Obituary: Janice Robinson Newborn
Beloved mother, grandmother, groundbreaking Christian Church leader
Janice Robinson Newborn, loving wife of 63 years to Ernest Joshua Newborn, Sr., mother of two, and grandmother of four, died peacefully from natural causes at the age of 91 at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California on April 21.
Janice was born October 6, 1928 in Youngstown, Ohio to Mary Bennett, a homemaker, and Clarence Robinson, a corporate lawyer. Mary and Clarence were among Youngstown’s most active and highly regarded citizens.
Mr. Robinson was one of the first African American attorneys to serve as general counsel and corporate secretary to a major industrial corporation. Known to his children and grandchildren as “Daddy Robby,” he was the recipient of numerous awards for his kind and generous service in the areas of race relations and human rights.
Ms. Bennett, known to her children and grandchildren as “Momma Robby,” tirelessly and graciously welcomed into their home at 1040 Foster Street many friends and family who frequently sought her and Mr. Robinson’s wisdom, guidance and support. “Mary and Clarence were exemplary role models, inspiring Janice to live a life devoted to faith, empathy and service,” her family shared.
She was also the great-granddaughter of Plympton Ross Berry (“P. Ross Berry”), a legendary master brick and stone mason who built many of the famous churches, hotels, government buildings, opera houses and mansions in Youngstown and in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Mr. Berry also built the high school Ms. Newborn attended.
She was the youngest of four girls and three boys. She attended Parmelee Elementary School, Hayes Junior High School, and Rayen High School. She graduated from the Dana School of Music at Youngstown University in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.
She then began working in the physical therapy department at Massillon State Hospital in Massillon, Ohio. Her teaching qualifications made it possible for her to accept a position with the Canton, Ohio public schools. In Canton, she met the Reverend Ernest J. Newborn, who was serving as a pastor and public schoolteacher. The couple married on June 30, 1956 in Youngstown.
Rev. Newborn’s service as a regional minister and then as a member of the church’s national staff made moving around inevitable. In addition to supporting his ministerial career and raising two children, Ms. Newborn worked full time throughout their journey together.
She was the executive assistant for six years to two members of the Missouri State Senate, corporation secretary to the president of the Division of Overseas Ministries for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, director of program implementation in the Department of Church Women, and director of social action ministries in the Department of Church Women.
In 1988, she was appointed to executive of the Department of Church Women of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the first African American woman to hold the position.
As executive of the Department of Church Women, Ms. Newborn was the originator of the Disciples’ Women’s “Woman-to-Woman” program. The program made it possible for women of faith to travel to other countries to connect with each other while also sharing commonalities and differences in their respective cultures and faith journeys. It was a successful program at its inception and it continues to this day.
She made many other groundbreaking contributions during her time as a member of the national church staff. They are well-documented in Craddock, Faw and Heimer’s book, In The Fullness of Time: A History of Women in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and in Fields’ book, Women on a Mission, a history of African-American women in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Additionally, her life and work are featured in the video series, Wisdom of Women-Volume 2.
Among other achievements as a church executive, she was instrumental in coordinating the 1986 International Christian Women’s Fellowship Quadrennial Assembly at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana (“Because We Bear The Name”). Ms. Newborn’s work made it possible for her to visit overseas missions programs in southern Africa, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Haiti.
In her professional and volunteer positions inside and outside of Christian ministry, she is most remembered for her wisdom, innovation, leadership, courage and encouraging spirit. She served as a treasured and respected mentor for many.
In 2008, she received an honorary doctoral degree from the Christian Theological Seminary “for her years of faithful ministry as a tireless layperson who dedicated her life to service to her church and community, and as a vibrant leader who is recognized as a pioneer for women’s leadership.” It was an honor Ms. Newborn received with great joy and with her trademark humility.
“Janice was known by all for her unwavering love of and commitment to family, unstinting loyalty, visionary ministry, unfailing grace and dignity, abundant charm, kindness, generosity, and eternal patience (especially when it came to her husband and kids),” her family shared. “Janice had a knack for speaking truth to power and getting results. In the mold of her parents, she was a natural and warm hostess to the many family, friends, and colleagues she and Ernest welcomed into their home.”
Owing to her natural talent and the rigorous voice training she received in college, she pursued a lifelong interest in classical and choral music. “Janice’s voice was truly that of an angel,” her family said.
She also enjoyed reading, gardening and stimulating conversation. The Newborns especially loved spending leisure time with her older sister, the late Mary Robinson Scott, an educator who resided in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Mary’s late husband, Wesley Scott, former president of the Milwaukee Urban League.
In a 1990 restructure of the church’s Division of Homeland Ministries, Janice became the senior associate for the Office of Disciples Women. She held this position until she retired in 1994.
Following her retirement, she became a community volunteer with Church Women United and other service organizations, as well as her local church. In 1998, she became president of the Indianapolis unit of Christian Women United and served a two year term. She continued as a sought after speaker throughout the country on the topics of dynamic leadership and the role of women in the church.
The Newborns “retired” to Pilgrim Place in Claremont in May 2001. They were vital members of the Pilgrim Place community and loyal friends to many “Pilgrims.”
“Janice, of course, never resigned her passion for making a difference,” her family shared. “One fellow Pilgrim remembers Janice noticing a promotional flier for an upcoming event at Pilgrim Place and wondering aloud why it contained only the face of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child. Janice said to her friends, ‘Why is that not my granddaughter?’ According to her friends, Janice then led the group over to the Pilgrim Place administration building where Janice firmly expressed her concern. Since then, publicity for the event has featured children of many colors and cultures!”
Ms. Newborn was preceded in death by her devoted and loving husband, Ernest; and siblings, Manuela, Thomas, Mary, Charles, Ross and Addie.
Janice will be greatly missed by her two children, Ernest Joshua Newborn, II and Mary Josephine Newborn Wiggins; grandchildren, Ernest Joshua Newborn, III (“Joshua”), Nathan Christopher Wiggins, Joseph Ross Newborn and Meredith Michelle Wiggins; daughter-in-law Josie Stovall Newborn; son-in-law Donald Christopher Wiggins; and a host of beloved cousins, nieces and nephews, and their children and grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made payable to the Christian Church Foundation for the benefit of the Ernest J. and Janice Newborn Fund, PO Box 1986, Indianapolis, Indiana, 46206-1986. Online gifts may be made at www.christianchurchfoundation.org/give.