The Art of Transformative Love

November 9, 2021
The Williams Family (Mark, Preston, Connie, and David) at the Preston N. Williams Chapel Naming Celebration in November 2021. / Photo: Justin Knight
The Williams Family (Mark, Preston, Connie, and David) at the Preston N. Williams Chapel Naming Celebration in November 2021. / Photo: Justin Knight

Connie and Preston Williams, Long-Standing HDS Leaders, on the Connections Between Family, Community, and Justice

“Agape is not weak, passive love. It is love in action. 
Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.” 
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence

One might be inclined to assume it takes a modicum of magic to be happily married for 65 years.

Add in the exceptional partnership needed to be parents, teachers, scholars, and social justice leaders, and you start to glimpse the brilliance Drs. Constance and Preston Williams, PhD ’67, radiate.

For Preston and Connie—who have been members of the Harvard community for more than half a century—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on love are a cornerstone of all they do, both in the classroom and through the connections they have made in their decades together.

In his 1961 sermon delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches, Dr. King called to mind the Greek New Testament’s three words for love: eros, philia, and agape. In the broadest of strokes, eros is often likened to romance—a deeply intimate (and ideally requited) type of love. Philia is the love we feel for family or friends. (Again, ideally reciprocated with mutual affection.)

And then there is agape. Transcending romance and affection, agape, in the words of Dr. King, is “creative, redemptive goodwill toward all … an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart.”

Whether here at Harvard, in their hometown of Belmont, or in their beloved Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, Connie and Preston are known as life-long partners and marital role models—a testament to their deep understanding of eros. The love they share with their beautiful family, their circle of friends, and the generations of students they have welcomed into their expansive academic networks illustrates their appreciation of philia. And their steadfast devotion to the promise of justice for all demonstrates their commitment to the divine love that is agape

Connie and Preston Williams at the Harvard Theological Review Centennial Celebration in April 2008. / Photo: Justin Knight
Connie and Preston Williams at the Harvard Theological Review Centennial Celebration in April 2008. / Photo: Justin Knight

A Commitment to Equity and Excellence
Preston (95) and Connie (87) have lived through legal segregation, de facto segregation, and various intersections of racism and sexism. The couple pursued higher education determined to create access and inclusivity for themselves and for others.  

Preston is often lauded for being
the first: the first tenured African American member of the Harvard Divinity School faculty and the first to lead the School as acting dean from 1974-75; the first African American president of the Society of Christian Ethics; the founding director of Harvard's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute. Preston has since made it his life’s work to expand diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts across higher education and the field of religious studies.

He is credited with bringing a focus on African American religion to the Harvard Divinity School curriculum—as well as bringing a focus on African and Indigenous religions to the Center for the Study of World Religions—increasing access to academia for people of color and creating a network for students from all backgrounds to find community here at Harvard. Now, as an emeritus professor, he still teaches an HDS course on the ethical and religious thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Harvard Alumni Association recently recognized Preston’s extraordinary service to the University with a 2021 Harvard Medal—one of his many prestigious awards.

In a recent conversation, Connie shared: “When I reflect on Preston’s career, a central part has been institution building. For example, he started the Summer Leadership Institute. That program was anchored in bringing predominantly African American clergy and people involved in social change to Harvard so that they could bring new tools and ideas back to their churches to better support their community. That's one example of the School influencing deep institutional change, while also serving as a vehicle for individuals to have transformative experiences.”

As Associate Professor Emerita of The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, Connie offered her expertise in direct practice and public service to countless students and colleagues. From 1972 to 1983, Connie was the founding director of the undergraduate social work program at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. She has also served as the chief policy analyst in the Massachusetts Governor’s Office of Human Resources with Michael Dukakis, where she directed major policy initiatives, including reform of the Commonwealth’s child support enforcement laws.

Connie is the co-author of Subsidizing the Poor: A Boston Housing Experiment and is the author of Black Teenage Mothers: Pregnancy and Child Rearing from Their Perspective. A professor, policy expert, and author, Connie has dedicated her life to improving social conditions for all. She earned her PhD at Brandeis University and received an honorary doctorate from Curry College.

