From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Valerie Russell, UCC executive, dies at 55

Date 24 Feb 1997 11:32:23

Feb. 24, 1997
Office of Communication
United Church of Christ
Barb Powell
(216) 736-2217
On the World Wide Web:

Valerie E. Russell, national church leader
and former head of City Mission Society of
Boston, dies of cardiac arrest

      CLEVELAND -- Valerie E. Russell, Executive
Director of the United Church of Christ's Office for
Church in Society and former head of the City Mission
Society of Boston, died Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23,
1997, of an apparent heart attack while in transit at
the Raleigh-Durham (N.C.) airport.  She had been
attending the annual meeting of national and regional
UCC executives, held last week in Orlando, Fla.  She
was 55.
      A funeral service will be held Tuesday, March 4,
at 10 a.m. at Pilgrim Congregational Church, United
Church of Christ, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland,
followed by a memorial service in Boston on Friday,
March 7.
      In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to
the "Valerie E. Russell Scholarship Fund for Young
Black Women."  Send donations, in the form of a check
made out to "Office for Church in Society"? and
earmarked "Russell scholarship fund," to the UCC
Office for Church in Society, 700 Prospect Ave., 7th
floor, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100.
      Russell assumed leadership of the United Church
of Christ's primary social justice agency in 1991, and
moved to the UCC's national offices in Cleveland from
Boston.  Her home was in Lakewood, Ohio, although she
retained her church membership in Eliot Congregational
Church, a United Church congregation in Roxbury, Mass.
      As the head of the Office for Church in Society,
Russell helped provide leadership for social action
concerns in the United Church by doing advocacy work
on social and political issues in Washington, D.C. 
Her lifelong call to lay ministry was shaped by her
experiences as a young woman.
      "My mother was trapped in a world as a black
woman where she had to struggle so hard for her own
survival that she could not see a better life for her
children," Russell said recently.  "My mother's vision
was shortened by racism and the limits it imposed."
      Russell fought those limitations.
      "Maybe one of the central factors about my life
is that I came of age at the heart of the civil rights
movement," Russell said in a 1991 interview.  In the
1960s, she was part of the group that started the
Massachusetts chapter of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, and participated in the Selma
March and the March on Washington.
      "I think that faith is only real when it's
shaped out of every generation?s struggle," she said. 
"Every time has to redefine the moral imperative and
what the gospel has to say to meet the challenges of
that age."
      As a laywoman, Russell saw the need for the
church to empower and recognize the gifts of lay
leaders, and to nurture future leaders of the church.
      "I challenge you to jump off the cliff and build
your wings on the way down," she told 1,000 junior and
senior high school students in at the UCC's National
Youth Event in 1992.  "What is your good news?  What
are YOU shouting from the mountain top?  Dare to jump
off the cliff!"
      "Valerie was a saint of the church," said the
Rev. Dr. Paul H. Sherry, President of the United
Church of Christ.  "She was a dear friend to us all, a
visionary leader, and a passionate and eloquent
advocate for justice and compassion for all people,
everywhere. We will miss her dearly, even as we thank
God that she rests in God's loving arms."
      Before coming to the United Church's national
offices in 1991, Russell served as President of the
City Mission Society of Boston for 10 years.  She was
the first woman and the first layperson to head the
181-year-old mission society, which is related to the
UCC.  Before that, in 1980 and 1981, she was director
of the 50th Anniversary National Conference on the
City at The Riverside Church in New York City.
      Russell was assistant to the president of the
United Church of Christ from 1973 to 1979, when the
national offices were in New York City.  She also
coordinated the work of the UCC's Advisory Commission
on Women, a predecessor body of its Coordinating
Center for Women in Church and Society.  She was a
Hoskins lecturer at Yale Divinity School (New Haven,
Conn.) in 1975 and 1976, and held various positions
with the YWCA from 1968 to 1973.
      Russell was taught about institutional racism by
Dorothy Height, when she served as Height?s assistant
at the YWCA.  "We fought institutional racism and made
it the first imperative of the National YWCA, a goal
that remains important to the YWCA today," Russell
said in a November 1996 interview.
      In 1972, Russell attended the Black Political
Convention in Gary, Ind.  "We were determined to set
an agenda for black people," she recalled.  "Shirley
Chisolm was pushing us to organize our communities and
make us a more viable political presence in this
country.  I was fired up!"
      A stroke in 1993 changed Russell's life. 
Resulting physical disabilities meant she needed a
wheelchair, which caused her to focus more on
accessibility issues.
      "There are so many places that don't invite
people in wheelchairs, and too often, the church is
one of those places," she said recently.  "The
church's theology is about the broken body of Christ. 
I am outraged that our practice is so inconsistent
with our theology.  It is sad we violate the center of
our faith and exclude so many of God's people."
      Russell was the daughter of the late Carrie B.
Jones and John R. Russell of Massachusetts.  She was
born April 4, 1941, in Winchester, Mass., and
graduated from Winchester High School in 1959.  She
earned a B.A. degree cum laude from Suffolk University
in Boston (1967), and did graduate work in sociology
at Columbia University in New York City.  Russell held
an honorary Doctor of Theology degree from Lafayette
College in Easton, Pa.
      Russell also served on boards of the National
Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. 
>From 1981 to 1991, she team taught a course on urban
ministry at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass.,
with the Rev. George W. (Bill) Webber, a UCC minister. 
She also co-founded Christians for Justice Action, a
UCC social justice group.
      "I believe that ministry is a work of the whole
people of God," she once said.  "I think my role in
that is to enable persons to find their own voices; to
acknowledge their own courage in meeting and
dialoguing with the stranger; in making an affirmation
that we are all God's children; and that whether we're
talking about war or AIDS, God doesn't have any 'good
guys' or 'bad guys.'  God only knows that His -- or
Her -- children are suffering."
      Russell is survived a sister, Marcia A. Russell
of Winchester, Mass., and two brothers, Bruce S. Jones
of Marblehead, Mass., and John R. Russell of
Cambridge, Mass.
      The United Church of Christ, with national
offices in Cleveland, is a 1957 union of the
Congregational Christian Churches and Evangelical and
Reformed Church. Its Office for Church in Society,
whose institutional roots go back 60 years to the
UCC's predecessor bodies, continues its historical
tradition of working for peace and justice through
studying the gospel in its bearing on people in
society, making the implications of the gospel
effective in society and publishing information on
social issues.
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