By Erskine Clarke, Professor Emeritus of U. S. Religious History
During this past summer two distinguished friends of Columbia Theological Seminary died. In June Bishop Dr. Károly Tóth of the Hungarian Reformed Church died at the age of 84. In July Dr. Russel Botman, Rector of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, died in his sleep at the age of 60.
Bishop Tóth had experienced the horrors of World War II with the bitter fighting of the German and Soviet armies across Hungary and the intense bombing of Hungarian cities by British and American planes. He was a teenager when Hungary came under a Communist government and Soviet control and a young pastor during the Hungarian Revolution. The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, said of Bishop Tóth that having grown up during World War II, he “spent most of his life and ministry within the post-war context of East-West conflict. He dedicated himself to healing divisions among peoples and seeking peace through open dialogue.” In the early 1990s, Bishop Tóth spent a sabbatical on the Columbia campus. He became not only our friend, but also our teacher. He helped faculty and students catch a glimpse of the struggles of the Hungarian Reformed community during much of the twentieth century and of the faith that sustained the community. In particular, he helped us understand something of the complex decisions and hard realities that leaders face as they seek to nurture the life of the church under threat from a hostile government. His funeral was held in the Calvin Square Reformed Church in central Budapest.
Dr. Botman, who had been deeply involved as a young pastor in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, became in 2002 the first black South African rector of the University of Stellenbosch, an institution long associated with elite members of the white Afrikaner regime. South African President Jacob Zuma said that with Dr. Botman’s death “South Africa has lost one of the leading lights of our higher education transformation.” Dr. Botman stayed on the Columbia campus on several occasions, most notably as a Campbell Scholar, fall semester 2000. He was a part of a particularly brilliant group of Campbell Scholars who were focused on the mission of the church in the twenty-first century. In the summer of 2000, Dr. Botman led five Columbia faculty and ten Columbia students in a travel seminar on “Race and Religion” in South Africa. The seminar, while exploring its theme in South Africa, reflected much on race and religion in the U. S. Participants found Dr. Botman and his wife Beryl to be not only passionate about issues of justice but also persons of good humor and of contagious Christian faith. All those at Columbia who knew him grieve his untimely death and give thanks for all the ways his life was a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.