Ndugu T’Ofori Atta: In Memoriam
In 1931, thirteen years after the First World War and nine years before the Second, in a small community along the south bank of the Ohio River, an eight-year-old boy named George Benjamin Thomas built an altar in the basement of his family home. Throughout the course of his childhood, this little altar would serve him as a refuge from the challenges of his world. He would kneel, fold his hands, and pray for his family, his friends, his community and his future. Most significant of George Thomas’s prayers was one that only the innocence, love, and audacity of a child could fathom. He prayed that God would not solve all the problems in the world before he grew up, because he wanted to play a part in solving them. On Wednesday, January 11, 2012 that young boy, known to us now as Reverend Doctor Ndugu G.B. T’Ofori Atta, left this world, his prayer fulfilled.
God did not wait until George Thomas was an adult. While Thomas was still a boy, God allowed him to form a “movement of social betterment” with his childhood friend to replace the houses of prostitution with facilities for recreation for the neighborhood children in McKees Rock, Pennsylvania. Drafted and then chosen to serve as a chaplain’s assistant, by the time he was 18, God allowed Thomas to successfully challenge the discrimination of black chaplains in the then-segregated U.S. Army.
After three years of military service in the South Pacific, Thomas found himself at Lincoln University, with the likes of such notable people who perhaps had prayed similar prayers, the Pan-Africanist independence leader Kwame Nkrumah among them. He went on to Boston University, where he would again be in good company, as he, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., would benefit from the wisdom of Howard Thurman, among others.
Ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Rev. T’Ofori Atta began his ministry in earnest. He began preaching while still a student, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and engaging in the struggle of his people with his spirit, body, and mind. His time both in Lincoln and in Boston were not simply periods of education for its own sake; he studied with the clear sense that this study was training for the work to which he was called.
Influenced by Quakers while in Boston, he learned about Mahatma Gandhi and his peculiar way of working for justice. He joined the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and infused his ministry with the values of nonviolence that to him held great resonance. He spent significant time in formal and informal learning with Howard Thurman. In 1953, He met Farrel Harmon, and after a courtship and premarital counseling by Dr. Thurman, the two were married. Upon this feat he began to explore the next stage of his journey; he responded to what he felt was God’s clear call to be a minister in Africa. There would be a brief stint in Nashville, Tennessee, where James Lawson, working then on behalf of FOR, could make use of the family car.
His commitment to Africa would take him first to the Congo, but before they arrived, the young family would be required to stay in Belgium and attend colonial schools intended to prepare them for their travels. By the time Dr. T’Ofori Atta arrived in the Congo it was 1960. The family would witness the waves of African Independence first hand. Dr. T’Ofori Atta visited Patrice Lumumba while he was still under house arrest. The 1960s and ‘70s saw Dr. T’Ofori-Att spending significant periods of time in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, and Congo. He ministered in the countless ways that a minister in Africa must, with patience and careful attention to spiritual, physical, and socio-political needs of those under their charge.
When he returned to the United States, it was to Atlanta, Georgia, where he would remain for the rest of his life. It was an Atlanta alive with activity within the black community. Coretta Scott King was in the early days of her efforts at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, his dear friend Vincent Harding had founded the Institute of the Black World, bringing scholars, artists, journalists, writers and others from all over the African Diaspora to Atlanta.
Dr. T’Ofori-Atta returned to America determined to share his experiences in a way that would liberate the minds of those people of African descent on this continent. He joined the faculty of the Interdenominational Theological Center and began educating seminarians on a “holistic theological enterprise through African and African-American knowledge and experiences.” In a country still haunted by racism and still bombarded with negative depictions of Africa and all that comes from it, the importance of Dr. T’s efforts to restore the dignity of their heritage to the minds of black people cannot be underestimated.
Dr. T’Ofori Atta founded the Religious Heritage of the African World Project at ITC. He was a tireless advocate for human rights. He was a volunteer at the Open Door Community and became close to the consciousness raising efforts of Murphy Davis and others. After the death of his first wife, he married Alice Pippins T’Ofori-Atta and added to his family. He remained connected to a number of organizations both in Atlanta and internationally until his death. A pastor to many, he served his church faithfully, being called out of retirement at 75 years old to serve a congregation in need of a pastor. Tall and slender, his presence seemed to evoke reverence even from those who did not know him; his presence imbued pride and confidence in those of us who did. Belying his intellectual prowess, his voice was soft like confidant whisper.
A loving father, grandfather, husband and friend, he is survived by his wife, Alice Pippins T’Ofori-Atta; sons, George Ghana Thomas (Carylon) of Montgomery, Alabama; Eric Allen Shaka Thomas and Arthur Pippins of Atlanta; daughters Roseanna Lorraine Abina Thomas Brannon of Atlanta, Akua Pippins Hicks (Isaiah) of Decatur, Georgia, and Akosua Aisha T’Ofori-Atta at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
He is also survived by the thousands whom he guided to a restored awareness of the dignity of our past and the promise of our future. Dr. Ndugu T’Ofori Atta’s service to God and humanity took him across three continents. He witnessed and participated in some of the greatest movements of freedom and dignity in human history. By the time of his death last Wednesday, his life and work had already influenced tens of thousands, teaching us “we must obey the highest conscience we have.”
I can’t help but wonder if that little boy in McKees Rock could have ever imagined how his life would unfold. There will be expressions of deep grief and gratitude in Atlanta this weekend. Dr. T as many affectionately called him, urged us on, leaving us his life as a witness to what God can do with the willing. Perhaps chief among the lessons to be learned from him, are that we should always pause with reference and humility at the prayers we pray as children.
Rev. Lucas Johnson serves on the National Council of the U.S. Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.