UCC leader Charles Shelby Rooks dies

Charles Shelby Rooks reading names of persons who had died from AIDS. The reading took place in October 1989 at a Washington, D.C., display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Bill Johnson photo.

The Rev. Charles Shelby Rooks, an influential leader in the United Church of Christ and in the African-American religious community, died Saturday, May 19, 2001, at Sentara General Hospital in Norfolk, Va., from complications following heart surgery. He was 76.

A memorial service will be held July 28 at 2 p.m. in the Amistad Chapel of the United Church of Christ’s Church House in Cleveland. In lieu of flowers, the Rooks family has asked that donations be made to the Rooks Scholarship Fund, UCC Local Church Ministries, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100.

Headed Homeland Board

Rooks had a long career as pastor, scholar and administrator. He was executive vice president of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries from 1984 until his retirement in 1992.

As president of Chicago Theological Seminary from 1974 to 1984, he was the first African American to lead a predominantly white theological school.

Earlier, he had headed the Fund for Theological Education, Princeton, N.J., and had been pastor of Lincoln Memorial Temple UCC in Washington, D.C.

“Shelby’s commitment to theological education and the public responsibility of the church will be an enduring legacy for a church seeking leaders sensitive to the Gospel’s demands of justice,” says the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.

As the Board for Homeland Ministries’ chief executive officer ? based in New York City until 1989, and from 1990 on in Cleveland ? Rooks oversaw programs involving outlays of $20 million a year in health and welfare, higher education, evangelism and church extension, Christian education, publication and social justice ministries.

Major black religious leader Rooks strengthened the UCC’s educational ministries and supported a strong AIDS ministry as well as ministries for the homeless and for community action. Throughout his career, he advocated the training of African-American church leaders. He was founding president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion and served for 14 years with the Fund for Theological Education in Princeton.

For African Americans, Rooks said, “The truth is this: only religion provides the consistent meaning and value that enables oppressed people not only to survive, but to overcome their problems and difficulties.”

Author Henry J. Young lists Rooks as one of 14 major black religious leaders since 1949 along with the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Rooks himself was a frequent writer and lecturer. His articles appeared in more than 30 journals. He wrote three books: “Revolution in Zion: Reshaping African-American Ministry” (New York City: The Pilgrim Press, 1989); “The Hopeful Spirit” (New York City: The Pilgrim Press, 1987), and “Rainbows and Reality” (Atlanta: The ITC Press, 1985).

Beyond the Homeland Board, Rooks had a long record of service to denominational and ecumenical boards and councils. For many years, he chaired the board of directors of the UCC’s Office of Communication, helping to shape a program to combat discrimination in broadcasting.

He also chaired the seminary section of the denomination’s Council on Higher Education and served the National Council of Churches on the boards of its Department of Ministry, Division of Church and Society, and Commission for Higher Education.

UCC roots

Rooks was born Oct. 19, 1924, in Beaufort, N.C. His family’s roots in the UCC tradition extend as far back as 1879, when his great-great granduncle, Michael P. Jenkins, organized a Congregational church in Beaufort. He subsequently lived in Harlem and Brooklyn, N.Y., and in Norfolk, Va., where he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School.

Following military service, Rooks earned a B.A. degree from Virginia State University in 1949 and an M. Div. degree in 1953 from Union Theological Seminary in New York. He did additional graduate study at Columbia University Teachers College in New York, England’s Mansfield College of Oxford University, The North American College in Rome, Italy, and the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He held honorary degrees from nine institutions.

Rooks is survived by his wife of nine months, the former Elaine Hunter Young; sons Laurence G. Rooks of Gilbert, Ariz., and William P. Evers of Mequon, Wis.; stepson Dr. James E. Young of Perrysburg, Ohio, and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife of almost 53 years, the former Adrienne Martinez of New Orleans, and his daughter, Carol.

Cards should be sent to Elaine Rooks at 1065 Grand Oak Lane, Virginia Beach, VA 23455.

Hans Holznagel is assistant to the UCC Collegium for community life.

Categories: UC News

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