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Remembering faith leaders who died in 2022: preachers, writers and interpreters of faith

In this year we lost people who were known for their political office but for whom religion played roles expectedly and unexpectedly.

Photo by Saad Chaudhry/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — As 2022 draws to a close, we remember people who loomed large in the world of religion, whether by preaching sermons, writing books or interpreting the meaning of their faiths.

This year these figures include those known by political titles, but whose religion played an expected or unexpected part in how we remember them. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who died in April at age 88, was a former bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a onetime recording artist who sang about faith. More unexpectedly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was 84 when she died in March, learned after she took that post that her family was Jewish and many members had died in concentration camps.

We also remember those who led denominations and religious organizations, including Bishop Mildred “Bonnie” Hines, the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Dan Busby, the longest-serving president of the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability.

We also bid farewell to journalists who illuminated our religion beat: Richard Dujardin covered religion for more than three decades for The Providence Journal; Cecile S. Holmes served as a Religion News Service correspondent, was religion editor at the Houston Chronicle, and taught journalism at the University of South Carolina. Both were past presidents of the Religion News Association.

Here are other prominent figures in the world of religion who died in 2022:

George O. Wood

George O. Wood was a longtime Assemblies of God leader, serving for a decade as the Pentecostal denomination’s general superintendent.

He died on Jan. 12 at the age of 80.

George O. Wood. Photo courtesy of Assemblies of God

George O. Wood. Photo courtesy of Assemblies of God


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Wood, who once recalled growing up listening to his mother and other women preach, saw the percentage of women ministers in the U.S. Assemblies of God increase from 19.2% to 24.3% during his tenure as the denomination’s leader.

His leadership was marked by a commitment to diversity in and outside of the Assemblies of God. Wood, who inherited an Executive Presbytery that had 14 white men when he assumed his position, left that body with 21 members, including seven ethnic and racial minorities and two women.

As the Assemblies marked its centennial in 2014 with a growing nonwhite membership, Wood attributed the denomination’s early lack of diversity to his predecessors’ obedience to segregationist culture rather than the ideals of Scripture.

“However, the Holy Spirit is a great corrector of behavior, and over a course of time, people more and more realized that this segregation and division among races was not ever God’s plan,” Wood told RNS. “As we look over 100 years, the majority of our history has been one of inclusion rather than exclusion.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh

The Buddhist monk known for his advocacy of individual responsibility for nonviolence and the environment died Jan. 21 (Jan. 22 Vietnam time) at age 95.

FILE - Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, center, arrives for a great chanting ceremony at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on March 16, 2007. Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West and socially engaged Buddhism in the East, has died at age 95 on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, according to an announcement on his verified Twitter page. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, center, arrives for a great chanting ceremony at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on March 16, 2007. (AP Photo, File)

The Zen spiritual leader spent almost four decades in exile from his native Vietnam because of his pro-peace advocacy. After the start of the Vietnam War, which he opposed, Hạnh founded the Engaged Buddhism movement, a term he first used in his 1967 book “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” He returned to Vietnam three years prior to his death, after expressing his desire to spend his last days at Tu Hiếu Temple, his root temple, in Hue.

When he turned 80 and was asked about possible retirement, the Buddhist leader responded: “Teaching is not done by talking alone. It is done by how you live your life. My life is my teaching. My life is my message.”

Leon Schwarzbaum

The Auschwitz death camp survivor who spent much of his life fighting for justice for Holocaust victims died March 14 at age 101.

FILE - Leon Schwarzbaum poses for a photo in his home during an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, Dec. 12, 2019. Schwarzbaum, holocaust survivor of the Nazis’ death camp at Auschwitz and lifelong fighter for justice for the victims of the Holocaust, has died. He was 101. Schwarzbaum died early Monday in Potsdam near Berlin. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

FILE – Leon Schwarzbaum poses for a photo in his home during an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, Dec. 12, 2019. Schwarzbaum, holocaust survivor of the Nazis’ death camp at Auschwitz and lifelong fighter for justice for the victims of the Holocaust, has died. He was 101. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

The only member of his Polish-Jewish family to survive the Holocaust, according to the International Auschwitz Committee, Schwarzbaum saw his experience recounted in the documentary “The Last of the Jolly Boys” directed by Hans-Erich Viet.

In 2016, Schwarzbaum declared at a trial of Nazi guard Reinhold Hanning, who was convicted shortly thereafter: “Soon we will both stand in front of the highest judge — tell everyone here what happened, the way I’ve done just now!”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky

“Rabbi Kanievsky’s influence on the Torah world was unparalleled,” said Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization of Orthodox Jews, in announcing his death March 18 at age 94. “He was widely known as the ‘Sar HaTorah,’ the Prince of Torah, the preeminent Torah authority of the generation.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in 2014. Photo by Dodi Friedman/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in 2014. Photo by Dodi Friedman/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanievsky at first insisted on keeping schools open for Torah study, but changed his mind two weeks later and supported governmental restrictions, The New York Times reported.

His modernizing rulings on traditional Jewish law ranged from a determination that child sexual abuse should be reported to authorities outside the Haredi community to disallowing (along with other Orthodox rabbis) so-called “Shabbat elevators,” which evade restrictions on using machinery on the sabbath by automatically stopping at each floor.

