Written by Gregg Brekke
It's probably a blessing that her car was parked when the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper learned that she is this year's recipient of Yale Divinity School's William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice.
"When Dean Harold Attridge called me to tell me of the award on Wednesday of Holy Week, I was in a drugstore parking lot," says Kemper, recently retired after 18 years as Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches. "When he told me, it took my breath away. I sat down in the car for a good long time in wonder. And then I cried."
The award is given in honor of William Sloane Coffin, former chaplain to Yale University, former pastor of New York City's Riverside Church (UCC/American Baptist) and a prominent 20th century religious leader. The award recognizes courageous devotion to the dignity and worth of all persons, and is presented for notable contributions to the work of peace, nuclear disarmament and reconciliation.
"This feels like the highest accolade that a minister might ever receive," says Kemper, who also holds ministerial standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has served at least seven faith communities in 40-plus years of ministry. "It amazed me that my colleagues who nominated me for this award believed that my ministry reflected a witness similar in even minimal ways to Bill's ministry as a Christian, an American patriot, and as a pastor."
Kemper (1967, B.D.) has advocated for economic justice, comprehensive health care, child-abuse prevention, disability programs, gun control, Medicaid, low-income housing, tax reform and immigration reform. In addition, she has worked to end the death penalty, predatory lending, racial profiling and the genocide in Darfur.
As a young woman from the mid-South who had never considered that Christians might be witnesses in the public square to the way of Christ, Kemper cites as a personal turning point a 1980 lecture on preaching given by Coffin at YDS. "At the time, my marriage was collapsing, and I was feeling very vulnerable. I didn't see how a soon-to-be divorced woman minister with two little girls would be able to continue in ministry.
"But with scripture always rolling off his tongue, at one point he quoted 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' Then he said, 'That would be good to believe, wouldn't it?' "
Kemper says her platform with KCC enabled her to speak for a Christian perspective on the public good that is rarely heard in cultural contexts where fundamentalism predominates. "The model that Bill Coffin gave many of us is more desperately needed now in America than at any time in our history," she says.
Hailing Kemper as "the face and voice of progressive Christianity in Kentucky," the Rev. Stephen Gray praised her lofty networking abilities. "Under Nancy Jo, the KCC took a leadership role in addressing legislative issues in Kentucky state government," says Gray, Kentucky-Indiana Conference Minister. "One might expect in a state as conservative as Kentucky that lobbying of the legislature by the KCC would not be supported. To the contrary, the KCC was and is a presence in Frankfurt."
Also honored this year by Yale Divinity School is the Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister of First Congregational UCC in Glen Ellyn, Ill., who is receiving the Distinction in Congregational Ministry citation. The award is given to a lay or ordained individual who has shown exceptional pastoral competence in the work of developing the ministry and mission of local congregations.
"It was through YDS that I discovered the UCC," says Daniel (1993, M.Div.), who previously served as senior minister of the Church of the Redeemer, in New Haven, Conn. "I had been raised Anglican, and the Episcopal church had turned me down in the ordination process, so I came to YDS thinking I was heading into social justice or academic work. I filled out law school applications at one point, but ended up deciding to stay at divinity school – even though I had no idea where it would take me since the door to ordination had been closed to me."
While at YDS, Daniel says she had discovered a church she had never heard of, "a historic denomination with so many strong congregations in the New Haven area. When I found the UCC, or when it, through God's grace, found me, suddenly all the doors were open."
Along with the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver, Daniel is co-author of "This Odd and Wondrous Calling: the Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers" (2009). She has also written "Tell It like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony" (2004). A frequent contributor to "The Christian Century" magazine, Daniel writes for "Leadership" magazine and preaching periodicals such as the "Journal for Preachers" and the "Biblical Preaching Journal."
"I was deeply touched to receive this award and pretty surprised to get it because there are so many folks from YDS whose congregational ministries I admire from afar," says Daniel. "I know I was not the best student the school ever saw, that's for sure. While my divinity school friends may have spent a lot more time in the library than I did, the efforts of my teachers were not lost on me."
Daniel advises those in discernment over divinity school to trust that God is leading them to the right place. "The scary student loans, the debt after graduation and all the hard work will be worth it. Let the Holy Spirit guide you to where you ought to be."
Both awards will be presented during a banquet at the annual YDS Convocation & Reunions Oct. 11-14. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first degrees awarded to women at Yale Divinity School.