An icon, no question about it

From the Episcopal Diocese of Washington

By Lucy Chumbley

Verna Dozier, a well-loved lay theologian, author, mentor and Christian educator in the Episcopal Church, died on Friday September 1, at Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville, Md. She was 88.

“She was without a doubt one of the most creative thinkers in the 20th century church,” said the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Bishop of Washington. “She made us all very proud to be from this diocese and to have known her.”

Dozier attended St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill for more than 45 years, and was that church’s first black parishioner.

She is something of a legend at St. Mark’s, where she often preached and where, in 1999, around 500 people attended the dedication of a stained glass window created in her honor, lining up to shake her hand and tell her what she meant to them.

In her window, Dozier is pictured with her younger sister, Lois – who died the year before the window was dedicated – and the prophet Amos, a champion of social justice.

“She’s an icon at St. Mark’s, no question about it,” said Jan Hoffman, one of Dozier’s closest friends.

A third generation Washingtonian, Dozier started life as a Baptist, attending the 19th Street Baptist Church with Lois and her mother, Lucie, who were lifelong members of that congregation.

Her family was poor: Her father, Lonnie, had never graduated from high school and had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Yet each night, the two girls would read aloud from the Bible and from Shakespeare – the only books they owned.

Building on this solid foundation, Dozier attended Howard University, where she earned a master’s degree in English literature and went on to become a school teacher.

As a young woman, Dozier was drawn to the Episcopal Church by the beauty of its liturgy, and was invited to join the all-white congregation of St. Mark’s by its young rector, the Rev. Bill Baxter.

“He said, ‘Verna, this church is ready for a black,’” Hoffman said.

“He told her a lie, really, that St. Mark’s was ready to be integrated,” said Dee Hahn Rollins, another friend. “But she dealt with that in a wonderful way.”

Not everyone was ready for integration, Hoffman said, recalling that she and her roommate were evicted from their Arlington apartment in 1955 for having Dozier to visit.

In 1975, after more than 30 years of teaching Shakespeare to inner city students, Dozier retired from the school system. But always the teacher, her Bible study began in earnest.

Rollins, who was in charge of women’s activities in the Diocese of Indianapolis at the time, heard about Dozier’s method of Bible study, in which scripture is examined in significant sections using different translations of the Bible.

She invited her to lead a conference at the diocese.

“I went to the airport and picked her up, and it changed my life,” Rollins said. “It changed her life, too.”

It was Dozier’s first real job teaching the Bible and the start of her second career.

She went on to give workshops all over the country – even traveling to Kenya on several occasions – and quickly became a sought-after speaker for retreats and conventions.

“She was tremendous with the Bible,” Hoffman said. “She knew so much, and she was such a vital person… She certainly was an excellent teacher. She used to preach a lot, too – she preached all over.”

Her sermons were always rooted in scripture, Hoffman said. And although social justice was often a theme, her actions spoke louder than her words, her friends said.

“She didn’t have an edge with her preaching,” Rollins said. “She never pushed an agenda, so to speak. When you listened to Verna, who she was spoke louder.”

“She was an activist with words,” Hoffman said. “But she had a feeling that there was a way that you dealt with things that did not make the gap wider, with things like racism.”

A powerful presence in the pulpit, Dozier was clear about her role as a lay preacher, and never felt the need to wear vestments, said Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon.

“She really saw the ministry of the laity as critical for the life and fulfillment of the church,” Dixon said. “She was never in awe of clergy – not with bishops or anyone else. She just saw them as people with another role to fulfill.”

For the 30 years she knew her, Dozier was her friend, mentor and advocate, Dixon said.

“When I first met Verna, she was really just taking off – her life with the church,” she said. “I saw, watched and learned from this extraordinary woman at the height of her ability.”

Dozier’s ability to ask wonderful questions and to really pay attention to the answers impressed her. “She never put anyone down – she never patronized, no matter what you did,” Dixon said.

But she also wasn’t afraid to tell it straight.

“Besides her love and friendship, Verna always called you to be your best,” Hoffman said. “She was affirming, but she was always so real.”

“That was her gift to me,” Dixon said. “That she loved me enough to tell me the truth.”

While her book “Equipping the Saints” sets out her style of Bible study, those close to her say her book, “The Dream of God: A Call to Return” best describes her beliefs.

“That really tells you who Verna is more than anything else,” Hoffman said. “What she believed.”

The book claims that as an institution, the church has fallen short of the dream of God. It reminds Christians that they are not called to worship Jesus, but to follow him.

Strong in her faith, Dozier was also emphatic that there was no way to truly be certain.

“Verna used to say that faith in God is that there are no guarantees,” Dixon said. “It is a faith enterprise. It is a risk. She was clear that that certainty that people so yearned for in a religious faith was not given to human beings.”

But she was willing to risk her life for the promise of the Gospel.

“She always used to say, ‘I might be wrong,’” Dixon said, breaking into a smile. “’But I believe it.’”

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