Hundreds gather at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and online to remember a beloved educator
November 13, 2023
Over her long career in higher education and in hymnody, Dr. Melva Wilson Costen taught her students that music is a gift from God that can lift our spirits and serve as a refuge during difficult times. “It speaks,” said the Rev. Addie Peterson, eulogizing Costen at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, “when we don’t know the words to say.”
Costen, described as a “premier professor in Reformed Christian worship and African American Presbyterianism,” died Sept. 8 at age 90. She taught for more than 30 years at the Interdenominational Theological Center and chaired the committee that produced the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal. Watch the service here.
“She was a special kind of visionary and theologian. She loved without condition,” said Peterson, pastor of New Horizons Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, Virginia. “She valued the gifts of everyone she met, so much so that she dared to learn from her students, and she would acknowledge what she learned.”
“I want to publicly thank her family for sharing her with the rest of us,” Peterson said to applause. “Her song is not ended. She continues to sing. She’s just singing in a different key.”
Valerie izumi, an assistant stated clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, and the Rev. Denise Anderson, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), read letters from, respectively, the
Rev. Bronwen Boswell, Acting Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the PMA.
On behalf of Boswell, izumi gave thanks to God for Costen’s “encouragement to embrace creatively with openness African American spirituals and music from other communities around the world, and the invitation to think deeply and theologically about hymnody.”
“We will remember Dr. Costen for her spirit of openness and the continued influence which continues to strengthen and equip the church to this day and beyond,” izumi said, still quoting Boswell. “For her witness and ministry, her grace and joy, Dr. Costen will be remembered as a shining example of dedication, hard work and love for the church to the glory of God.”
“Dr. Costen’s life exemplified the justice and love of Jesus,” Anderson said, reading a letter from Moffett. “Her brilliance shone brightly in her activism and the academy,” where “her care, challenge and unique pedagogy moved many to matriculate to the ITC for the Melva Costen experience.”
“More important than her sundry professional accomplishments, however, Dr. Melva W. Costen was a child of God. She was beloved by God, beloved by her sorors. … She was beloved by her students … and she was beloved by her family, with whom we mourn acutely today,” Anderson said. “It is an understatement to say the Costen family has offered many gifts to and through the Presbyterian Church throughout the years, and we remember with great fondness the faithful service that this formidable branch of God’s family tree has provided over the decades.”
“Whether you knew her as Dr. C, Mother Costen, Mama C or simply Melva, her baptism is now complete,” Anderson said. “We mourn not as those without hope, and we look to her life as an example of one who has fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith.”
“Let my life be filled with music” was the theme of the celebration of Costen’s life. Dr. Joyce Finch Johnson, Professor Emerita of Music at Spelman College, served as organist. Those gathered sang hymns including “Holy Holy Holy! Lord God Almighty!” “Standing on the Promises,” and “Siyahamba.” A combined choir sang one of Costen’s favorites, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”
Judy S. Armstrong, the former clerk of session of Church of the Master in Atlanta, which Costen’s husband, the Rev. Dr. James H. Costen, helped organize in 1965, recalled that Melva Costen would “burst with pride when pastors and seminarians served our pulpit” from her position as pianist, organist and choir director. “She was well aware of her contributions to their development and growth. She will be truly missed, but her legacy at Church of the Master will live on.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: A celebration of life for Dr. Melva Wilson Costen
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Kathy Riley, Associate for Emotion, Spiritual Care, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Kelly Riley, Executive Vice President, Plan Operations, Board of Pensions
Let us pray
Thank you, Lord, for the way you multiply what we give you beyond what we can imagine. Amen.