Titus Bender, emeritus professor of social work at Eastern Mennonite University, passed away Dec. 8, 2017. The civil rights activist and pastor, a catalyst for change after arriving at EMU in the late '70s until his retirement in 1997, was 85. (EMU file photo)

Civil rights activist, pastor and social work professor Titus Bender was a catalyst for social change

When African American civil rights activist Vincent Harding and his wife visited Meridian, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, they met Titus Bender for the first time.

Bender, then a Mennonite pastor, activist and social worker, arranged to rendezvous with the Hardings at a local gas station to guide them into town. When the two men got out of the car, Bender greeted Harding with the traditional Mennonite greeting of the Holy Kiss — in full view of a group of older white men.

It was “a bold kind of risk-taking,” Harding remembered* — the same spirit that Bender brought back to his alma mater in 1976 after years of social activism, ministry and service. He taught in the social work department until his retirement in 1997.

Bender passed away Dec. 8, 2017, at Fairfax Inova Hospital. He was 85.

Titus and Ann Bender greet EMU’s new president Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman during the week of her inauguration. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

A memorial service will be Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at 9:30 a.m. at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Dr. Michael King and Joan Kenerson King will officiate. A reception will follow the memorial service.

Visitors are welcome at the family’s home, 1236 Quince Drive, Rockingham, VA 22801, on Thursday, Dec. 14, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Reflections from a colleague and friend

Ray Gingerich, professor emeritus of theology and ethics, first met Bender when the two were students at EMC in the late 1950s. Pre-figuring his time in ministry, Bender was then president of the Young People’s Christian Association (YPCA), which was for many years the largest active club on campus with most of the student body as members.

In 1977, when Gingerich arrived with his family to campus, “Titus was there,” he said. “By the next fall, he and I were team-teaching a course called ‘Peace and Justice,’ a course that marked the beginning of what is now known as the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.”

The course was so popular, attracting around 70 students in its debut that fall of 1978, that two sections were formed. The duo continued to teach variations of the original course for the next 19 years.

“But of greatest importance to me was Titus’s impact on my own life and theology, made possible because of his deep engagement in the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the ’60s,” Gingerich says. “Though I never met him personally, Martin Luther King Jr., through Titus’s passion, became for me second to Jesus. My teaching at EMU transformed my life. And Titus Bender — ever a dearest friend — played a central role in that transformation.”

In Mississippi

Titus Bender chats with a student at Eastern Mennonite College. (EMU file photo)

Titus Bender was the middle child of nine, born to Nevin and Esther Bender in Greenwood, Delaware. He attended Lancaster Mennonite High School and then Eastern Mennonite College, where he met his future wife Anna (Ann) Yoder. After getting married in 1958, they moved to Mississippi, where they were directors of the Voluntary Service Unit.

Bender was a social worker in the state’s second largest city, and also pastored Fellowship Mennonite Church in Meridian, while Ann Bender was a schoolteacher in the first federally funded Headstart program – one of the first schools to be integrated in the area.

The Benders helped African Americans register to vote, aided in the rebuilding of bombed-out churches (70 alone in 1964-65) and worked with civil rights workers who came to Mississippi from the north. Among their many lifelong friends was Harding and his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who became a catalyst for social change at Eastern Mennonite College.

Bender was a key founder of Pine Lake Fellowship Camp, one of the first integrated camps in the south where members of the Choctaw, African American, and White communities could gather.

In 1969, along with their three children, he and Ann moved to New Orleans, where he attended Tulane University and earned a PhD in social work. He then taught in the social work department for four years at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

In Harrisonburg

Four years later, their family moved to Harrisonburg. During his years at EMU, he was involved in many community projects. In addition to his work with Gemeinschaft Home, he helped to found Brothers/Big Sisters of Harrisonburg and served on the State Chaplain Services Board.

In 1998, Ann and Titus Bender were co-recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. At the time, she was executive director of the Valley Program for Aging Services.

“Together, the husband-wife team embody the best of social work values,” said a press release quoted in the Daily News-Record. “…They build broken spirits with inspiration. They give hope where there seems to be none. Their home and hearts have always been open for those in need.”

Online condolences can be made by visiting www.mcmullenfh.com or sharing a memory in the comments box below.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Pine Lake Fellowship Camp, 10371 Pine Lake Road, Meridian, MS 39307; or to the Eastern Mennonite Elementary School, 314 Cornerstone Lane, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, where their daughter Maria, a 1985 EMU alumna, is the principal.

Portions of this article have been reprinted from an obituary published in the Dec. 12, 2017, Daily News-Record.

*This anecdote is shared in Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) by Tobin Miller Shearer ’87.

Discussion on “Civil rights activist, pastor and social work professor Titus Bender was a catalyst for social change

  1. Titus was a wonderful professor and mentor to me as a social work and sociology major at EMU. He had a huge influence on so many students and in the community at large as a leader and educator for peace and justice. He will be greatly missed as his legacy lives on through those he taught and influenced.

  2. Titus was a major part of our lives when he was in Meridian, Ms – He was our pastor, friend and a beloved part of our family. Thankfully we were able to visit with him last year. He will be greatly missed.

  3. Titus was our Pastor at the Mennonite Church in Meridian , Ms. To know him was to love him. He and Ann Bender are two of the most beautiful souls that God ever gave breath. He touched the hearts of everyone he met. Even tho they left Mississippi 50 Year’s ago, they remain in our hearts and lives today. My sisters and I call them our God Parents cause that’s what they are. We love and miss them so. Please remember Ann in your prayers. They were married 59 years. Also their precious children Anita, Maria and Michael. The world lost a Legend but God gained one of best. Till we see u again T-Titus, we love u so!????????

  4. Titus Bender was a great professor! I was not always interested in learning but his courses really kept me engaged. He taught me about different cultures and differences in people. That those differences are to be respected and not feared. I loved talking to him after class and he always made time for me. Prayers going out to his family and friends.

  5. Dearest Friends,

    I am so very sorry to read the news that Titus Bender has passed. As the article above indicates, Titus and Ann were dearly beloved friends of my parents — Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding. The story of their meeting at the gas station in Mississippi and of my dad and Titus sharing the “kiss of brotherhood” is one I heard many times growing up. My father always told it with great pleasure and pride in Titus, knowing that in that era, his friend risked a great deal to be true to the ideals of his faith. I met Titus and Ann several times when I was a child. I remember visiting with my parents and brother at EMC sometime in the 1980s and I recall how warmly we Hardings were welcomed and how much my mom and dad enjoyed talking and reminiscing with their good friends.

    As an adult, I have learned that my parents’ relationship to the formal Mennonite Church became somewhat strained by the late 1960s. But when I was growing up in that time, I had no such sense because my mom and dad maintained so many rich and wonderful personal relationships with long-time friends like Titus and Ann Bender; Paul and Lois King, Edgar Metzler, and Al and Ann Zook, among others. These were people, throughout my life, that my parents exchanged Christmas cards with, who they talked to at various times throughout the year and who they were very happy to see whenever the opportunity arose.

    My mom and dad cherished Titus and Ann in a very special way and always spoke highly of them to me and my brother. The joy was audible in my dad’s big voice when he would receive a call from Titus — “Oh my brother, it’s so good to hear your voice!” he would proclaim. My dad would smile broadly and laugh heartily at whatever news and memories they were sharing together. My dad loved Titus very much and after my father passed a few years ago, it was my deep joy to receive a note from Titus and Ann sharing their kind thoughts and condolences.

    I would like to return that favor, and will send a personal note to the family at the address indicated in the article. But for the moment, I just wanted to register here my parents’ great love and admiration for this man, Titus Bender.

    In this moment of profound disconnection and national dis-ease, represented by the current presidential administration, it gives me great encouragement and strength to remember Titus Bender and the tremendous character and dedication he brought to the work of social justice. May his tribe increase.


    Rachel Elizabeth Harding

  6. Titus played a major role in setting my life course to work for social justice and advocate for folks whose voices aren’t being heard. I graduated from EMC in ’79 so I had Titus as a teacher during his early years there. His stories and class discussions made social work come alive and married it to a Biblical understanding of peace and justice. I’ve often thought of him over the years and know I am indebted to his leadership and spirit. Blessings to his family and friends.

  7. I suddenly feel so sad to think that Titus isn’t with us in the same way anymore, to hear his laugh and feel his passion and sense his love, but I know the spirit of God and of right living that he instilled in me as a student in the 70’s and as a person every since, will continue to be strong in this world. I’ll never forget the trip he and Ervin took with some of us students in tow, on an EMU Spring break, to visit their alma mater, Tulane University and eat raw oysters and crash around Burboun St. in New Orleans. The most memorable thing to me that has emboldened my courage and goodness in having a holy ire, was the day we watched a garage attendant try to kick an African American homeless man out of his warm sleeping place. Titus went ballistic on him, asking him if he would’ve treated a white man in a business suit like that…….it was an astounding and beautiful thing to this passive Mennonite teenager. After graduating from Social Work at EMU, I wanted to serve under the VA Mission Board as a volunteer counselor in the mens prison outside of Harrisonburg and they told me I would be good at that except that I was a female. Titus “went to bat” for me and told them (what I remember anyway), that he had just taught me that I could do anything I’m called to do, and they gave me the position, which has helped to shaped the rest of my life, as Titus has. What a special man I’ve loved and who I always knew loved me.

  8. I visited in Titus Bender’s home in Greenwood Delaware when we were children. He had wonderful, sweet parents so I can see why he was so loved. I hadn’t seen him since that time.

  9. I am a relatively ‘new’ person to Titus and Anne’s family (just 8 years now, I guess), and as such don’t have the same historical memories, but by-golly I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the wonderful oral rendition of the events in this article (from his perspective), and how much it means to me to know that others can attest to his amazing-ness! He is my dad, perhaps only through marriage to Michael, his son, but he is so much of the father I never had. His chair on the balcony here in Canada sits empty, yet full of summer memories. The small cups he used for coffee are being used as I write, the smiles and laughter he filled our house with (while we played DutchBlitz together) will forever be in my head. His anger and frustration at how minorities and women were being currently treated had him talking non stop. He would say things like ‘We need to remember to do the right thing, and love one another.’ He wanted to never forget the happenings of the past, and to keep the stories alive, so that we could always choose to do right by people who are different from ourselves. One of his biggest thoughts was to treat his children with respect and love, and tell us ‘we are all in this together’. He has emboldened me to be a better mom, a better wife, and a more caring person to people around me. I consciously choose to be like Dad as I age, too. I will encourage people to love and accept LGBTQ, women’s rights, the rights of First Nations, African American rights and so on. Sometimes I can hear his voice still. He would say “That’s sweet. Anne.. just like you.” I love that. He was always full of love, still is (wherever he flies) and I’m grateful I have his son around me to talk about him nonstop now. :) Miss you, Dad. Love you Mom. Will Skype soon. Love you bunches. ~ Lori

  10. Hi Ann:
    So sorry to hear about Titus’s passing. I have very fond memories of the uncle Al farm and our many visits with your family. Then of our visiting you guys in New Orleans back in the early 70s. You and Titus introduced us to the French Quarters. What a treat.

    Special blessings to you and your family. There will be so many adjustment in your life without Titus. Fern and I will lift you up in a special way during this holiday season.

    God Bless,
    Gene and Fern Yoder

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