Charles Teel, Jr., beloved La Sierra University professor of religion and society, social justice crusader, and missions advocate, died on Sept. 1, 2017, at age 78 after a brief battle with West Nile Virus. He was just two months into his retirement.
A service celebrating Teel’s life and his contributions to the church, the university, and the world will take place on Sabbath, Oct. 28, at 4 p.m. at the La Sierra University Church in Riverside, California. Live streaming options will be available at http://www.lsuchurch.org.
As evidence of his wide-ranging impact over the years, condolences and remembrances have been pouring in through university social media and other channels after announcements were posted the evening of his passing. As of Sept. 7, a university Facebook post had reached 35,397 people with more than 2,000 reactions, comments, and shares.
“Dr. Teel was loved by his students and his colleagues. Without a doubt, he was one of the most passionate individuals I have been blessed to know,” said Randal Wisbey, La Sierra University president.
“He was a champion for justice—and he never tired of thinking how best to engage younger generations in the things that had given his life such meaning and focus. Over the last several days I have received many notes from former students and from colleagues who have expressed their love for this remarkable professor. Our campus joins his family in deeply mourning this loss.”
Larry Geraty, former archaeology professor and La Sierra University president emeritus became good friends with Teel during their studies at Newbold College in England. The duo later roomed together during their senior year at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California. After graduation, the two friends were in each other’s weddings, then followed parallel paths through seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and graduate school in Boston. Years later, the two friends ended up teaching together at La Sierra University after Geraty arrived in 1993.
“I’ve long admired Charles’ ability in the classroom, his passion for world service, the way he made the story of Ana and Fernando Stahl ‘live’ in our generation to inspire student missionaries, his devotion to the Stahl Center and the Path of the Just, and so much more,” Geraty said. “Everything he did was done with minute planning, flair, and panache. He was ‘Mr. Social Justice’ for the Adventist Church, which is now bereft of a leading force for societal and church integration, inclusion, equality, fairness, and justice. Life, without him, will never be the same.”
Teel’s association with La Sierra began more than 50 years ago. His active role as a member of the faculty began in 1972, but his actual appointment began in 1967. Though he lived and worked elsewhere at various times during his career, La Sierra was his professional home.
The Path to Christian Ethics
Born on July 11, 1939, Teel spent his adolescence in Loma Linda, California, where his father served as pastor of what is now the Loma Linda University Church. He graduated from Pacific Union College in 1961, serving as student government president during his senior year and planning initially to become a dean of students. After completing some graduate coursework in sociology at the University of Southern California, he earned an M.A. in Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. After four years as a teacher at Newbury Park Academy, he enrolled at Boston University, where he completed a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion. Reflecting his budding interest in religion and social change, his dissertation built on surveys and interviews of members of the clergy arrested for participation in civil rights protests and related activities. During his time in Boston, Teel also qualified for a Master of Theology degree in Christian Ethics at Harvard Divinity School, where he studied under noted theologian Harvey Cox.
Professor Teel began to make his mark soon after his arrival at La Sierra. Quickly selected as a member of the faculty in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies, he helped during the program’s short life to stimulate and challenge multiple cohorts of exceptionally capable students. He played a similar role as a founding member of the faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies’ successor, the Honors Program, where students encountered him as one of the instructors responsible for a demanding team-taught freshman course that helped to serve as a boot camp for budding scholars.
Utterly enthusiastic about teaching, Teel inspired undergraduates with courses in Christian ethics and in Ellen White’s relationship with Adventism, and explored Christian social ethics and Christian engagement with culture with graduate students. He engaged students in challenging, stimulating dialogue with biblical passages and contemporary texts, capturing their intention with memorable intensity. One of the first crop of three La Sierra faculty members to receive Zapara teaching awards, he was a truly outstanding teacher who motivated, delighted and reshaped generations of students.
An active participant in the life of what is now the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School, Teel served as chair of the school’s Department of Christian Ethics in the 1980s. He also led out in efforts to enhance the participation of faculty members in university governance and to achieve market compensation for faculty.
Passionate about connecting students with the wider world, Teel led international tours for decades. He helped students explore the connection between religion and society in Latin America and Africa. His passion during the last three decades of his life was the contribution of Adventist global mission to social transformation.
After a Maryknoll priest alerted him to the fact that Adventist missioners Ana and Fernando Stahl had played a dramatic role in the economic, political, and social empowerment of previously marginalized residents of Peru’s highlands, he began a period of intense historical research. Aware that the Stahls had been lauded for their missionary work in South America, he had had no idea of their societal impact. His research led him to the work of numerous non-Adventist writers — sociologists, historians, politicians, and others — who had commended the Stahls’ social mission. To celebrate their work and to encourage the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Adventist young people to re-vision the ways in which Adventist missionary activity could touch the world with God’s grace, he opened the Stahl Center for World Service at La Sierra. Under the center’s umbrella, he led repeated tours to South America, while also creating a museum housing artifacts related to Adventist mission and organized campus programming related to the future of mission.
Professor Teel also sought in various other creative ways to engage the imaginations of students, colleagues, and members of the university, inspiring active participation in social change. He envisioned Global Village, a program in which campus visitors, including thousands of elementary school students, examined replicas of habitats — populated by La Sierra student volunteers — typical of those occupied by vulnerable people around the world. Global Quilting highlighted the plight of children with HIV/AIDS and encouraged people to craft quilts for these children. Path of the Just is a key feature of the La Sierra University campus's central pedestrian mall. It honors individuals whose lives of service have fostered human rights and religious tolerance. Granite boulders placed on the Path identify individuals, including South African cleric and change agent Desmond Tutu, author Pearl S. Buck, Third Reich resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Adventist missioners and educators Horace and Rosayle Kelly and Lorna and Paul Allred.
At a time when there was little encouragement for faculty members to engage in scholarship, Teel modeled reflective, serious intellectual activity. Qualifying for a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, crafting thoughtful prose marking the development of Adventist identity, and exploring the role of missioners in transforming lives in Central and South America, he built on his early work on Martin Luther King's protesting pastors to make clear to other academics, church members and church administrators that religious communities could be actively and positively engaged with their cultural surroundings without losing their identities — indeed, while building on, acknowledging and celebrating those identities. He edited “Remnant and Republic: Adventist Themes for Personal and Social Ethics,” a book emerging from a lecture series he organized during the 1987-88 academic year, and authored scholarly articles on a variety of aspects of the interconnection between religion and social change. A new collection of published and unpublished articles is forthcoming.
Teel is survived by his brother, Donovan, his wife, the former Marta Pastor, and his daughters, Alma and Melanie.
In lieu of flowers, friends are invited to contribute to a fund at La Sierra University that will support a Charles Teel Annual Lectureship on Service to Church and Society. For further information about the lectureship fund, please call 951-785-2500.
— Article courtesy of La Sierra University