Verna Dozier was born on October 9, 1917, in Washington, DC. Along with her mother and her younger sister Lois, she attended the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Her father, an agnostic but a voracious reader, worked at the Government Printing Office. Her mother, a woman of great faith, worked at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. She regularly read the Bible and Shakespeare’s works to her daughters in the evening, sparking in both a devotion to religion and great literature.
Verna graduated from Dunbar High School at age 15, then attended Howard University, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1937 and an M.A. in English Literature the following year. While at Howard, she attended the University Chapel and was greatly influenced by its Dean, Howard Thurman. She became interested in other denominations and religions and read extensively about them.
After receiving her degrees, Verna worked for 34 years in Washington’s public school system, as a high school English teacher, department chair, and assistant director of the system’s Division of Instruction, for which she developed innovative curricula. Outside of her professional work, she continued to study the Bible and the work of many theologians.
In 1950, Verna joined the Church of the Saviour in Washington, a congregation committed to education, personal devotions, and social action. She soon became known throughout the area for her approach to Bible study and for her teaching. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington recruited her to teach at its Diocesan School of Christian Living, through which she met Bill Baxter, the young Rector of St. Mark’s. Impressed with his approach to parishioner involvement and to social justice, she accepted his invitation to join St. Mark’s in 1955 and became its first African-American parishioner. She remained a member until her death in 2006.
Over her years at St. Mark’s, Verna taught classes, preached, served on the Vestry, and was elected Senior Warden. She also held numerous, voluntary positions with the Diocese of Washington. Her reputation spread throughout the Episcopal Church as a theologian, educator, and advocate for the ministry of the laity. In addition to speaking and leading workshops across the country, she taught at the Virginia Theological Seminary and the Diocese’s College of Preachers. She was awarded two honorary doctorates: by the University of the South (Sewanee) in 1988 and by VTS in 1993.
In 1981, Verna published her first book, Equipping the Saints: A Method of Self-directed Bible Study for Lay Groups. It was published by the Alban Institute in Washington, with which she was associated for many years as a speaker and consultant. She went on to write seven more books, including Sisters and Brothers: Reclaiming a Biblical Idea of Community, co-authored with St. Mark’s 10th Rector, James R. Adams, and The Authority of the Laity, co-authored with Celia Hahn, a colleague at the Alban Institute and fellow St. Mark’s parishioner.
The Dream of God: A Call to Return, was Verna’s favorite book and one of her most popular both across the Episcopal Church and well beyond. While serving as Bishop of North Carolina from 2000-2015, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, encouraged all the churches in his diocese to read The Dream of God. It remains in print, along with two of her other books.
In 1992 Verna moved into the Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Maryland. With the help of parishioners, she continued to attend St. Mark’s until Parkinson’s disease made that impossible. In 1999 her many friends at St. Mark’s and elsewhere raised funds to commission a stained glass window in her honor. Verna chose for it to depict the prophet Amos in the marketplace, calling for justice for the people. The two women shown in the scene represent Verna and her sister. The Dozier Clerestory Window is located on the east wall, the second window from the entrance. Funds left over from this project were used to establish the Dozier Family Educational Fund, which is administered by St. Mark’s and awards a college scholarship each year to a graduating senior at Dunbar High School.
Verna died on September 1, 2006. Her ashes are interred in the Columbarium at St. Mark’s.
This summary of Verna’s life and work is based largely on the extensive biography and bibliography written in 2005 by Fredrica Harris Thompsett for the “Christian Educators of the 20th Century Project” sponsored by the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, CA.
See also the obituary written for the Washington Post by Bart Barnes, a member of St. Mark’s.
To get a sense of the breadth and depth of Verna’s teaching and preaching, visit this page, which has representative quotes from her writing, several sermons, and a list of the books either by or about her that are in the library’s collection.