presence and subsequent success paved the way for generations of Pan African women at YDS. She received the Lux et Veritas award from YDS in 2017.
She also served as a member of the WCC Central and Executive Committees, as well as a member of the WCC Faith and Order Commission. She was a consultant on racial justice and youth as well, serving as a driving force behind the creation of the WCC Programme to Combat Racism. She also was integral in the development of a Lutheran-Episcopalian concordant on shared full communion.
She was a pioneering leader in the World Student Christian Federation and served globally in Africa, the Caribbean, 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.
Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith, a WCC Central Committee member, said that Karefa-Smart leaves an extraordinary legacy. “Her contributions span at least two generations,” reflected Walker-Smith. “When I entered graduate school at YDS right after college, I was only one of two young Pan African women privileged to be a part of the entering class.”
Walker-Smith began seeking out other Pan African women in the school. “This search led me to Mrs Bernice Cosey Pully who was the second Pan African woman to graduate from YDS,” said Walker-Smith. “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 Walker-Smith found her way to visit Karefa-Smart. “She was delighted to visit with me but was also candid about both the hardships and joys she faced,” said Walker-Smith. “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.”
“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,” said Walker-Smith. “May you rest in peace until we meet again.”