Cal Barton, Contributing Photographer

The Yale Divinity School held its yearly alumni awards event last Thursday via Zoom, honoring graduates who, according to Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling, are “living embodiments” of the school’s values.

The annual prizes are awarded by vote of the Divinity School’s alumni board, which narrows down top contenders from a pool of individuals personally nominated by fellow Divinity School alumni. Although four prizes are awarded every year, eight individuals — both the 2021 and 2020 winners — were honored in this year’s ceremony, as no event was held last year due to the pandemic.

Sterling welcomed the virtual guests and then Rev. Wilma Reichard DIV ’77 DIV ’79 offered an opening prayer. Each prize winner was introduced by either Alisha Lola Jones DIV ’07, president of the alumni board, or Jimmy Canton DIV ’93, chair of the awards committee, after which each awardee made a brief acceptance speech. The 2020 and 2021 ceremonies were separated by an intermission — a pre-recorded musical performance by the Yale Black Seminarians.

The first award, for “Distinction in Theological Education,” was presented to Javier Viera DIV ’00 and Robert Wilson DIV ’67 GRD ’72. Viera — whose career path became clear after being told during an internship by a U.S. congressman that “the world needs a lot more good ministers than politicians” — is the first person of color to hold the office of president at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Wilson has been on the Divinity School Old Testament faculty for 50 years — a professor and advisor “out of legend,” as put by Jones.

“The most deep impact that YDS has had on my life has been by being a partner and a resource for me in the many years since I’ve been away from New Haven,” Viera shared after receiving his award. 

The second award, for “Distinction in Congregational Ministry,” was presented to Rev. Dr. Shelley Best DIV ’00 and United Methodist Bishop Jane Middleton DIV ’78 for showing “exceptional pastoral competence in the work of the mission of local congregations.” Best currently serves as both president of the Hartford-based Conference of Churches and senior pastor of Redeemer’s Church. Middleton was the first woman to serve in every position she has ever held and was the first United Methodist minister to ordain an openly gay elder.

The “William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice” was presented to David Dodson ’77 DIV ’81 and Kaji Douša DIV ’06. The award is named in honor of William Sloane Coffin DIV ’56, long-time peace activist and former Yale University chaplain, and is given to YDS alumni who “share Coffin’s courageous devotion to the dignity of all persons.” Dodson is a senior fellow of MDC, a “think tank with muddy boots” that works to improve economic mobility in the American South. Douša is senior pastor of the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City — the first woman to serve the role in the congregation’s 210 year history. 

“To have my work associated in any way with Bill Coffin’s brave and bold witness is a huge honor,” Dodson said. “He was not just university chaplain during my days at Yale College; he was really chaplain to my generation, inspiring young people to use their gifts to attack the disfiguring social contradictions of racism and war.” 

Dodson closed his acceptance speech by saying the award would give him “fresh inspiration” to keep at the work of justice and equality — “just as Bill Coffin would hope and expect,” he added.

Finally, the “Lux et Veritas” award was presented to Jerry Streets DIV ’75 and Elijah Heyward III DIV ’07 for “excellence and distinction in applying the compassion of Christ to the diverse needs of the human condition.” Streets, a former University chaplain, has been an adjunct professor at YDS since 1987 and currently serves as senior pastor at New Haven’s historic Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ. Heyward is a guiding force behind the International African American Museum, which will open in South Carolina next year, and advised YDS on the conception and execution of a portrait of James W.C. Pennington, the first Black person to attend YDS classes in the 1830s.

The event had the atmosphere of a family reunion. It became clear, in breakout rooms after the ceremony, that everyone knew everyone. Douša remarked that she “grew up” with Streets, and Wilson was her first professor at the Divinity School. 

In his acceptance speech, Wilson shared an anecdote: many years ago, Wilson asked a student why she chose to come to Yale Divinity School over other schools she was considering. As Wilson recounted, the student said her mentor told her the following: “Any of the schools you are considering will give you an excellent education. But Yale will give you a world.”

The Yale Divinity School is located at 409 Prospect Street in New Haven, Connecticut.