Bennie Whiten, pastor, servant leader and ‘a giant’ in the UCC, dies at 89
The Rev. Bennie E. Whiten, Jr., who dedicated so much of his life to ministry that he “flunked retirement,” died Dec. 4 at the age of 89.
Known for his deep faith, kindhearted leadership, and commitment to justice, Whiten served the United Church of Christ for over 44 years. His ministry called him to Ohio, New York City, Massachusetts, and the Chicago, Ill. area, where he lived until his death.
Whiten was diagnosed with early-stage dementia in 2008, according to his spouse Sue Sporte, who spoke about Whiten’s life and ministry in a 2019 talk at their home congregation of Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC, in Oak Park, Ill. Sporte and Whiten were married for over 30 years.
‘His voice, spirit, passion, witness remain a blueprint’
Immersed in the business of the UCC, Whiten attended 17 of the 20 General Synods held during his ministry, where he was well known and remembered as offering an influential voice. He attended four Synods as a delegate, four as an associate delegate by virtue of chairing an instrumentality, three as a visitor, one as a special consultant, and five as an associate delegate while serving as a Conference minister. They include Synods in the early 1960s, not long after the UCC was formed, where Sporte said he and a group of non-voting participants used their voices in unconventional ways to draw attention to the issue of race.
The Rev. Yvonne Delk, the first African American woman ordained to ministry in the UCC, was both a long-time friend and colleague.
“There are persons that we meet at the crossroads of faith and witness – the places that have binding authority for who we are and who we will become as sons and daughters of God. I have known and worked with Bennie Whiten for the past sixty years as a friend, colleague, pastor, prophet, executive, advocate for justice,” said Delk. “His faith steeped in a commitment to God, to his roots, and the ‘beloved community’ has blazed a trail of social and spiritual transformation in the local, conference, national, global settings of the United Church of Christ.
“Born in the thirties in Shreveport, La., during the Depression, Bennie broke through the dividing walls of hostility, creating a path of faithful service, unity, justice, reconciliation. Bennie’s voice, spirit, passion, witness remains as a blueprint – inspiring us to become the community that God intends.”
‘A wonderful pastor’
Born in Shreveport in 1933 and raised in Dallas, Whiten received his undergraduate degree from Texas College in 1952 and his Bachelor of Divinity from Howard University School of Religion in 1958. He was ordained by the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1957 and received standing in the United Church of Christ in 1961.
He first served on the pastoral staff of First Reformed Church UCC, in Cincinnati, Ohio (1960-1965) as co-pastor with a white colleague of the economically and racially integrated inner-city church. He went on to serve in a number of mission and national ministry positions, including:
- Minister of Metropolitan Mission in New York City for the Metropolitan Association of the New York Conference, UCC (1965-1968)
- Deputy executive director of the New York City Mission Society (1968-1977)
- Associate executive director of the Community Renewal Society, Chicago, Ill. (1977-1991)
- Minister and president of the historic Massachusetts Conference UCC (1991-2000)
- Acting executive minister, UCC Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries (2005)
Whiten came out of retirement to serve as an interim executive minister on the national staff with the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president from 1999 to 2010.
“While Bennie will rightly be remembered for his superb leadership skills, his lifelong work for racial justice, and his broad knowledge of and commitment to the life of the United Church of Christ, he was also a wonderful pastor,” Thomas said. “As one who was the recipient of that gift, I am one of many pastors and lay leaders who are profoundly grateful to Bennie for his support and encouragement during difficult times.”
‘Deep integrity and steady leadership’
During his leadership of the historic Massachusetts Conference UCC, the Conference held an extraordinary 200th Annual Meeting & Bicentennial Celebration that brought together 12,000 people in Worcester, Mass., in 1999. A lasting legacy of his tenure was the Gift and the Promise Capital Campaign which, among other projects, raised funds to assist more than 100 local churches with internet connectivity and to fund an endowment which continues to support the ministries of the now Southern New England Conference today.
Dawn Hammond, now the executive minister for policy and finance for the Conference, served as business manager on the staff under Whiten.
“Bennie was a warm and good-humored leader of Conference staff, with an incisive mind and a deep lived commitment to justice,” she said. “He loved to quote Howard Thurman. He was an encouraging mentor to a young business manager. He was called as minister and president following a period of turmoil, and his deep integrity and steady leadership did much to rebuild trust among staff and throughout the Conference.”
The Rev. Jill Graham, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Sheffield UCC in Sheffield Mass., worked on the capital campaign with Whiten.
“It was there, in the early days of my ministry, that I experienced his commitment to the local church, especially our smaller congregations,” she said. “He was a true servant leader with a heart full of love and a life full of grace. He was a gift.”
Dick Harter, a long-time lay church leader in Massachusetts, co-chaired the capital campaign. He said he had “great affection and admiration for Bennie,” who was the first Black Conference Minister to serve the historic Massachusetts Conference.
“As a privileged white American, I had heard, but not understood, about ‘driving while Black,’” he recalled. “But I learned from Bennie that even so mild and distinguished a man practiced precautions against police violence when stopped by police. Over the years I had countless conversations with Bennie, but none made a more lasting impression.”
‘We have lost a giant’
A lifelong member of the NAACP, Whiten was involved in the struggle for civil rights and justice, as well as a strong advocate for the urban church. He was a member of the Illinois Conference Justice and Peace Network and a charter member of the Chicago Chapter of the United Black Christians.
Within the UCC nationally, he was one of the architects of the Office for Church and Society and later served as its chairperson. He was also chairperson of the Stewardship Council, president of the Board of Directors of the Insurance Board and served as a member of the UCC Executive Council. He served in interim pastor roles for several congregations and as adjunct faculty at Chicago Theological Seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary and the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, teaching courses in urban and public ministry and the Black church.
While Whiten carried many titles, he may be most remembered for the ways he paved the path for justice and impacted the people around him.
“Bennie was a fierce advocate for social justice in all its forms, a deeply tender and loyal friend, a consummate colleague in ministry,” said the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, who worked closely with Whiten as Conference ministers, he in Massachusetts, she in Connecticut.
“A man of huge intellect, expansive memory and deep commitment to the UCC, Bennie was known among us for his ability to complete the hardest crossword puzzles in no time flat, and for his instant reciting of a long piece of poetry when relevant. He not only didn’t suffer fools lightly – he didn’t suffer them at all, and yet he had a great sense of humor, a tender heart, and more managerial capacity than most anyone else. We have lost a giant.”
Whiten is survived by his spouse Sue Sporte, children Leslie M. Whiten, Bennie E. Whiten, III., Scott R. Sporte and Elizabeth L. Sporte, seven grandchildren, several great grandchildren and a niece.
His memorial service will be held at Pilgrim Congregational Church of Oak Park, Ill. on Dec. 31, 10:00 a.m. The service will be livestreamed, and it can be viewed on the church website or the church YouTube channel, where it will also be available for later viewing.
Tiffany Vail, director of Media and Communications for the Southern New England Conference, contributed to this story. She has also published an article on Whiten on the SNEUCC website.
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