Honoring the Life of Dr. Vincent Harding

Joanna Shenk with Aljosie and Vincent Harding at the Historic Roosevelt Center in Elkhart, Ind.
Joanna Shenk with Aljosie and Vincent Harding at the Historic Roosevelt Center in Elkhart, Ind. Joanna is on the national staff of Mennonite Church USA.

By Joanna Shenk

Last evening I received a phone call from Aljosie Harding to tell me of the passing her beloved spouse Vincent Harding. Soon after, this note came from Dr. Harding’s niece, Gloria Smith.

Dear Beloved Community,

At 5:11pm this evening [May 19], with the spirit of many ancestors surrounding him, the Great Soul, Dr. Vincent Harding, left this world. There are no details at this point. The family will post an update in the coming days.

The family expresses gratitude for the outpouring of love as you have prayed and sang, shared memories and love, Please keep Aljosie, Rachel, Jonathan, and all those who called Vincent, teacher, friend, brother, and uncle in your prayers.

Deeply grateful for his life.
Profoundly grieving for this loss.

As I grieve this loss, along with other Mennonites and so many others around the world, gratitude is profoundly present. Dr. Harding, or Uncle Vincent as he invited me to call him, was a mentor and teacher to me. He challenged me to tell my story and speak up with courage about movement building. He also connected me to a network of passionate and fierce activists, who continually enrich my life.

Over the past 60 years, Dr. Harding has also been a prophetic voice, teacher and mentor within the Mennonite church.  He co-pastored Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago for a few years in the late 50s. He was one of the first African American pastors in the General Conference Mennonite Church. In the early 60s, he and his late spouse, Rosemarie, moved to Atlanta to lead Mennonite House, an interracial Mennonite Voluntary Service unit. It was the first interracial voluntary service unit and the first interracial household in Atlanta.

They lived around the corner from Martin and Coretta King and became good friends. The Hardings were deeply involved in the Southern Freedom Movement, including Dr. Harding drafting King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which King delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. The Hardings also spoke at Mennonite churches and conferences about issues of race and Christianity.

In 2011 I interviewed Dr. Harding for the book I was editing, Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship. As Dr. Harding reflected back on the 1950s and 60s, he shared that Mennonites gave him his first public platform from which to talk about the church and social change. Find an excerpt from our interview here.

We miss you Dr. Vincent Harding, and we will carry on, creating the Beloved Community that you spoke of with such passion. As you taught us, we continue to sing:

We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
Builders must be strong!


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3 thoughts on “Honoring the Life of Dr. Vincent Harding

  1. Vincent Harding in later life was very kind to the Mennonites. What is missing from, for example, the New York Times obituary, is the fact that he left the Mennonite church in 1967. In a speech at Mennonite World Conference that year in Amsterdam that year, he was highly critical of the Mennonites for their cowardice in opposing the Vietnam War.

    Tobin Miller Shearer’s article in Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 82/2, titled “Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn With the Mennonites, 1958-1966” chronicles the background leading to Harding’s break with the Mennonites. (BTW this article is not currently listed on the MQR website, but it should be made freely available.)

    Mennonites have a very selective memory when it comes to their history of racism and complicity with the ongoing wars of the USA. The fact that Harding in recent years was quite gracious to the Mennonites should not obscure his radicalism. His history of blacks in America “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America” should be required reading for all Mennonites.

    Ross Bender
    Philadelphia, PA

    1. Thank you, Ross, for adding this depth of information. It is an important part of the story.

      What was interesting to me, as I was invited by Dr. Harding to interview him, was this graciousness that you note. I had planned a number of questions that got at the history you name above, but Dr. Harding did not show interest in those questions.

      I had wanted my interview with him to tell that story (of Mennonite cowardice to get involved in the movement), but that was not the story he wanted to tell.

      We never talked about why he didn’t want to focus on those questions, so I cannot say where he was coming from exactly. But it is something I have reflected on throughout my relationship with him.

      He did tell me though, that he never stopped being Mennonite. As he focused on other identities, Mennonites did not know how to accept him and his worked moved in new directions. He shares about this on pages 30 – 32 in “Widening the Circle.”

      Thank you again for what you added here. It is important part of the story and must not be forgotten.

      Joanna Shenk

      1. As I said, he was a very gracious man. I did not know him. The only time I had a chance to meet him briefly was at the African-American Mennonite Association special Peace Assembly in Atlanta, 1983.

        I have posted Tobin Miller Shearer’s article on my website, along with my 1983 review of Harding’s book “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America.”

        Lest we forget,

        Ross Bender

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