James Anthony Noel (1948-2016): Prophet, Pastor, Professor, and Painter

The Graduate Theological Union mourns the loss of the Rev. Dr. James Noel, a cherished member of the GTU community who died on Sunday, January 31, 2016. An alum of both SFTS (MDiv, 1975) and the GTU (PhD, 1999), Dr. Noel was the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr. Chair of African American Christianity and Professor of American Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary, served on the GTU's core doctoral faculty, and was convener of the GTU's Black Church/Africana Studies Certificate Program.

UPDATE: The venue for the memorial service for Dr. James Noel has been changed to Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. The date and time have not changed: Wednesday, February 10, at 11 am.

Printed below with permission is the announcement that San Francisco Theological Seminary released honoring Dr. Noel. You can also view this video tribute to Dr. Noel.

February 1, 2016, For Immediate Release

James Anthony Noel (1948-2016)

Prophet, Pastor, Professor, and Painter

The world has lost a truly renaissance man.

Rev. Dr. James Anthony Noel, the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr. Chair of African American Christianity, Professor of American Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary, died Sunday evening, January 31, after a valiant fight with cancer. He was 68 years old. Dr. Noel was also Pastor of New Liberation Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.

A gifted painter, his vibrant artwork was on display throughout the SFTS campus and in numerous art galleries throughout the Bay Area. He said of his paintings: “They contemplate, celebrate, and represent the African Diaspora’s social, religious, and cultural experiences in North America, the Caribbean, and South America….I wanted to capture the beauty and dignity of Black folk as a reality as well as an ideal.”

He was also a 7th Dan Tae Kwon Do Master, a Korean martial art, which he began studying when he was in his late teens. He developed his own system, which he practiced and taught, neh kong do (way of inner strength), which he felt was “more fluid and gentle.”

Blessed with a rich, mellifluous bass voice, Noel would often break into song, especially a Black spiritual, during a lecture or a sermon. His voice commanded attention and his words spoke to the heart of things. He was a person of sharp intellect, deep feeling, and enormous passion. He could be angry and impatient, but also tender and gracious. Few others equaled his knowledge of the African diaspora, African American history, and the Black Church. The breadth of his network of scholars, activists, and pastors was truly impressive.

James Anthony Noel was born on January 1, 1948, in Queens, NY.  He received his B.A. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969, a Master of Divinity degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1975, and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in 1999.

As an undergraduate at Berkeley, he met Raam Somayajulu, a researcher in physical chemistry.  Away from class, Somayajulu gathered people together to discuss quantum theory, yoga meditation and consciousness, body energy and the teachings of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras.  These conversations led Noel to follow a path that led to practicing tae kwon do. After he entered SFTS with the idea of studying comparative religion, he read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17.  In it, Jesus led his disciples to the top of a mountain where he glowed like the sun.  Then Jesus led his disciples back down the mountain where he performed a healing. “I realized all of a sudden that Jesus was my guru,” Noel said. “I thought the spiritual practices I was doing would lead me to enlightenment, only to discover that Jesus had already done it for me.”

From 1976 to 1987 he served as pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. One of his parishioners there, author Anne Lamott often referenced Dr. Noel in her writings. He also served as interim pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, CA, in the mid 2000s.

While at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Dr. Noel and others formed the Marin City Community Economic Development Corporation to purchase land in the community on which to build affordable housing, provide essential services, and support the local economy. He served as the first Chairperson of the Community Development Organization of Marin City, which developed 40 acres of land into a shopping center, condominiums with access to housing for low-income families, and a new building to house the St. Andrew’s congregation. 

Rev. Noel joined the SFTS faculty in 1988, after serving a year as the seminary’s Director of Continuing Education. He became a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, where he was also the convener of the Black Church/Africana Studies Certificate Program. In 2012 his GTU colleagues honored him with the distinguished professor award, given to those “who embody the scholarly standards, teaching excellence, and commitment to ecumenism that define the GTU.”

SFTS president Jim McDonald said “Professor Noel was a larger-than-life presence at SFTS, whether in the classroom, pulpit, faculty meeting, office, or in one-on-one conversations. His achievements, contributions, and accomplishments are manifold. He was a towering figure in many different communities, networks, conversations, always bringing the prophetic word and challenging us to address the basic issues of justice related to race and poverty.”

His daughter Amada said of him: “He had the kind of character that allowed his presence to be known without him speaking a word. He had a character that was complex and intricate, like his mind. He was a man invested into his community and because of this I shared him with his students, colleagues, church folk, friends and witnessed how effortlessly he was able to touch people's lives.”

The Rev. Jerry Van Marter, Alumni Relations Advisor at SFTS, noted: “With the passing of James Noel, all of us associated with SFTS have lost a towering leader, a gifted teacher, a passionate preacher and a tirelessly effective advocate for racial and social justice – God‘s justice. Most of all, we have all lost a true friend.”

James Noel is going to be deeply missed. He was through-and-through a man of faith and prophetic witness to the God of love and justice, whom he knew through Jesus Christ, who lived among us as a slave, suffered with us even to the point of his death on a cross, and who showed us a still more perfect way.  James believed in the resurrection and he lived a life of hope and courage based on it. He has entered into the communion of saints and joined that cloud of witnesses who now encourage us and urge us on.

We are mourning his loss, lifting our prayers to God and sending our love to his wife of 33 years, Diana (nee Nieves), and his children Michelle, Kaiya, Daniel, and Amada.  Details about his memorial service and the family’s wishes will be forthcoming.

"Blessed are those who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. For they shall rest from their labors and their deeds follow them."