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Verna Dozier dies at 88

9/2/2006

Verna Dozier dies at 88.  

 
[Episcopal News Service]  Verna Josephine Dozier, 88, a teacher of English literature at the high school level and a noted Episcopal religious educator who focused on Bible study and claiming the authority of the laity, died September 1, 2006 at Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville, Maryland, where she had been under care for advanced Parkinson's disease since 1992.

Funeral arrangements are not yet complete.

Dozier was born October 9, 1917 in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, DC, the oldest of two daughters of Lonna and Lucie E. Carter Dozier. Her sister Lois Gertrude Dozier, with whom she was close, died in 1998 at the age of 79. Neither of the sisters married. Verna, who had always anticipated that she would "be taken first," declared in 1990 that "I had planned to die at age seventy. I had explained that to God on no uncertain terms."

She attended Washington’s Dunbar High School, where she skipped two grades and prepared to enter college when she was 15. She received her B.A. in English from Howard University in 1937 and an M.A. in English literature in 1938.

Dozier had always wanted to be a teacher, and her first career was dedicated to the public schools. After receiving her master's degree, she taught for a year in Baltimore, then moved back to serve the rest of her career in the Washington schools, first at Brown Junior High School, then Cardozo High School, and finally at Ballou High School. For 34 years she worked for the Washington, D.C. Board of Education, where she also served as an administrator, and worked to develop innovative curricula. Dozier may have been the first African-American to head a department in the area's newly integrated school system. When she was 57, in June of 1975, Dozier took early retirement.

She received two honorary doctorates: a Doctor of Humane Letters from the Protestant Episcopal Seminary in Virginia, and a Doctor of Divinity from the University of the South in 1988.

Dozier’s primary intellectual and religious influences were grounded in her closely knit family. Her early religious faith was shaped by her agnostic father and her Baptist mother. When she began college, Dozier stopped going to the local Baptist church and began going with her father to the Howard University Chapel to hear the preaching of its noted theologians—Dean Howard Thurman, Dr. Benjamin Mays and others.

Thurman's writings, theology, and worldview would influence Dozier throughout her life. She was fond of quoting his vision of God's desire for creation: "A friendly world of friendly folk, Beneath a friendly sky." At Howard, she also grew interested in other denominations and religions, and was active in an ecumenical movement, the Washington Federation of Churches. In 1950, she joined the multi-denominational, highly disciplined community founded by Gordon Cosby, the Church of the Saviour.

By the 1950s, Dozier was becoming well known in educational circles for teaching scripture. She taught at national Episcopal Youth summer conferences and at Washington’s Diocesan School of Christian Living, held in Chevy Chase, Maryland. There she came to know Bill Baxter, a social activist who invited her in 1955 to join the Episcopal parish where he served, St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill.

Later in life, she remarked, "When I discovered the Episcopal Church, it was as if I had been waiting for that all my life."

Dozier was confirmed at St. Mark's. For many years she taught classes at the parish about the Bible to people who initially did not seem to know much about the Christian story. She served on the vestry as the parish's first woman Senior Warden, consulting with clergy and lay leaders, and holding, toward the end of her life, an honorary appointment as Warden Emerita.

In 1999, St. Mark's dedicated the "Dozier Clerestory Window," designed by Brenda Belfield. It depicts the prophet Amos—Dozier’s favorite—in the marketplace, challenging merchants for their corrupt practices and mourning those who fall short of the dream of God. The two young women in the window represent Verna (in blue) and her sister, Lois (in red). So much money was raised for the window, with well over 300 contributors at the time of its dedication, that with the remaining funds the "Dozier Family Educational Fund" was established for students graduating from Dunbar High School seeking a college education.

Within the Diocese of Washington, she served on the Standing Committee, the Commission on Ministry (once as its chairperson), and in other capacities. The story is told that when the Diocese of Washington was considering a successor for Bishop John Walker, several people, citing the historical precedent of Ambrose of Milan, suggested nominating Verna. She responded by saying that at her stage in life, she was “not willing to accept a demotion from lay person to bishop."

In 2003 she received the first Bishop’s Award in the Diocese of Washington for extraordinary contributions to the diocese.

At the national level, Dozier was an elected member of the Board of Examining Chaplains and the Church Deployment Board.

What she styled as her "second career" and her "continuing ministry" was serving as a freelance consultant in Bible study and the ministry of the laity. Over two decades, Dozier was an invited speaker, retreat and workshop leader in all of the provinces, most of the dioceses, and many of the parishes in the Episcopal Church. She also served as a trainer of consultants for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the Episcopal Church at the national level.