“When you ask him a question and he answers, it’s as if the Torah is speaking,” Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, editor of Yated Ne’eman, an Orthodox newspaper based in New Jersey, told The New York Times.

Ron Sider

Ron Sider, a seminary professor, social justice activist and author of “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity,” was 82 when he died on July 27.

Ron Sider. Photo via Palmer Theological Seminary

Ron Sider. Photo via Palmer Theological Seminary

Sider was the founder of Christians for Social Action (formerly known as Evangelicals for Social Action), which sought to encourage evangelical and other Christians to put their faith to work in support of the common good.

“The big lie of contemporary advertising is that we get love and joy and fulfillment through things,” said Sider in 2004. “Every religion in the world knows and says we get joy and fulfillment through right relationships with God and neighbor.”

Sider also edited a compilation of theological critiques of then-President Donald Trump, sought to address climate change and offered an expansive view of the meaning of the term “pro-life.

“We continue to be very concerned with abortion and we’re opposed to abortion,” said Sider in an RNS interview before the 2016 March for Life. “We want to reduce it, but it also relates to death by starvation and smoking and racism.”

Stuart Briscoe

The Wisconsin pastor, who died Aug. 3 at the age of 91, was noted for founding the “Telling the Truth” broadcast ministry series, and for converting the small Baptist Elmbrook Church, in suburban Milwaukee, into a 7,000-member nondenominational megachurch, the largest congregation in the state.

Stuart Briscoe in 2018. Photo © James G. Howes, 2018.

Stuart Briscoe in 2018. Photo © James G. Howes, 2018.

He also authored more than 40 books and was active in overseas missions.

“With untold gratitude to the Lord for allowing us to do what has been done and utter confidence that this ministry will carry on doing things God’s way as He continues to bring about surprise after surprise,” he wrote in a letter published after his death, “I move on and look forward to you eventually catching up with me.”

Frederick Buechner

The Christian writer and an ordained evangelist in the Presbyterian Church (USA), known as a “writer’s writer” and “minister’s minister” who influenced progressive and conservative Christians alike, died Aug. 15 at age 96.

Frederick Buechner in 2008. Photo by Blake Gardner/Frederick Buechner Center

Frederick Buechner in 2008. Photo by Blake Gardner/Frederick Buechner Center

Buechner was barely 24 when his first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying,” was published in 1950. Five years later, his short story “The Tiger,” published in The New Yorker, took third prize in the O. Henry Awards.

The man who grew up with no family church connections was struck by a sermon by the Rev. George Buttrick of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Buttrick reluctantly encouraged him to attend Union Theological Seminary, saying, the novelist recalled in his autobiography, “It would be a shame to lose a good novelist for a mediocre preacher.”

Buechner received a bachelor’s of divinity degree from the seminary and launched the religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the same year. He later held lectureships at Yale and Harvard universities and taught at Tufts University, Calvin College and Wheaton College.

The novelist who was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize summed up his preached and written words with a simple answer: “Listen to your life.”

Rembert Weakland

The retired Milwaukee archbishop, a liberal Catholic voice who resigned amid scandal, died Aug. 22 at the age of 95.

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland in 2002. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland in 2002. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Washington Post said in its obituary of Weakland he “was by all accounts a formidable intellect — he spoke six languages and was a musical prodigy who had studied at Juilliard as well as the seminary.”

The cleric, who spoke in public about his challenges with being gay, gave up his position in 2002 after a former theology student at Marquette University disclosed he had received a payment of $450,000 in 1997 to settle a two-decade-old sexual assault claim against Weakland. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee paid the sum, but Weakland insisted the contact was consensual, the AP reported.

Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II who ruled her country and the Church of England longer than any other British monarch, died Sept. 8 at age 96.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visits the set of the long-running television series "Coronation Street," in Manchester, England, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visits the set of the long-running television series “Coronation Street,” in Manchester, England, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Six years before becoming queen in 1952, the then 21-year-old princess said, “God help me to make good my vow.” One of the sacred promises declared in the traditional coronation ceremony was to uphold the Protestant religion.

Over the course of her reign, she met five popes — a noteworthy accomplishment given that her monarchy had broken sharply with Rome — and invited evangelist Billy Graham to preach for her several times. Buddhist and Jewish leaders attended her Platinum Jubilee thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in June, along with Anglicans and other Christians.

Bearing the two titles of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Elizabeth had left management of the church to bishops but in recent decades spoke of how her faith was a guide for her life.

“For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life,” she said in a Christmas message in 2000. “I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Youssef al-Qaradawi

The Egyptian cleric, who died Sept. 26 at age 96, was viewed as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

FILE -Senior Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef al-Qardawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 18, 2011. Al-Qardawi, a cleric who was seen as the spiritual leader of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, has died at the age of 96. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

FILE -Senior Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef al-Qardawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 18, 2011. Al-Qardawi, a cleric who was seen as the spiritual leader of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, died at the age of 96. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

The author of dozens of books, Al-Qaradawi “became the Islamist ‘voice of revolution’ during the popular uprisings around the Arab world more than a decade ago,” the Associated Press reported. In recent years he appeared on a weekly Al Jazeera television show “Al-Shari‘ah Wa’l-Haya” (or “The Shariah and Life”), where he answered call-in questions from viewers.

