Verna J. Dozier; D.C. Teacher, Episcopal Theologian

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Verna J. Dozier, 88, a retired D.C. public school teacher and administrator who became a leading theologian and lay preacher in the Episcopal Church, died Sept. 1 of complications from Parkinson's disease at Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville.

Ms. Dozier was a biblical scholar and a leader of Bible study seminars, a church consultant and an advocate and spokeswoman for the authority and ministry of the laity in religious communities. She led classes and workshops throughout the United States and overseas, made audio- and videotape recordings and was author or co-author of dozens of books, articles and pamphlets on spiritual concerns and issues.

Her books included "Equipping the Saints" (1981), a method of self-directed Bible study; "The Authority of the Laity" (1982), with Celia A. Hahn; and "Sisters and Brothers: Reclaiming a Biblical Idea of Community" (1993), with James R. Adams. Her personal favorite was "The Dream of God: A Call to Return" (1991), in which she argued that religious leaders too often ignore social justice to focus instead on spirituality. God wanted His people "to follow Jesus and not merely worship him," Ms. Dozier said.

A biography, "Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier," by Cynthia L. Shattuck and Fredrica Harris Thompsett, was published in June.

"She taught us to understand the ministry of the laity," the Very Rev. Martha Horne, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, wrote about Ms. Dozier in a 1999 article in the Living Church magazine. "In her speaking and writing, she challenged people to accept the authority they received in baptism, and to live out their faith in their homes and offices."

With a beautiful speaking voice, imbued with the cadences of the Bible and Shakespeare, and a vivid personality, she was able to express then-radical thoughts with tact, said friend Dee Hahn-Rollins. She said Ms. Dozier insisted that "what we did from Monday to Saturday was most important and we come to our Sunday experience to be refueled."

For 32 years, Ms. Dozier was an educator in the D.C. public school system, teaching English at Brown Junior High School, Cardozo Senior High School and Ballou Senior High School, then working as assistant director of the English Department at the schools' central headquarters until her retirement in 1975.

"I grew in those years into a ripe understanding, a rich understanding of what it means to be a good teacher," she said years later. "[I learned] to respect my students as teachers of me. And to value the teaching moment as that time in the present when students and teachers are in dialogue about the past for the benefit of the future."

A third-generation Washingtonian, Ms. Dozier was the daughter of a devout Baptist mother and a skeptical, agnostic and intellectually curious father who deplored what he perceived as the hypocrisy of a wealthy and privileged clergy. She later described her parents as "a marvelous combination."

When she reached junior high school, she received a Bible as a Christmas present. She read it cover to cover twice but didn't get anything out of it. She would later conclude that only through an organized and disciplined program of study could the Bible be properly understood.

"If you just dip into it, you may get a very distorted idea," she once said in a sermon. "If you dip into one part, you may think it's just a grim recital of do's and don'ts. If you dip into another part, you may think it's just a diatribe against women. If you dip into another part, you may think it's a polemic for the status quo. It would be like trying to understand a great painting by looking at the detail before you saw the whole painting."

Growing up in racially segregated Washington, Ms. Dozier attended the city's African American public schools.

She graduated two years early from Dunbar High School and, in 1937, from Howard University. The next year, she received a master's degree in English from Howard.

After joining the Episcopal Church in the 1950s, she held positions of spiritual authority and prestige, always as a laywoman.

She was chairman of the committee on ministry and director of the diocesan training project for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the Washington diocesan representative for the training series of the national Episcopal Church. She also clung to her identity as a black woman in the mostly white church.

At the 1989 Founders' Day Convocation lecture at the University of the South in Tennessee, she remembered "a painful experience when I was young, and a friend returned from a weekend at an interracial camp, gushing, 'The whole weekend I didn't know I was a Negro.' I dourly responded, 'They didn't have any mirrors at that place?' "

Ms. Dozier was a longtime member and former senior warden of St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, which honored her with a stained-glass window paid for by people from around the world who had heard her lecture over the years.

She had no immediate survivors.

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