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Activist Known As 'Minister Out On The Street'


May 24, 2009

Carl Dudley was an activist, an organizer and a maverick always ready to try to make a difference in his community.

"He had a passion for social ministry, how one carries faith into the challenges of society," said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary.

An ordained minister, Dudley was never comfortable with being an onlooker. "He was never afraid to confront anybody, someone who wasn't agreeing with him," said his wife, Shirley.

Dudley grew up outside Baltimore at a time when segregation was painfully visible. His father, Harold Dudley, owned a small construction company and his mother, Margaret, was a homemaker and a dedicated community volunteer and church leader. He also had an older sister. He was active in sports and in the youth group of the local Presbyterian church, and went to a local semi-military academy.

He attended Cornell University, where he played football and was a member of a club for American and international students. He left his fraternity to join a diverse group that provided an alternative to the Greek fraternity system. While in college, he met Shirley Sanford, who was a year behind him, and they married in 1955, the year after he finished at Cornell.

After graduation, Dudley received a draft notice, but he informed his draft board that he was a conscientious objector, and spent two years doing alternative service working with young gang members in Harlem. He later wrote that he had become a pacifist after a boyhood hunting trip, when he had been the one to slit a deer's throat.

Along the way, Dudley's career goal changed from social work to the ministry, and he enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in 1956. He was elected president of the student body and, during the summers, he and his wife worked in West Virginia mining camps doing church work and tried unsuccessfully to organize racially integrated work camps in Little Rock, Ark.

After Dudley graduated and was ordained, he and his wife moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he worked as associate minister of First Presbyterian Church, in a poor urban area, doing outreach work. His years there helped him with his later writings on how churches relate to the communities where they are located.

In 1963, Dudley became the first white minister at Berea Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, a predominantly black church in a neighborhood that was being rebuilt.

From the beginning, he was an activist, "the minister out on the street," said his wife, and he got involved in everything from civil rights protests to welfare demonstrations. Once, in Selma, Ala., Dudley was walking down the street with a black minister when they were nearly run over deliberately by a pickup truck. He also spent time in Chicago learning the techniques of Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer with a combative style.

"Carl was in some ways the apostle of the obvious," said Bill McKinney, former dean of the Hartford Seminary. "Hit the streets, find out what's going on in the your neighborhood. Reconnect. Meet the neighbors, get to know the realities people are facing."

Dudley ran unsuccessfully for the St. Louis school board, hoping he could make a difference as the education system wrestled with the problems of integration. He organized rent strikes in the city's public housing projects at a time when one project, Pruitt-Igoe, had become synonymous with squalid living conditions, and was appointed a housing commissioner by a mayor who was making an effort to remedy conditions.

The Dudley family, which included five children and a foster child, lived across the street from the church, which started a coffee shop and put on jazz performances in an attempt to engage members.

In 1974, Dudley accepted an appointment to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where he taught and began synthesizing his ideas on church development and social change in more than a dozen books that he wrote or edited.

He was far from the ivory-towered academician, despite his title of professor. "He never did leave the streets," his wife said. "He was a practical theologian." That meant taking his students on bus trips around the city, introducing them to different churches and different church styles, meeting people in neighborhoods and trying to discern their needs.

Dudley the strengths and weaknesses of small churches, and his book "Making the Small Church Effective," based on his experiences in St. Louis, still remains his most popular work.

In 1993, Dudley came to Hartford Seminary as co-director of the Center for Social and Religious, now called the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, where he continued his studies of church congregations, started a program for Latinos and continued his practice of involving students in the life of the city, introducing them to different churches and ministries all over Hartford.

After 9/11, he and others became concerned about the way the public perceived Arabs and Muslims, and worked to break down prejudice against the Muslim community.

Dudley helped develop a video that will be shown to all Hartford police officers to help them understand Muslim customs when it is completed later this month. "Carl was extremely concerned with the way Islam was being stereotyped," said Reza Mansoor, a Hartford cardiologist who is also president of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. "He wanted to take the dialogue to the next step."

Dudley also became active in the West End neighborhood where he lived and where the seminary is located, and revitalized the West End Civic Association, which he served as president for nine years. He rallied the group to persuade a bank office in the neighborhood from closing and urged it to work with the police department to reduce drug problems.

"The safety is far improved, thanks to Carl," said David Barrett, the association's current president. "He was a classic community organizer. ... He was a dynamic leader, [and] all about the practical: how to improve the lives of residents and property owners."

Dudley died of amyloidosis, a rare disease caused by the buildup of abnormal proteins in the heart.

Dudley's concern for others usually translated into action, and he swept others along with him. "You couldn't be a bystander in a Dudley-led group," Roozen said. "He had this wonderful ability to engage you and energize you and get you to move. You felt you wanted to go that way and coincidentally, that was the way Carl wanted you to go."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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