Though she never enjoyed travel, Dozier went twice to Kenya on a "Women's Leadership Project" for the Episcopal Church and the Province of Kenya. In the morning, Dozier would teach Kenyan women an approach to scripture study replete with new ways of looking at and using the Bible, and in the afternoon other team members would teach leadership skills.

In the late 1980s, Dozier co-taught two courses at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia with New Testament Professor Barbara Hall.

She was often invited to serve as a Christian educator for other denominations and ecumenical groups. From the mid-1950s on, she was associated as a volunteer and later a staff trainer with Mid-Atlantic Training and Consulting, Inc. (MATC), an ecumenical consulting group for organizational development and skills training. By the 1970s, Dozier served as a co-trainer for the one year Organizational Development Program offered at MATC.

After its founding in 1974, Dozier was a regular participant in the Washington-based Alban Institute, an ecumenical group that worked on strengthening congregations. It was there that Dozier, as a workshop leader, expressed her conviction that laity needed to claim their authority in the world.

Dozier modeled being a teacher of teachers, offering fresh questions and demanding approaches for others to pursue. Her emphasis on the prophetic nature of the Bible was always at the center of her vocation as a Christian educator, whether as a consultant, trainer, teacher, public speaker or author. She focused the biblical story on leadership and justice, not one or the other, and was, like the prophets she so admired, a passionate advocate for the dispossessed.

For many, her approach was radical. "I probably am one of the most radical voices in this church today,” she said, “but people respond to me with great affection and love because I look like Aunt Jemima. I sound like Sojourner Truth, but they don't pay any attention to the Sojourner."

Dozier was also courageous preacher, whether at her home parish of St. Mark's or for a national conference. In 1992, Dozier preached for the consecration of Jane Holmes Dixon as Bishop Suffragan of Washington, one of only a handful of laywomen asked to preach at an Episcopal consecration. She was an occasional leader for continuing education events at Washington's College of Preachers, and offered three Commencement Addresses: at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia in 1993, the Episcopal Divinity School in 1995, and the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in 1997.

Her published works include Equipping the Saints: A Method of Self-directed Bible Study for Lay Groups (1981); The Authority of the Laity (1982); How I Read the Bible (1986); and The Dream of God: A Call to Return (1991). (A complete bibliography is listed below.) A passage from The Dream of God has been set to music by contemporary Episcopal composer Carl Daw.

In videos, tapes, and retreats, her theme of equality as God's dream for humanity was raised again and again as Dozier decried racism, tensions between Jews and blacks, and the notion that men and women had to play different roles. She was a consistent advocate for gays and lesbians, and saw their exclusion through the lens of racism, saying that the world had "lost so many gifted people because of their attitude toward gays, the same as the world lost so many nifty people because of their attitude toward blacks."

As a final writing project, Dozier in 1999 submitted a book proposal and manuscript on ambiguity, a philosophical concept she found central to embracing religion and living faithfully in the world. She planned to dedicate it to her father, "who planted in my mind at a very early age that because an idea was different than mine, it wasn't necessarily wrong." A draft manuscript remains, but Dozier's only published reflections on the theme, a topic that increasingly preoccupied her thoughts, are found in articles and interviews by Julie Wortman in The Witness (1995-1998).

In 1997, the Episcopal Church Publishing Company, which publishes The Witness (now in an online edition), awarded Dozier the "Vida Scudder Award" for her achievements in "reclaiming scripture study and religious vocation for all the baptized."

“Verna has that incredible ability to take every other human being seriously, no matter who she or he might be or what she or he believed,” wrote Bishop Suffragan Jane Holmes Dixon of Washington, now retired, in an undated article in The Witness (http://www.thewitness.org/agw/dixon081004.html). “That, among so much of what she taught me, may be the most critical and valuable lesson of all for I came to understand that taking another seriously is the beginning of doing justice. After a conference we both attended, she pointed out that the most interesting and important statement that made during the entire conference was: say more about that. Do not make assumptions about what another is saying. Encourage him or her to explain and take the time to be certain you truly heard.”

-- Adapted from a biography by Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Mary Wolfe Professor of Historical Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School, at http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=verna_dozier.

Thompsett is co-editor, with Cynthia L. Shattuck, of Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier, a comprehensive collection of Dozier’s writings published in 2006 by Seabury Press, an imprint of Church Publishing Incorporated (http://www.churchpublishing.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=product&ProductID=429).