The tribute below was prepared for a small, private gathering honoring Dr. James Hal Cone. Sadly, Dr. Cone passed away April 28, 2018 before the event. We share this now as a tribute to his life and legacy.
It has been almost fifty years since we met. I began my studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the Fall of 1970. That was the year I took my first class with you in systematic theology. It was heavy on Karl Barth, but the roots of Black Theology were already being planted. I was around when the Union faculty, even some of its African American members were trying to understand what you were then proposing as a Black Theology. I spent more than a few evenings in your apartment in McGiffert Hall listening as you set forth your arguments deeply rooted in the Exodus story, the teachings of Jesus in Luke 4, the language of the spirituals, and the courageous voice of Henry McNeil Turner. I was there when you were establishing the “sources” and “norms” of Black Theology. I was there when you gave your lecture on The Spirituals and the Blues to mark your elevation to the status of full professor at UTS. I was there when the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference honored you with their Lifetime Achievement Award for your contributions to the church and the academy.
You were always there for me as well. You were there when I struggled with my decision to enter the Ph.D. program at Union/Columbia in Old Testament. When the faculty in the biblical field imploded in the midst of my degree program, you were there when I decided to move on and was installed in my first pastorate in Montclair, New Jersey. You were there in Cleveland, Ohio when a clergy group in which I was a member invited you to come and give as series of lectures. You were there as the keynote speaker when I was inaugurated as the 12th President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2012. You have always been there for me.
I wanted so much to be with you once more at the gathering planned by Serene Jones for next week. I wanted to tell you how your scholarly example impacted my life. I wanted to tell you that I went on to earn a Ph.D. because you held a Ph.D. I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed baby-sitting your children when I was a UTS student. I wanted to tell you how much I admired your longevity as a cutting-edge scholar. From Black Theology and Black power all the way to The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and over all the books and all the years and all the lectures in between, you were the teacher whose lessons I never stopped trying to learn. I wanted to tell you that the world of theological education has been irreversible impacted for the better by the doctoral students you groomed and graduated.
About four years ago, I started sending you my blog submissions from the newspaper here in Rochester, NY. I wanted you to know that this student of yours was carrying on the struggle for justice and inclusion. I wanted you to know that the lessons I learned about God identifying with the oppressed are being passed on and, hopefully lived out. I wanted you to know that you were, and you continue to be my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and my example of a life that is defined by loving God with all your mind.
Blessings on you for all you have done for me and for so many others,