Two years after hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Williams College campus, the Rev. John Eusden followed his friend to Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 during one of the most hostile times of the civil rights movement.
Far from his chaplaincy at Williams, Rev. Eusden was jailed in Birmingham, where he participated in demonstrations, facing attack dogs, hurled curses, and the fire hoses officials trained on protesters.
“I told him then that if he ever needed me, to just give me a call,” Rev. Eusden told the Globe in May 1963, speaking of a promise he made during King’s visit to Williams. “Well, the call came.”
During more than 60 years of ministry, he answered the call to the pulpit and the classroom, to the meditative sanctuaries of Eastern religions and the deafening streets of protest, to mountaintops spiritual and physical.
Rev. Eusden, the Nathan Jackson professor of Christian theology emeritus at Williams, died in Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, Maine, on April 27 of complications of an infection. He was 90 and had moved from Williamstown to Brunswick in 2010.
“John was a large presence at Williams in more ways than one,” Adam Falk, president of Williams College, wrote in a message to the campus. “While the tall, former Harvard swim captain and former Marine pilot loomed forcefully from the pulpit, he also helped lead the college into engagement with the civil rights movement, ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, international studies, and environmentalism.”
Along with spending 32 years at Williams, Rev. Eusden brought his ministry throughout New England, to academic stints in Hong Kong and the Netherlands, and often to Japan, where he studied and taught.
‘I told [Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] then that if he ever needed me, to just give me a call. Well, the call came.’
“He always held one foot in the parish and one foot in the academy,” said the Rev. John Westerhoff of Atlanta, with whom Rev. Eusden collaborated on three books. “He had one foot in the Christian faith, and yet he was a student of world religions. John was able to make intersections between Japanese religions and Christianity.”
Rev. Eusden “made the membranes permeable between the religions of the West and the religions of the East by virtue of his intellectual appetite, his scholarly projects, and his practice,” said the Rev. Rick Spalding, the current chaplain at Williams. “He was a very serious meditator.”
He added that through social justice work and participation in the civil rights movement, often with the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Rev. Eusden also “deserves credit for helping shape what I would call contemporary college chaplaincy.”
For 45 years, Rev. Eusden kept a vacation home in Randolph, N.H., tucked into the White Mountains. A stellar athlete all his life, he rode a bicycle into his final year and participated in the annual bike race up Mount Washington for the 16th and final time when he was 80. He also led wilderness hikes, but was just as ready to go it alone.
“He was so sensitive to the natural world that to be in the middle of it was a great pleasure for him and a source of meaning in his life,” said the Rev. Avery Post, a longtime friend who formerly served as national president of the United Church of Christ and leader of the Massachusetts Conference. “He obviously enjoyed groups of hikers, but, given the strength of his hiking, I think there might have been times when he enjoyed being solo with the mountains, with his own thoughts.”
The oldest of three sons, John Dykstra Eusden was born in Holland, Mich., and grew up in Newton, where his father, the Rev. Ray Eusden Sr., was pastor of Eliot Church. His mother, the former Marie Dykstra, was a concert pianist and instilled a love of music in Rev. Eusden, who played several instruments.
At Harvard College, from which he graduated as part of the class of 1944, he was captain of the swim team and managed what was reported then to be the unprecedented feat of lettering in swimming at three universities, when military training took him to Yale and Colgate.
During World War II, he was a Marine aviator and afterward spent two semesters at Harvard Law School before leaving for Yale Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1949. He earned a doctorate in religion at Yale in 1954 and began teaching. He was ordained in his father’s church in 1949 and the following year married Joanne Reiman, who had lived around the corner during his Newton childhood and became a psychotherapist.
He taught for a few years at Yale Divinity School before becoming the Williams chaplain, having “decided that to work with undergraduates in a secular institution rather than with graduate students at a theological seminary was my talent and passion,” he wrote for a Harvard class report.
Along with hosting King during his early 1960s visit to Williams, Rev. Eusden taught classes and welcomed every incoming freshman into his home for dessert and fellowship. “I think the thing that strikes me the most about our growing up with him is that regardless of what he was doing or where we were, he was actively in the practice of creating community,” said his daughter Sarah Eusden Gallop of Winchester.
“Suddenly we’re having 12 people over for dinner and we’re all doing a bicycle race the next day,” she said. “He was a catalyst in such a wide variety of activities from sports to academia to civil rights to loving the mountains. He made community, and he loved community. He just reveled in the camaraderie of being with other people.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Rev. Eusden leaves another daughter, Andrea of Auburn, Maine; two sons, Alan of Corning, N.Y., and Dykstra of South Paris, Maine; a brother, David of Bloomfield, Conn.; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in First Parish Church in Brunswick, Maine.
By the end of his tenure at Williams, Rev. Eusden was teaching full time, and he also had been a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College. At about the time he retired from teaching he took up parish ministry again for more than a decade at a Congregational church in Bennington, Vt.
A skier who liked to spend at least 100 days on the slopes each year, he called his 70s his “late middle age” and was still competing in bicycle races into his 80s.
“The nice thing about an ‘elder age group’ is that the entries are few – sometimes only me,” he wrote in 1994, “and so to win the age group all I have to do is start!”
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