The Rev. Dr. Joseph L. Roberts, well known pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, died on Sunday, February 15 at his home. Dr. Roberts was also the Wade Huie Professor of Homiletics and the Director of the Center for Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary from 2009 to 2012.
“As the first person to hold the Huie Chair in Homiletics, Rev. Dr. Joseph Roberts exemplified everything we hope our students will grow to be,” said Dr. Anna Carter Florence, Peter Marshall Associate Professor of Preaching. “What Joe brought to our campus, what he offered to us of his storehouse of wisdom and experience, will remain. I think particularly of his deep conviction that theological education must be available and accessible to all who minister, whatever their level of education, and his determination that Columbia can be a place of hospitality and mutual learning.”
He was born Joseph Lawrence Roberts, Jr. to Reverend Joseph L. Roberts, Sr. and Marguerite Reed Roberts on February 17, 1935 in Chicago, IL. He met his wife Esther Jean Wortham at Bethel AME, and the two were married in Detroit, MI, on June 7, 1959.
Dr. Roberts studied at Knoxville College where he graduated cum laude and was a member of the Gamma Omicron Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He received his Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and his Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Dr. Roberts was the recipient of five honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees. He was the 2004 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Awards of both Union Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dr. Roberts was Pastor of Weequahic Presbyterian Church and Elwood United Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. He worked in various administrative positions including as director of Corporate and Social Mission for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.
“We’ve been friends for 40 years,” recalled Rev. Dr. Joanna Adams, MDiv alumna (’79) and former Board Chair of Columbia Theological Seminary. “Like his friend Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Roberts wanted the religious community not to be the caboose, but the moral engine that showed society the way forward.”
In 1975, Dr. Roberts was called to serve as the fourth Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, where he served for 30 years. “He was wonderful human being who opened the eyes of people to see the suffering of others. He had a prophetic voice and the kindest heart which is a rare combination,” said Dr. Adams. “He didn’t want Ebenezer Baptist Church to be just a shrine to Dr. King, but a living, breathing church serving those in need.”
When Dr. Roberts started at Ebenezer, he launched an expansive community outreach program that included the Teenage Mother’s Ministry, a tutoring program, counseling, a food co-op and an adult day care center. He was an energetic orator, an accomplished musician, and a gifted administrator who negotiated successfully bank financing for Ebenezer’s 32,000 square-foot Horizon Sanctuary.
Recognized as a great teacher and accomplished author, in 2006, Rev. Roberts published Sideswiped by Eternity: Sermons from Ebenezer Baptist Church, demonstrating his commitment to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the lives of his parishioners, and the message of Jesus Christ. Most recently, he served on the Grady Memorial Hospital Corporation Board of Directors (2008-2014), was honored by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (2014), and was a founder of the Higher Ground Group (2010-2015), an interdenominational group of Atlanta faith leaders dedicated to raising awareness and inspiring action on key issues affecting the greater Atlanta community.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins, Associate Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth.