Gene Rice sat quietly at his desk last week and watched the 35 students in his Howard University theology class carry out his assignment: to discuss what modern-day moral lessons could be drawn from the Israelites' battles as depicted in the Book of Joshua.
A lively debate ensued, with some students finding biblical justification for the U.S. war in Iraq and others arguing the opposite. Without saying a word during the discussion, Rice drove home his message that the Bible can be interpreted to mean just about anything.
"I am trying to get you to the point where you can become responsible in interpreting Scripture," Rice told the Introduction to the Old Testament class. "The devil can interpret Scripture. It has been used to enforce segregation. It has been used by [cult leaders] Jim Jones and David Koresh."
It's a lesson the 78-year-old professor has imparted to students at Howard's School of Divinity for almost a half-century.
Rice's voice has weakened a bit over the years, but his teaching style and routine haven't changed much since the day he arrived at Howard in 1958.
He and his wife still live in their house at 16th Street and Argonne Place in Northwest Washington. He still comes to class in a blue suit, tie and crisp white shirt, and he has the same haircut he wore as a Marine during World War II. His current students, like those he taught decades ago, praise him for how he gives them room to express their ideas without straying too far from the focus of the discussion.
Last week, during the school's 87th Annual Convocation, Howard officials held a series of lectures and other programs in Rice's honor and paid tribute to him at a banquet attended by more than a hundred of his former pupils.
"Dr. Rice is an excellent teacher, a person who has warmth and compassion and yet firmness in his teaching," said Evans E. Crawford, the interim dean of the divinity school and one of the many speakers at the banquet at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt.
The list of Rice's students who have gone on to become prominent pastors includes Vashti M. McKenzie, the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in the District; Grainger and Joanne Browning, co-pastors of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington; and Walter S. Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in Baltimore.
Rice accepted the teaching job at Howard during his last year of studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, largely because of his interest in the civil rights movement, he recalled in an interview this week.
"I was talking to an Old Testament professor in the spring of 1958 at Union Theological and we were talking about the unrest in the South, and I was saying that I wanted to be part of what was going on," Rice said. "The professor said he had a request from the dean of the Howard University school of religion. But because I was from the South, he said that he hadn't said anything about it. I told him to submit my name."
A native of Middleboro, Ky., Rice has an eclectic religious background. He was raised in a Baptist home but became interested in the Quaker faith when he learned that some of his forebears had been Quakers and abolitionists during the Civil War.
He later received his undergraduate degree at Berea (Ky.) College, which was founded by an abolitionist in 1855 as an integrated school, and which is the alma mater of famed black educator Carter G. Woodson.
Although Rice still embraces the Quaker faith, his wife is Episcopalian and they attend Christ Episcopal Church of Alexandria.
At the recent banquet in Rice's honor, the Rev. Serenus T. Churn, pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., told the audience that he had never forgotten how Rice made the trip with him and five other Howard students to Alabama for the last leg of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965. "It was a dangerous time, but Dr. Rice was there," Churn said.
Rice, too, remembered the trip well. "I suggested that we pray every hour," he said. "There was apprehension. You could feel it. When we got to Montgomery, many of the people were afraid to join the march, but they stood on their porches and applauded as we marched by, and we applauded them."
Many of his former pupils lauded Rice's calm spirit in the classroom.
"He was patient, gentle and accepting," said Rabbi Gary S. Fink of Oseh Shalom Congregation in Laurel. "He was intellectually stimulating and personally embracing. He was a real gentleman."
The Rev. Stephen Short, the Pentecostal chaplain at Howard, said what he respected most about Rice was his emphasis on tolerance. "Rather than being combative and confronting, he was accepting" of other faiths, Short said. "He showed that Scriptures were not to be used to beat others over the head, but as a mirror to examine oneself."
The Rev. Diane Brenda Williams, pastor of New Genesis Baptist Church in the District, said that on the first day she walked into Rice's class, she was worried she would not be able to master the complexities of theology. "I was the only female in the class, and I was petrified," she said. "He started the class with a moment of silence." That immediately put her at ease, she recalled.
"He knew what it was to be spiritual -- he just didn't talk about it," Williams added.
But the soft-spoken teacher of leading preachers did some preaching of his own during the banquet.
"God has a way of taking the evil of the oppressors and turning it into good, or taking the stone that is rejected and making it the chief cornerstone," Rice said, as some in the audience shouted "Yes!" and "Preach!"
"Those who are treated unjustly know the true meaning of justice," he continued. "Those who have been deceived know the true value of truth."
Before he went to divinity school, Rice earned a Purple Heart as one of the Marines who staged an amphibious assault on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
In 1952, he married Betty Jean Smith. The couple have two children, a 44-year-old daughter who is in nursing and a 41-year-old son who is a Web designer.
Asked about his tenure at Howard, Rice answered, "This has been a real love story."
But it would be wrong to discuss Rice's teaching career in the past tense. Crawford, the interim dean at the divinity school, has made that mistake. He had envisioned last week's banquet as a retirement party for Rice. The guest of honor soon informed him otherwise.