In Memory of Harry Smith and Jim Costen

Theodore J. Wardlaw
President, Austin Theological Seminary 

Covenant Network Luncheon
May 26, 2003
215th General Assembly, Denver

 “A prince is fallen in Israel.”

To put it more accurately, three princes who have mattered so much to our dear church – all of them fallen since our last General Assembly: Clint Marsh, and Covenant Network Advisory Board members Harry Smith (my dear friend and mentor) and Jim Costen.

I have been asked to remember Harry’s and Jim’s witness on this occasion. The Rev. Dr. Harry Edmund Smith was born and raised in Austin, Texas, was graduated from Yale University Divinity School and received the Ph.D. degree from Drew University. He served with distinction as Presbyterian Campus Minister at the University of North Carolina, and the campus center of the University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill now bears his name. For all of his adult life, his primary passion was the relationship between faith and higher education. As a member of the Yale Divinity School faculty, Harry served as President of the Society for Values in Higher Education; and it was from Yale that he answered the call to become the President of Austin College, a Presbyterian college in Sherman, Texas-in 1979.

A few months after Harry and his family departed New Haven to move to Sherman, Kay and I arrived in New Haven where I did a post-seminary degree at Yale Divinity School. Harry’s aura still lingered there, but I did not meet Harry at Yale. I met him four years later, when I accepted the pastorate of a small Presbyterian Church in Sherman that sat on the edge of the Austin College campus and right next-door to the President’s House.

It was there in Sherman that I became Harry’s pastor, and then his friend. Harry was a mentor and a father-figure to me. He was also a relentless practical jokester. I was the recipient of countless jokes and pranks, both in my years of ministry in Sherman and for the rest of Harry’s life. I also dished out a few well-placed practical jokes myself, but further details should be shared on some other occasion. Harry had a well-developed sense of whimsy, which, perhaps, is why he was always such an immediate success with children. In spite of his prominence and station as an educator and church leader, he didn’t take himself so very seriously. He was as comfortable to be with as an old shoe.

Harry had a passion for the things that matter; and these matters of justice and mercy were things which he indeed did take so very seriously. He and his beloved Etta were willing on multiple occasions to stand up publicly for those persons and issues that might otherwise be marginalized; and in their witness one could easily get a glimpse of the mind of Christ. Harry was a “suburb of God’s dissent,” and the world was graced by his restless intellect and his courageous presence in it.

It is also my privilege and honor to remember today the Rev. Dr. James H. Costen. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska; Jim Costen graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. Following seminary, he served a congregation in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, before moving to Atlanta to become the organizing pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Master in 1965. Four years later, he was called to be the Dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, which had recently moved from North Carolina to join the consortium of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

Following his election in 1983 as Moderator of the General Assembly of the reunited Church, Costen was elected president of the I.T.C. On his watch as President, the I.T.C. became the largest predominantly black theological institution in the world. He served in that post until 1997. Certainly his proudest achievement, though, was having the good sense to meet and marry Melva, who is and has been for many years a professor of worship and music at I.T.C. and chaired the committee that put together the present hymnal.

In his latter years, Jim Costen focused his energies upon building up the resources of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa. He made numerous trips to Kenya, led numerous church groups to Kenya, and – ever the consummate fund-raiser – raised an impressive amount of money for the construction of buildings needed for the Presbyterian College there. In March of this year, a building was dedicated in his and Melva’s name. He was unable to be there, because of his illness, but she was present at the dedication.

Jim Costen leaves a distinguished legacy as a pastor, dean, president, moderator, presbyter, ecumenist, mission promoter, husband, father and grandfather. He made friends easily, and today they are everywhere – cutting across racial, social, geographic, economic and theological lines. He served on numerous boards and agencies over the years, in the Presbyterian Church, in theological education, and in Atlanta.

It was in Atlanta that I was fortunate enough to work with Jim Costen and to count him, too, as a father, brother and friend. During a period in 1998, when I was on sabbatical, the church I served – Central Presbyterian Church – was privileged by his service there as Pastor Pro Term. He endeared himself to that congregation through his pastoral care and pulpit ministry.

What I, and I suspect we, will miss the most about Jim Costen was the way in which his warm face and his beautiful voice radiated the grace and power of the gospel. I and we will also miss his infective humor and his sweet piety.

Once Kay and I spent a wonderful evening in Jim’s and Melva’s home, and Clint and Agnes Marsh were also there. We all enjoyed a wonderful meal, at the end of which Jim posed a question that shaped our conversation for the rest of the evening. The question was: “Where is it that you are sensing in these days the peace of God in your life?

Surely he knew of that peace better than most. I’m told that, even in his last days, he was particularly aware of God’s peace; and nurses report that, near his end, he carried on numerous conversations with someone named “Randy.”

What about that for a thought? Randy Taylor – another icon and Jim’s partner in that long work of reunion – standing there at the gates of heaven to be among the first to welcome Jim home!

The church in every age is nourished by images of hope like that: that somewhere, deep in the heart of God, there’s a banquet going on at which Jim and Randy and Harry and Clint and all the other saints are already seated!

Think about that for just a little while, and you’ll discover that even a meal like this one is hardly ordinary anymore.

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