There are also many members of the faculty and staff who know her, know of her, or have read about her efforts in Durham during the 1960s and ’70s. “So when the calls for assistance go out to the community, there is a ready and enthusiastic response,” Duncan adds.

Greg Duncan, Duke Divinity School’s associate dean for student services, has made a visit from Atwater and discussion of the documentary An Unlikely Friendship a tradition during Project
Bri(ddd)ge. A week-long immersion for students in urban ministry and the Durham community, the program is offered on a first-come, first-served basis each August prior to orientation.

“Our students are receiving far more than they are giving,” he says. “Often, when someone of privilege helps someone in need, there is an accompanying patronizing attitude. Ms. Atwater has taught each of us that, though a person may be in need in one area of her life, that person still has much to give and offer in return.

“It becomes a partnership—mutual giving and receiving. We are learning that service is not as much about giving as it is about being in communion with another who is also fully God’s child.”

This type of work is a reminder that studies and research must be grounded in incarnated discipleship. “All the theory means nothing if it is not applicable to the hopes and sufferings of God’s people,” says Duncan.

“I believe I can work with everybody,” says Atwater, who admittedly had grave doubts when she was asked to collaborate with C.P. Ellis to help integrate Durham’s schools. “When I start working with them, they might not love me to start with, but we can keep working together to learn to love each other,” she says.

Which reminds Dean Duncan of another biblical admonition that the relationships with Atwater reinforce every day: “We are all, regardless of skin color, children of God—brothers and sisters together in one family. No one is more important or less important than another, and when one rejoices, we all rejoice; when one hurts, we all hurt.” 

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