It was the train ride that worried Ray Whitehead.
Whitehead, now retired and living in Toronto, was 18 when he left his hometown of Buffalo, New York, for Elmhurst College in 1952. He was about to become the first in his working-class family to study beyond high school.
But what seemed really daunting to Whitehead wasn’t college itself but the journey that would take him there. He had never been away from Buffalo before, had never even boarded a train, so he made sure his pastor back home, an Elmhurst alumnus who had seen the promise in Whitehead and pointed him toward the College, gave him detailed directions. Where would he change trains? Which way would he walk? Whitehead might as well have been headed halfway around the world.
“I was ready for an adventure,” he remembers.
The decades since he left home for Elmhurst have indeed been an adventure. A social ethicist, Whitehead spent decades teaching, researching and doing mission work in Hong Kong, China and the Philippines. He found himself celebrated on the cover of Newsweek magazine as an exemplar of the young, faith-driven American serving the church abroad. Later, he would help lead a pioneering delegation of western scholars to Communist China and would form an alliance with Christian leaders working there to keep their church alive amid the revolutionary tumult in that nation.
“I appreciate that his interest in Asia has been a long-term one,” said Kwok Pui Lan, who studied Christian ethics under Whitehead at Chung Chi College’s Divinity School in Hong Kong in the 1970s. She is now William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “He was a progressive and sympathetic teacher. Students at the time were particularly interested in trying to understand China, and his connections to Chinese church leaders were important in that regard. For me and for many students, he has been an enlightening presence.”
Whitehead’s international adventure began with that train ride west to Elmhurst.
“I came to Elmhurst as a student who had never been out of my hometown. But I met people at Elmhurst who had an international perspective,” he says. “There were children of missionaries, some of them born in India or Honduras or Africa. It was a small campus, but it was not at all isolated from the world. Elmhurst opened my eyes. That was what made me want to work internationally.”
Whitehead wants to help today’s Elmhurst students share his experience. In memory of his wife, Rhea, he recently made a generous gift to the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action that will provide for, among other things, opportunities for international study.
“I think students, if they have time, should study or do service in another country,” he said. “We have a tendency to think of our own culture as normal and universal. But there are many ways to see the world.”
Very little about Whitehead’s childhood could have predicted the work he one day would do. He grew up rooted in a hardscrabble Buffalo neighborhood that had been hit hard by the Depression. His family’s poverty was relieved only when the U.S. entered the Second World War and his father found work in the local Bell Aircraft plant. His older brothers joined the service, and the school-aged Whitehead regularly made his way to the local movie house to watch newsreels, hungry for news from Guadalcanal and Anzio and the Kasserine Pass.
“The world suddenly became more real to me,” he says.
Something else changed, too. Amid the uncertainty of war, Whitehead started going to church. His family had never been particularly religious, but a friend invited Whitehead to join him at a local Disciples church. In the sermons he heard there, Whitehead was exposed for the first time to a world of ideas and books and learning. Intrigued, he was baptized when he was 12. By the time he started high school, he had begun considering a life in ministry.
“I was interested in problems of justice, and I thought the church could help. It seemed to be one of the few institutions that offered hope,” he said. “Coming from my background, I knew that workingclass people were looked down upon as lazy or stupid. But I knew that with a little vision or opportunity, people could accomplish things.”
Whitehead found his own opportunity at a church led by a pastor and Elmhurst graduate named John Steve who recognized Whitehead’s potential and urged him to apply to the College. Like most of the young men in his neighborhood, Whitehead had few ambitions beyond graduating from high school and finding a steady job. The idea of traveling a few hundred miles west to enroll in college was daunting.
“I had no experience of higher education,” he said. “I didn’t know how to do research, how to write papers, how to take notes.”
To his own amazement, Whitehead thrived at Elmhurst. He joined the track and cross country teams, edited the sports section of the student newspaper, and became involved in the campus community to a degree that he never had in high school. (“There was such openness and acceptance,” he remembers.) Finding himself for the first time stimulated by his coursework, he became an A student. To help fund his studies, he washed dishes in the kitchen of the Commons cafeteria (where one of his co-workers was the future Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann) and worked the night shift in an Elmhurst supermarket. When he was really short on cash, he would donate blood at the county health department, which would earn him enough to take a date to a school dance.
It was at one of those dances, during Whitehead’s third year at Elmhurst, that he met Rhea Menzel. Soon after, the couple met again at a student Christian group retreat in Wisconsin, and began dating. Whitehead saved his money to take Rhea to performances at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, where they heard Maria Callas sing. Outings to the opera would remain one of the couple’s favorite activities, long after they married in 1957.
The two also shared an aptitude for academic success. Whitehead graduated magna cum laude from Elmhurst in 1955, taking just three and a half years to complete his coursework. Rhea earned her degree in 1957, summa cum laude.
Inspired by the spirit of international ecumenism he had encountered at Elmhurst (some of his fellow students had worked at the 1954 meeting of the World Council of Churches in Evanston and came back to campus excited about the international issues they heard discussed there), Whitehead embarked on a year of overseas service after graduation. From Hawaii to Hong Kong to the northeast Indian state of Assam, he traveled some 25,000 miles by ship. In Hong Kong, he taught refugees from Communist China. In India, he helped build a new Christian college. Disturbed by the poverty he encountered, he also noted the local ambivalence toward Western missionaries, whose work seemed entangled with the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. The experience helped set the course for Whitehead’s future work.
