(OGA) Ecumenical and interfaith groups across the world are mourning the passing of the Rev. Robina Winbush. The director of Ecumenical Relations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of the General Assembly died on Tuesday while returning from a 10-day visit to the Middle East. She was deplaning in New York when she collapsed at the airport.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Winbush received her education from Kent State and Harvard Universities as well as Union Theological Seminary in New York. She began her ministry at the PC(USA) more than 30 years ago when the church opened its offices in Louisville, Kentucky. She served in an ecumenical role in Global Missions before taking a pastorate in Queens, New York.
Rev. Cliff Kirkpatrick, who originally served as head of Global Missions and later as Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), hired Winbush to lead ecumenical relations in the OGA.
“She told me she’d come back under one condition: I would have to go before her congregation in Queens and tell them why it was important for their minister to come here,” he said. “No one has more ecumenical passion than Robina. She was a leader in the ecumenical movement in this country and the World Council of Churches. It feels like the wrong time to lose her, but her spirit will stay with us and will continue to empower us.”
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), was first introduced to Winbush shortly after she began working for Global Missions.
“She gave her life to fostering lasting relationships across the world. Her witness as a true and faithful ecumenist and interfaith leader was sealed by the broad range of global impact that she made on both people and institutions,” he said.
The Rev. Tom Hay, associate stated clerk and OGA director of assembly operations, says the church lost a good friend and colleague.
“I don’t know how many times I was in a meeting where Robina would bring the conversation — no matter the topic — back to Jesus,” Hay said. “She had a natural way of reminding us that the foundation of our ministry is Jesus and everything we did must be held accountable to Christ’s witness.”
“Robina’s care and nurture of our ecumenical guests at every General Assembly was a witness to us all, the true meaning of hospitality. She called all of us to a larger church and a larger Lord.”
Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, calls Winbush’s passing a personal loss.
“I have known Robina Winbush since before being ordained in 1987. We have remained friends throughout our calling. I am devastated by her passing, selfishly grieving as she was the only one of my close friends living in Louisville,” she said. “I am grateful for her life and legacy and will miss her deeply.”
Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk with the OGA, said Winbush was the face of PC(USA)’s ecumenical movement.
“She helped us all remember why we were Presbyterian — no, she challenged us to remember why we were Presbyterian,” he said. “She could helpfully articulate what gifts we brought to the ecumenical movement, and why we needed the gifts of our ecumenical brothers and sisters. Though Robina was a prophet, she also had great compassion and helped others through their own pain.”
Rev. Everdith Landrau recently joined ecumenical ministries and worked closely with Winbush in her final months.
“I think her legacy will be all the great things she did within the ecumenical movement representing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). She was a trail blazer and a strong woman in the faith,” she said. “Robina had a set of knowledge like none other. She was sharp and full of unmatched global experiences. Her knowledge, contributions and wisdom will be missed by many.”
A retired pastor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, was a close friend.
“She was a wonderful representative for Presbyterians and American Christians … She knew everybody on every continent,” said Lindner. “She was the kind of person that reminded Presbyterians every day and every way that God loves everybody. We need to reach out to people of other traditions and different faiths — and people of no faith, not to apologize or compromise our faith, but to celebrate our faith and theirs.”
Winbush served on several national and international denominational and ecumenical committees and organizations. Among them is the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the national staff of Church Women United.
“This was very sad and shocking news. It seems unthinkable that she is no longer with us,” said the Rev. Dr. Lisa Vander Wal, vice president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. “Robina leaves a legacy of passion for ecumenism and justice, particularly gender and racial justice. This was evident in her preaching and through her strong advocacy for women and people of color. She was such a strong and forceful presence that her passing will leave a large hole in the ecumenical circles in which she moved.”
The Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement and was a classmate of Winbush in college.
“She followed the courage and critical acumen of church leaders like the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon in the global ecumenical movement. She maintained her integrity and sense of transparency when it was very hard to do so in challenging ecumenical spaces and in times of welcome ecumenical space,” said Walker-Smith. “She honored and fully embraced her Pan African identity and embraced it as home for welcome to all she encountered who may have been like her or not. She was a trustworthy leader who, as my Baptist pastor says, loved the Lord, loved the call and loved God’s people despite the oppressions of systems and historical challenges and causes that pit peoples and groups against one another.”
At the time of her passing, Winbush was part of a PC(USA) delegation that had just completed a visit to Israel-Palestine. The visit was in response to the last Commissioners Resolution approved by the 223rd General Assembly held in 2018 in St. Louis to recognize the suffering of the people in Palestine, especially those who have been dying in Gaza.
“Her insights and comments around the Bible texts, the political situation and the responsibility of the Church in responding, were always sharp and enlightened. Her presence in this trip was a blessing for all of us,” said the Rev. Jose Luis Casal, director of Presbyterian World Mission. “But God sometimes surprises us, and Robina was called to her last and most important appointment to serve in The Triumphant Church.”
In addition to her ecumenical work, Winbush served churches in Harlem, Long Island, the Bronx, New York and Louisville.
Arrangements are pending.
by Rick Jones, Office of the General Assembly