Presbyterian ethicist and eco-justice advocate the Rev. Dr. Dieter T. Hessel dies at 87

As social witness policy director for the PC(USA), Hessel promoted faith-based social action to promote peace, justice and care of the Earth

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Dieter T. Hessel

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Dieter T. Hessel, a Presbyterian minister, educator, author, and leading religious advocate in the global ecological justice movement, died Sept. 22 at the age of 87 at his home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

His spouse Karen and daughter Tracy Hessel Libby were with him. After several years of living with advancing Parkinson’s disease, he had recently begun hospice care. Before his death, he was in the process of completing his memoir, “Living Twice: For Love, Justice, and Sustainable Community.”

Born in 1936 in Kyoto, Japan of missionary parents, Hessel became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1947. He completed high school in Anaheim, California, where he met Barbara Ryan, who was valedictorian of their graduating class while he served as salutatorian.

After graduating from the University of the Redlands and USC respectively, Dieter and Barbara married in 1956 and moved to San Anselmo, California, where Dieter began studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary and earned his Master of Divinity degree and a Ph.D. in Christian social ethics at the nearby Graduate Theological Union.

His assignment as a teaching assistant led to his life-long professional relationship and lasting friendship with Maggie Kuhn, who encouraged Hessel to move to Philadelphia, where he worked on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church.  Among other projects, he led ecumenical leadership development programs including WHEAT (World Hunger Education and Action Together), Social Ministry, the Eco-justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches, and the Program on Ecology, Justice, and Faith.

When the national offices of the Presbyterian Church relocated to New York City in the early 1970s, Hessel commuted from Philadelphia and juggled work and family responsibilities, including the care of his daughters and wife, who was struggling with an acute form of Multiple Sclerosis.  Ahead of his time (as always), he pushed for an accommodation to work from home, which allowed him to develop as a writer, faith leader, and family caregiver all at once.  After Barbara’s death, Hessel continued his advocacy on world hunger and worked closely with several valued colleagues, including Karen McLean (Patterson), whom he later married.

From 1965 to 1990, he served on the national executive staff of the United Presbyterian Church as coordinator for adult social education, and then in the newly merged Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as director of social witness policy. Addressing a wide range of concerns, including civil rights, economic justice, and the Vietnam War, he promoted faith-based social action to promote peace, justice and care of the Earth.

In 1991 he became a visiting professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and then moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to become a resident member of the Center for Theological Inquiry, where he focused his writing and advocacy on eco-theology and ethics.  After retiring, Dieter and Karen relocated to Maine, where he taught at Bangor Theological Seminary and enjoyed life on the coast of Maine and its opportunities for bicycling and beach walking while living near family.

For more than 45 years, Karen and Dieter shared work, play, and raising a blended family together.  He is survived by immediate family:  Allison Hessel Gingrich, (Gary) granddaughter, Nancy; Tracy Hessel Libby, (Scott), granddaughter, Fiona, grandson, Dylan (Alisha), great-granddaughter Ellen; Michael Patterson (Meredith) grandsons Jack and Cole.

A memorial service in celebration of Hessel’s life will be held at the First Congregational Church-United Church of Christ in South Portland, Maine, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday, Nov. 4, with a reception following.  The service will be available via livestream on the and on Facebook and YouTube platforms.

Memorial gifts may be directed to Presbyterians for Earth Care, Bread for the World or Maine-based Caring Resources for Living.

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