“If coming to Elmhurst was one kind of life transformation, that trip was another,” Whitehead said. “It gave me a different view of the world. I came to see that it’s hard to understand one’s own culture until you experience other cultures.”
Whitehead returned to the U.S. to enroll at Union Theological Seminary (where one of his professors wa s the renowned theologian and Elmhurst alumnus Reinhold Niebuhr) and do field work in East Harlem, earning an M.Div. in 1960. It was his wife, Rhea, who helped him see that their future lay in working overseas. It was a heady time for idealistic, service-minded young Americans like Whitehead. They were fanning out around the globe through the Kennedy-era Peace Corps and church missions, daring to think and talk about the possibility of world peace. The Whiteheads decided to settle in Hong Kong.
After completing a Cantonese language program at Yale, they found a walk-up apartment in a gritty neighborhood cal led Tsuen Wan. Whitehead’s work there—educating the young, tending to the ill, advocating for workers in the local textile factories—soon caught the attention of reporters from Newsweek, who were working on a feature about the new face of Christian service.
“Whitehead is one of the new breed of missionaries who knows that the saving of diseased bodies and disused minds must come before the saving of souls, that practicing Christianity can be more important than preaching it,” the magazine reported. The story quoted a diplomat who called Whitehead “practical, clean-cut, hard-working, and deeply concerned with the issues of his times.”
His engagement “with the issues of his times,” and his desire to better understand them, sent Whitehead back to Union to complete a doctoral program in ethics and economics. When he returned to Hong Kong, a newly minted Ph.D., it was to serve as a research consultant for the National Council of Churches. One of Whitehead’s tasks was to monitor the state of Christian churches in China in the wake of that country’s Cultural Revolution. He and Rhea, who had joined him on the research staff, were part of a group called the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars that made a path-breaking visit to China in 1971. It was around this time that Whitehead began a correspondence and friendship with Bishop K. H. Ting, the leader of the Christian church in China.
Ting drew criticism from some western Christians for seeking a working relationship with China’s communist government. But to Whitehead, Ting’s approach placed the Chinese church squarely within Chinese culture and rejected the view that Christianity must be a Western, imperial institution. “There was no reason the Chinese church couldn’t be as Chinese as the Anglican Church is English,” Whitehead said.
“[Whitehead] was able to open a dialogue with Chinese churches at a time when so many people harbored suspicions about anything to do with China because of its communist government,” said Episcopal Divinity School’s Professor Kwok.
Whitehead later edited a collection of Ting’s writings for publication and worked with him to organize a major international scholarly conference about the church in China in 1981. By then, Whitehead had relocated to Toronto, where he worked first on issues related to China for the Canadian Council of Churches and the United Church of Canada, and later as the director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at the Toronto School of Theology.
“What stood out was how much his experiences in China had shaped Ray,” said Lee Cormie, an emeritus professor at the Toronto School of Theology, who taught at the school during Whitehead’s tenure there. “He was able to see more, hear more, learn more, be more sympathetic, because he had been there for so long. He had learned the language. There is no substitute for that. His students were enormously appreciative of his commitment.”
Meanwhile, Rhea had established what Whitehead calls “a sparkling career” of her own. She oversaw Asia programs for the Anglican and It was a heady time for idealistic, service-minded young Americans like Whitehead who dared to think about the possibility of world peace. United churches of Canada. She helped initiate talks between the churches of North and South Korea, bridging a gap that had existed since the Korean War. She bravely visited and advocated for political prisoners under repressive regimes in the Philippines and promoted educational and professional opportunities for women in Asia. In recognition of her work, she received an honorary doctorate of divinity from Victoria University of the University of Toronto.
Even after Whitehead had putatively retired, he and Rhea continued to travel and teach in the Philippines and China. At Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, at the invitation of Bishop Ting, he taught introductory ethics courses for undergraduates and a graduate seminar on Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. His teaching there built on the lessons he had been developing for decades.
“It starts with a sense of respect for the church in China,” he said. “It follows the partnership model of missionary work. I encouraged them not to feel they had to copy any European or North American church model, but rather to take their own values and make their own path. It’s too easy to assume that we in the West have all the answers.”
The Whiteheads became fixtures on the Nanjing campus, where they often could be spotted eating in the student cafeteria or biking to morning chapel.
Their impact was powerful, not only in Nanjing, but wherever they worked. The couple was honored by the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministry in 2010. In his remarks at the award ceremony, Whitehead spoke of the need for professors and missionaries to listen rather than engage in polemics.
After Rhea’s death on June 14, 2011, tributes poured in from Japan, Korea, the Philippines and other spots around the globe where she and Ray had worked.
Today Whitehead is, in his words, “living alone in a big house” in Toronto. Two of his three daughters, Cynthia and Beth, live not far from him in Canada. The third, Sara, lives in Thailand. He remains active in his Toronto church, Trinity-St. Paul’s, and helps arrange for students from China to come to Canada for advanced study. He also supports Elmhurst College. He and Rhea returned to campus for his 50th class reunion in 2005 and for hers in 2007, and were impressed with what they found.
“We were so pleased with what Elmhurst was doing, the direction in which it was moving, especially with regard to social consciousness,” he said. “We saw that this is one school that is not only about becoming successful, but also about making a difference in the world.”
Later this year, Whitehead will travel to Hong Kong again, to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of Chung Chi Divinity School. It was there that he began teaching in the 1960s, a young man not long removed from Elmhurst College, ready for adventure. Ready to make a difference in the world.