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations issued a statement in response to al-Qaradawi’s death describing him as “to many the most prominent and consequential scholar of Islam of our time.” But critics said he and the Brotherhood exercised extremism behind moderate language.

Brother Andrew

Known worldwide simply as “Brother Andrew,” Anne Van der Bijl founded the international nonprofit Open Doors, which provides Christian education, vocational training, and emergency relief to more than 60 countries. But the story of his early career, recounted in “God’s Smuggler,” his first of 16 books, reads more like that of an international spy.

Born in the Netherlands, he learned as a young man about the atheist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. He spent years smuggling Bibles into the former Soviet Union in a vehicle with a hidden compartment.

Brother Andrew gives a lecture in 2007. Photo by Jako Jellema/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Brother Andrew gives a lecture in 2007. Photo by Jako Jellema/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

“Lord, in my luggage I have forbidden Scriptures that I want to take to your children across the border,” he said in an advertisement published in Christian magazines. “When you were on earth, you made blind eyes see. Now I pray, make seeing eyes blind. Do not let the guards see these things you do not want them to see.”

He died Sept. 27 at age 94.

Calvin O. Butts III

The senior pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, died Oct. 28 at age 73, was active for decades in education, community development and HIV/AIDS prevention.

The Rev. Calvin Butts. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Calvin Butts. Courtesy photo

A Morehouse College graduate, Butts became the church’s 20th pastor in 1972, according to the church’s website. Butts often called for the Christian churches to be ready to serve the people outside their walls and not just those within their pews.

Under his leadership, the church founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a not-for-profit that has led to $1 billion in commercial and housing development in Harlem. He also played a key role in creating two schools associated with the church.

“You’ve got to do everything,” he said in a 2006 speech at a meeting sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “Churches, schools, health care, housing. You’ve got to take your people up to heaven so they can see what God has in store and then take them down to the ground so they can see what work is to be done.”

Michael Gerson

An evangelical Christian, Gerson worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush in the months after 9/11, fashioning Bush’s famous term “axis of evil” to refer to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, before joining the Washington Post as a columnist. In recent years he became known for calling out his fellow evangelicals for their support for former President Donald Trump.

He died Nov. 17 from complications of cancer at age 58.

Michael Gerson in an undated photo. Courtesy photo

Michael Gerson in an undated photo. Courtesy photo

A Post obituary said Gerson “wrote with an eye toward religious and moral imagery, and that approach melded well with Bush’s personality as a leader open about his own Christian faith.” 

The graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied theology, was a ghostwriter for Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and later a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report.

Gerson, author of the 2007 memoir “Heroic Conservatism,” critiqued evangelicals for their influence on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, placed blame for its incitement on Trump and called it the “desecration of democracy under the banner ‘Jesus Saves.’”

Gerson was open about his bouts of depression, for which he had been hospitalized and about which he later preached about at Washington National Cathedral.

“In my right mind, I know that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” he said in that 2019 sermon, quoting Psalm 30.

E.P. Sanders

The New Testament scholar who sought a more accurate understanding of early Judaism and encouraged Christian scholars to have a more sympathetic look at the beginnings of the faith died Nov. 21 at age 85.

E.P. Sanders in 2015. Photo by Scott Faber Photography

E.P. Sanders in 2015. Photo by Scott Faber Photography

In books such as “Jesus and Judaism,” “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” and “Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE–66 A.D.,” Sanders discussed how early Judaism and early Christianity relate to each other. He also urged fellow scholars to delve more deeply into ancient Jewish sources and avoid caricatures of Judaism in their own books.

After his education at Texas Wesleyan University and Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, his study of Hebrew abroad was funded by a church and a temple in Texas.

He later earned his Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary, taking classes across the street at Jewish Theological Seminary. A longtime professor of religion at Duke University, he retired in 2005. In 2016, he received the Shevet Achim Award from the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations for making outstanding contributions to Jewish-Christian Relations.

Sister Patricia Daly

The Dominican nun spent more than four decades seeking to foster socially responsible investing among corporations.

She died Dec. 9 at age 66.

Sister Patricia Daly. Video screen grab

Sister Patricia Daly. Video screen grab

Daly was “a force in socially responsible investing and waging campaigns through shareholder resolutions, appearances at company annual meetings, and dialogues with corporate chieftains to hold them accountable for their companies’ actions,” Global Sisters Report said in its obituary.

Several years ago a General Electric official recalled that when company staffers “would see Sister Pat on the streets of New York they would cross the street to avoid her.”

Daly, the emeritus director of the New Jersey-based Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment (now Investor Advocates for Social Justice) commented on that story in 2017. “Today we have a really great working relationship, and I think we can say that about more companies than not,” she said. “We are trusted at the table.”

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, for which Daly served as a board member, credited her with convincing GE to help fund the clean-up of New York’s Hudson River.


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