On the 40th anniversary of Fuller’s African American Church Studies Center, hundreds gathered on January 27 for a gala evening celebrating the legacy of William E. “Bill” Pannell, civil rights leader, pioneer in the African American evangelical church, and longtime Fuller faculty member.
The evening began with an hors d’oeuvres reception at the Westin Hotel in Pasadena. A live jazz band set the atmosphere of celebration as distinguished pastors, theologians, civil rights leaders, and scholars gathered and mingled.
Fuller President Mark Labberton welcomed guests in the banquet hall prior to dinner. “Tonight is a feast, and a celebration of that guy,” he remarked with a jovial point to Dr. Pannell. The crowd roared with applause and cheers.
Bill Pannell has been a member of the Fuller community since 1971 when, at the request of then-president David Allan Hubbard, he became a member of Fuller’s Board of Trustees. Pannell later became a member of the teaching faculty as well, serving as a preaching professor and the dean of chapel. He was a major advocate for establishing centers for both African American studies and Latino studies. The gala event saw current and former faculty, staff, and students of Fuller laud him for all these things.
Juan Martínez, Vice Provost and Professor of Hispanic Studies, remarked, “Tonight we follow the biblical mandate to give honor where honor is due. Tonight we honor Bill Pannell.”
Renowned vocalist Diane White-Clayton offered a stirring rendition of “Give Me Jesus” to honor Pannell’s dedication to evangelicalism, and James Earl Massey, Richard Mouw, Brenda Salter McNeil and others gave brief reflections on time spent with the honoree, noting how he had courageously left a mark on the Christian church and their own lives. Salter McNeil said of his guidance and trailblazing, “Dr. P was an answer to a prayer I didn’t even know I was praying.”
James Earl Massey delivered a keynote address that honored Pannell’s groundwork for so much of the reconciliation work the evangelical church would take up later. “Before anyone else was writing on race and the church, Bill Pannell was pioneering the very work that needed to be done on the streets of the city,” said Massey.
The evening was capped with Cliff Penner, chair of Fuller’s Board of Trustees, declaring the African American Church Studies Center renamed as the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies. Labberton also presented Pannell with a print of the painting “Lord Have Mercy” by artist M. Gasby Brown; the original—commissioned by the center and inspired by Pannell’s signature cry of “Mercy!”—will be displayed prominently in the new center’s offices. Cecil “Mel” Robeck prayed to close the festivities, and a gospel choir led by Candace Bogan sang “Oh Lord, We Praise You” before the crowd dispersed.
The anniversary and dedication were further celebrated throughout the week. January 28 began with Cynthia Wilson preaching in All-Seminary Chapel, followed by a series of lectures sponsored by the Obsidian Society and the unveiling of the James Melvin Washington Book Collection in Fuller’s David Allan Hubbard Library. Thursday saw more Obsidian Society lectures and the announcement of a festschrift in Pannell’s honor, featuring essays presented during the festivities. The week ended with a multicultural worship service where Susan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, preached the sermon.