Peace and justice advocate Verna Rapp Uthman dies at 83
Written by Barb Powell
November 29, 2011

Verna Rapp Uthman at her retirement in 1983.
Long-time United Church of Christ peace and justice advocate Verna Rapp Uthman, of Bethlehem, Pa., died Nov. 19 at St. Luke’s VNA Hospice in Bethlehem of acute leukemia. She was 83.

Uthman was with the UCC’s Office for Church in Society until her retirement in 1993. During her time with the office, she became nationally and internationally known for organizing peace and justice programs. A civil rights activist, she also was the UCC’s Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) representative to the United Nations. She continued her UN-related work after her retirement, and was actively involved in human rights issues until her death.

“Verna was a powerful role model for me when I began national board service with the Coordinating Center for Women in Society,” said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries. “Her ability to take on difficult and complex issues and always land on the side of justice and basic human rights was phenomenal. She mentored many women and men by speaking and living her convictions.

“I will miss the gentle spirit of Verna Rapp Uthman, a devoted and faithful woman, who was truly a giant in the church.”   

Prior to working with the Office for Church in Society, Uthman worked in the Office of the President of the United Church of Christ. She also served on the Children of War steering committee and Status of Women in the Church task force.

“Verna gave many people the opportunity to use their gifts,” said the Rev. Sharon Joseph, pastor of Church of the Manger UCC in Bethlehem, Pa., and a former colleague of Uthman’s. “She also supported them at critical points when they were struggling to get their lives in order. She was a very compassionate person.”

Born in Elverson, Pa., in 1928, Uthman was the daughter of the late Joseph Howard Rapp and Esther Cook Rapp. She graduated from Caernarvon High School and McCann’s Business School in Pennsylvania, and attended Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

She was recruited to go to New Windsor, Md., as a member of the first staff of Church World Service. In 1949, she left for overseas humanitarian service in post-war Europe through Church of the Brethren. This included work with Heifer Project and the beginning of the International Student Exchange Program. She worked in Washington, D.C., for the National Service Board of Religious Objectors registering conscientious objectors in the Archives. She also participated in early civil rights sit-ins.

She married Abdul-Rahman Ali Uthman and moved to Bagdad, Iraq, where she lived for 10 years as part of an Islamic family. She returned to the United States and worked for Philadelphia Society to Protect Children and the National Board of YWCA in New York City.

Uthman is survived by her sister, Marian Rapp Dawson, with whom she resided; brother, Albert Irvin Rapp; and numerous nieces, nephews and extended family. She was predeceased by brothers Robert Grant Rapp and the Rev. David Howard Rapp. Donations in Uthman’s memory can be made to Church of the Manger UCC, 1401 Greenview Dr., Bethlehem, Pa. 18018; or to a charity of the giver’s choice. A memorial service will be held Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. at Church of the Manger UCC.

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Ms. Barbara A. Powell
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