Saturday, May 9, 2015

What I said at Warren's retirement celebration

Warren Dennis and Robert Brashear

On the occasion of the retirement of Warren Dennis 

Thank you for the opportunity   to share a few words this evening on the occasion of the retirement of Warren Dennis. You have heard much about Warren’s career in academia and his impact as a teacher and a pedagogue. I too was one of Warren’s students and am thankful for it. But I am here tonight to bring greetings on behalf of the Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) and Warren’s witness within his national denomination the Presbyterian Church USA.

It is truly an honor to be part of this night’s dinner and celebration. It was a great dinner. And I knew it was going to be a great dinner because of  so many dinners  I shared in so many cities with Warren Dennis,  Now we all know Warren as an urban theologian, but I know Warren as an urban epicure. No matter where we were, I could always count on Warren to find the very best  (and here Phil Tom shouts most expensive) item on any menu.

I also am here to remind us that whenever Warren had to make a point to make, he wouldn’t stop until it was made. Once, at a PHEWA biennial in San Diego, a bunch of us, including  Phil Tom and Mark Wendorf  and John Scotland went on a whale watching tour. Warren was deep into theological reflection and when he emerged, he was ready to share.  We were on the back of the boat and I was directly in front of him. As he continued to speak, I noticed my friends on either side slowly slipping away. Finally, there was only me with Warren in front and the ocean  behind me. I only hoped that he finished his  point before I was over the edge and into  the ocean to join the whales. When Warren had something to say, it was going to get said.

Warren has his say
Warren was one of the founding  organizers of networks of urban practitioners, both Community Ministries and Neighborhood Organizations (COMANO) and the Urban Presbyterian Pastors Association (UPPA) because he believed, like Gustavo Gutierrez, that theology comes from the ground up not from heaven down and that it was the job of the academy to help practitioners find the  language to express and tools to exegete the theology that was already being lived out at the grassroots level. As a teacher, he was the greatest embodiment I have ever known of Freirian pedagogy wherein we know our lives and our work as part of the text that informs our reflection whereby we become subjects of our own history.

Warren was the PHEWA  chair during some of our most tumultuous days following budget cuts and the downsizing of our staff and disagreement over the meaning of the word covenant. He helped to shape the conversation that kept that idea alive.

I have known Warren so long that when we began, the issue was white flight and white people leaving the cities and now we can’t keep them out as gentrification defines the day. I have heartfelt conversations with my son about his moving into Bushwick (in Brooklyn) as I myself have moved into Harlem as I can no longer afford to live in my  old neighborhood.

In the anxious apocalyptic days following 9-11, Warren helped me to gather a national  group of colleagues at my church in Upper Manhattan to have a conversation about the content  of urban ministry in the context of what we had just experienced. Again, helping us find the language to express the meaning of our experience.

At some point, he said to me, we have gone from being young Turks to gray beards in the blink of an eye. Warren has helped to inspire and equip the next generation of young Turks while continuing to  value and use the gifts of his fellow gray beards.
Former young Turks, now gray beards Ron Peters, Robert Brashear, Phil Tom

As a student, I am forever thankful for what I have learned. As a teacher, my pedagogy has been changed forever. As a colleague, I have been supported and sustained. Warren, on behalf of PHEWA, I say thank you. There can be no greater response to your ministry of pedagogy than to say, let the conversation continue.

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