Partners both personally and professionally, Connie and Preston have even co-taught a class on family here at Harvard Divinity School.

When asked about the impressive partnership they have shared—and how they build connections across family, community, and broader social justice scales—Preston shifted focus back to the classroom: "I would be more impressed with the activity of students over the years. Connie and I were able to support them in a number of endeavors as they undertook the transformation of the School and the University."

Preston Williams outside Swartz Hall (formerly known as Andover) when he started teaching at Harvard Divinity School in 1971. / HDS photo
Preston Williams outside Swartz Hall (formerly known as Andover) when he started teaching at Harvard Divinity School. / HDS photo

A Different Time
Feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, MTS ’74, expressed her respect and admiration for Preston and Connie: “Preston Williams was newly arrived at Harvard Divinity School as Houghton Professor in 1971, the era when the first sizable cohorts of women matriculated. Both women and people of color were new to HDS, literally changing the face of the School over succeeding decades. It is hardly boastful to add that our presence, Connie Williams among us, improved the quality of research, instruction, and community life.”

“The 60s were a very different time,” Connie reflects. “There have been enormous changes—especially with the women’s movement. When we first came to the Divinity School, there were so few women students that they all lived in Jewett House on the top floor!”

Preston and Connie also shared their memories of how the Divinity School Student Wives’ Association would set up tables in (the hall formerly known as) Andover to help those new to campus find affordable food, clothes, and housing. Looking back on their early days with the HDS community, they described what sounds like a grassroots mutual aid info. fair to help students and their families acclimate to Cambridge.

“The whole nation was becoming active in civil rights, and that was a part of our life, as well. As far back as the 1963, Archie Epps, STB ’61, a Divinity School alum, organized buses from Boston to D.C. for the March on Washington,” Connie added. Preston also recalled Dr. Benjamin Payton, BD ’58, the fifth president of Tuskegee University, who performed revolutionary social justice work at the National Council of Churches and the Ford Foundation.

Like proud parents, Connie and Preston remind us that the Divinity School has a long history of fostering individuals who have done outstanding work in pursuit of a just society—and that there is more work to be done.

Connie and Preston Williams with David and Louanne Hempton during a tour of the Swartz Hall renovation in June 2021. / Photo: Sue Reuther
Connie and Preston Williams with David and Louanne Hempton during a tour of the Swartz Hall renovation in June 2021. / Photo: Sue Reuther

Beloved Community
To recognize their remarkable leadership and service, Andover Chapel in the newly renovated Swartz Hall has been renamed the Preston N. Williams Chapel. Further reflecting Preston’s and Connie’s legacy, the Constance W. and Preston N. Williams Scholarship Fund has been established to support HDS students fostering belonging, inclusion, and anti-racism work through their studies.

HDS alum, Fred Lucas, MDiv ’76, has crafted this thesis statement, if you will, for why Preston and Connie are so rightfully revered: “Preston, with Connie, not only taught ethics at Harvard, they taught ethics to Harvard.” The renamed Williams Chapel and new scholarship fund represent Connie and Preston’s ongoing dedication to the importance of inclusive worship and scholarship at Harvard Divinity School.

In Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, published the year before he was assassinated, he held fast to the idea that love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone—and not just the few at the expense of the many.

When asked what advice he might give to Harvard, Preston, ever the MLK scholar, imparted this wisdom: “One of the things that I would say is that schools need to recognize that diversity is not enough—you have to create a community.”

This one line of guidance just might sum up the ethos on which Connie and Preston have built their personal and professional success.

The prestige they have earned throughout their careers is more than enough to impress even the most celebrated academic. However, ask any of their students, colleagues, neighbors, or loved ones, and you’ll quickly learn that Connie and Preston Williams have become living legends because they do the difficult work of practicing what they preach. They actively evoke agape in service of justice—and that devotion to divine love has made a world of difference. 

by Amie Montemurro, HDS Senior Communications Officer

Watch the event video below celebrating Preston and Connie Williams: