July 21, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

Courageous and wise. Creative and bold. Incisive and animated.

These are a few of the words Calvin faculty and emeriti use to describe their former colleague and friend Barbara Omolade, 80, who died on July 10, 2023.

“What a rare, fine soul she was,” said Dean Ward, emeritus professor of English.

At Calvin, Omolade was a trailblazer.

Getting started

“We had just done a self-study at the request of the Christian Reformed Church on institutional racism, and we said that we wanted to be an anti-racist institution,” said Joel Carpenter, former provost of Calvin and now senior research fellow at the Nagel Institute. “Barbara said, ‘let me help you get started.’”

Carpenter was impressed and as part of the interview team, decided to hire Omolade as Calvin’s first dean of multicultural affairs.

“She pioneered the multicultural affairs efforts at Calvin that have transformed our student body and immensely broadened our imagined field of service,” said Carpenter.

Bringing expertise and experience

Omolade’s ability to be a pioneer at Calvin stemmed from decades of prior experience. During the 1960’s, she was a member of The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In the 70’s, she worked at the Center for the Elimination of Violence in the Family and the Women’s Action Alliance in New York City. She was also a founding member of The Center for Worker Education which provided higher education for working adults, and she wrote The Rising Song of African American Women (Routledge, 1994). During this time, she also earned two graduate degrees.

Omolade came to Calvin as a well-respected educator, sociologist, and administrator.

While her time at Calvin was brief, cut short by a serious stroke and subsequent health complications, her work in those few years was so significant. Besides serving as dean of multicultural affairs from 2003-2005, she also was a founder and co-director of the Consultation of African American Christian Scholars, a week-long seminar held annually at Calvin from 2001-2005 under the auspices of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.

“Her work with the Consultation, which she co-directed first with me and then with Willie Jennings, continues to reverberate,” said Susan Felch, professor of English and director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.

An ongoing, unfolding legacy

Felch first met Omolade in 1999 at a Faculty Summer Seminars Program at Calvin. The two struck up a friendship over the next few years and started to collaborate on projects and scholarship.

“As a Black woman, she encountered the world differently from me,” said Felch, “But we also shared our common humanity and our faith. She told me ‘all grandmothers are alike,’ a shorthand for recognizing both the power of relationships and the shared bonds.”

This past year, Felch and Omolade completed Faith Confronts Evil, a book on antebellum African American Christian women. The book is scheduled for publication by Cascade Books later this year.

While this book will be the latest entry into Omolade’s legacy, it won’t be the last. The trail she blazed at Calvin in the early 2000’s will continue to reap benefits in the years ahead.

“I recall her thoughtful analysis of Calvin’s systems and culture as she worked to bring multicultural emphases into the heart of Calvin’s mission and operations. Christian identity was always her foundation,” said Shirley Roels, professor emerita of business at Calvin and executive director of the International Network for Christian Higher Education.

“She saw our hopes of becoming a more just and reconciling place in race relations where people from every race and nation could become genuine partners in the campus community,” said Carpenter. “And she said she would do all she could, by God’s grace, to get us going.”

She did. And Calvin continues to make strides of living into the goal of Calvin’s From Every Nation (FEN) commitment to work toward a multicultural Kingdom of God, like the one described in Revelation 7:9: “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”

Fittingly the FEN document was first published during Omolade’s tenure at Calvin.

Omolade is survived by her children Kip (Diana), Ngina (Ghislain), Eski, and Krishna, and eight grandchildren.

A funeral service is being held on Saturday, July 22, 2023, at Metropolitan UMC (30522 Dr. Wm P. Hytche Blvd., Princess Anne, MD). Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. with the service following at 11 a.m.

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