Remembering Rev. Brenda Tapia, a Voice for Equality and Justice

A beloved mentor, teacher and friend to countless Davidson College alumni, Rev. Brenda Tapia passed away Feb. 4.

A Davidson native, Tapia grew up with ties to the college. Her father worked on the college maintenance staff, then was an assistant in the chemistry department from 1949-1968. Both of her parents—James and Dovie Howard—insisted that she get a good education.

Tapia fulfilled her family’s dream and earned a degree in psychology at Howard University. She worked in a variety of counseling positions for several years, but the more she talked to people, the more she came to see connections between psychological problems and spiritual problems. That led her toward ministry. She attended Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Atlanta and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1988.

While finishing up her theological education, she returned to her hometown in 1985 after an 18-year absence, and began working as a supply preacher at a Mooresville church. She was hired part-time by Davidson College as a consultant for minority student affairs, and a few months later became full-time assistant chaplain and minority student counselor.

When a college task force suggested Davidson sponsor an education enrichment program for underrepresented high school students, administrators turned to Tapia for guidance. She accepted the challenge, and the Love of Learning program pilot class welcomed rising high school juniors in summer 1987. The program, which emphasized a holistic approach toward strengthening body, mind and spirit, served as a year-round supplement to students' regular school curriculum.

Two of the students in the pilot class, Rafael Candelario ’94 and Nethea Rhinehardt ’93, became the first Love of Learning alumni to attend Davidson College.

“Brenda’s service to Davidson College and the larger community was a blessing. She had the will and the skill to change lives, both as a chaplain on this campus and in neighborhoods beyond,” said Davidson College President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59. “In the very best sense, the Love of Learning Program became her lengthened shadow. She took the inkling of a dream and transformed it into an unforgettable experience of growth and discovery for hundreds of young people in Mecklenburg County.” 

Tapia called Love of Learning a “church in disguise”—the real church, what churches are supposed to be.

“On the side we taught them a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. But anyone can pick that up,” she said of the program. “The real emphasis was on freeing the light within.”

As a mentor to African American youth, Tapia drew from her own experiences.

She felt the sting of racism herself during her last two years of high school in a newly integrated school, and then confronted racism at Howard University because of her dark complexion. At Davidson, she was a strong voice for equality and justice on campus, where she pushed her colleagues and the administration to more decisively address racial issues.

“Brenda brought blessing and encouragement to countless people through her enormous spirit, deep love for God, and courageous voice,” said College Chaplain Rob Spach ’84. “With wisdom and sensitivity in offering pastoral care and a vision for human dignity and social justice, Brenda made a powerful and lasting impact on the lives of Love of Learning students and their families, as well as students, faculty, and staff at the college.”

Upon hearing of her passing, Davidson alumni shared heartfelt tributes on Tapia’s Facebook page; they capture the love she inspired and the counsel she provided to countless students:

"Rev. Brenda H. Tapia is the reason I attended Davidson College… [she] reminded me that I deserved to be there, made me proud to be black, and gave me an extended family of which I am very proud… I’ve been struggling to find the words for how I’m feeling after hearing about her death this morning. I don’t know if I’m grieving as much as I’m so happy she’s finally resting and at peace. That woman worked so HARD and was so selfless. She gave so much of herself. Whenever there was a need, physical or spiritual, she tried her best to fill it."

- Brianna Burton '11

Rev. Brenda H. Tapia was a channel of God...and the realest person I ever knew. I spent a lot of time sitting at Brenda’s kitchen table, aching from laughter, bowled over by truth, filled with the Spirit. She's the reason I answered my call to ministry.

John Rogers ’11

Tapia’s dedication to young people was recognized by the college, and in the broader community. Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center named her one of 30 “Women of a New Tribe II.” She received an Education Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and was highlighted as a “Person of the Year” by The Charlotte Observer.

A memorial service to honor the life of Rev. Brenda Tapia will be held Friday, Feb. 14, at Davidson College Presbyterian Church in the Sanctuary (100 N. Main Street, Davidson): 11 a.m. visitation, 12 p.m. funeral proceedings. A reception will be held following the service in the Congregation House (218 Concord Rd., Davidson). The service will be livestreamed on the DCPC Facebook page.


  • February 6, 2020