Civil rights activist, pastor and social work professor Titus Bender was a catalyst for social change

When African American civil rights activist Vincent Harding and his wife visited Meridian, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, they met Titus Bender for the first time.

Bender, then a Mennonite pastor, activist and social worker, arranged to rendezvous with the Hardings at a local gas station to guide them into town. When the two men got out of the car, Bender greeted Harding with the traditional Mennonite greeting of the Holy Kiss — in full view of a group of older white men.

It was “a bold kind of risk-taking,” Harding remembered* — the same spirit that Bender brought back to his alma mater in 1976 after years of social activism, ministry and service. He taught in the social work department until his retirement in 1997.

Bender passed away Dec. 8, 2017, at Fairfax Inova Hospital. He was 85.

Titus and Ann Bender greet EMU’s new president Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman during the week of her inauguration. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

A memorial service will be Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at 9:30 a.m. at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Dr. Michael King and Joan Kenerson King will officiate. A reception will follow the memorial service.

Visitors are welcome at the family’s home, 1236 Quince Drive, Rockingham, VA 22801, on Thursday, Dec. 14, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Reflections from a colleague and friend

Ray Gingerich, professor emeritus of theology and ethics, first met Bender when the two were students at EMC in the late 1950s. Pre-figuring his time in ministry, Bender was then president of the Young People’s Christian Association (YPCA), which was for many years the largest active club on campus with most of the student body as members.

In 1977, when Gingerich arrived with his family to campus, “Titus was there,” he said. “By the next fall, he and I were team-teaching a course called ‘Peace and Justice,’ a course that marked the beginning of what is now known as the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.”

The course was so popular, attracting around 70 students in its debut that fall of 1978, that two sections were formed. The duo continued to teach variations of the original course for the next 19 years.

“But of greatest importance to me was Titus’s impact on my own life and theology, made possible because of his deep engagement in the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the ’60s,” Gingerich says. “Though I never met him personally, Martin Luther King Jr., through Titus’s passion, became for me second to Jesus. My teaching at EMU transformed my life. And Titus Bender — ever a dearest friend — played a central role in that transformation.”

In Mississippi

Titus Bender was the middle child of nine, born to Nevin and Esther Bender in Greenwood, Delaware. He attended Lancaster Mennonite High School and then Eastern Mennonite College, where he met his future wife Anna (Ann) Yoder. After getting married in 1958, they moved to Mississippi, where they were directors of the Voluntary Service Unit.

Titus Bender chats with a student at Eastern Mennonite College. (EMU file photo)

Bender was a social worker in the state’s second largest city, and also pastored Fellowship Mennonite Church in Meridian, while Ann Bender was a schoolteacher in the first federally funded Headstart program – one of the first schools to be integrated in the area.

The Benders helped African Americans register to vote, aided in the rebuilding of bombed-out churches (70 alone in 1964-65) and worked with civil rights workers who came to Mississippi from the north. Among their many lifelong friends was Harding and his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who became a catalyst for social change at Eastern Mennonite College.

Bender was a key founder of Pine Lake Fellowship Camp, one of the first integrated camps in the south where members of the Choctaw, African American, and White communities could gather.

In 1969, along with their three children, he and Ann moved to New Orleans, where he attended Tulane University and earned a PhD in social work. He then taught in the social work department for four years at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

In Harrisonburg

Four years later, their family moved to Harrisonburg. During his years at EMU, he was involved in many community projects. In addition to his work with Gemeinschaft Home, he helped to found Brothers/Big Sisters of Harrisonburg and served on the State Chaplain Services Board.

In 1998, Ann and Titus Bender were co-recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. At the time, she was executive director of the Valley Program for Aging Services.

“Together, the husband-wife team embody the best of social work values,” said a press release quoted in the Daily News-Record. “…They build broken spirits with inspiration. They give hope where there seems to be none. Their home and hearts have always been open for those in need.”

Online condolences can be made by visiting www.mcmullenfh.com or sharing a memory in the comments box below.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Pine Lake Fellowship Camp, 10371 Pine Lake Road, Meridian, MS 39307; or to the Eastern Mennonite Elementary School, 314 Cornerstone Lane, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, where their daughter Maria, a 1985 EMU alumna, is the principal.

Portions of this article have been reprinted from an obituary published in the Dec. 12, 2017, Daily News-Record.

*This anecdote is shared in Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) by Tobin Miller Shearer ’87.