The Feast of Pauli Murray

By The Rev. Joyce Corbin Cunningham

On February 08, 2007, I attended a special worship service at the Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill. I was motivated to attend that service, for two reasons: the first was that the service was to celebrate a woman . . . Pauli Murray . . . who had grown up in St. Titus and some of her family were still members of this congregation. The second reason was that, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and first female head of church within the Anglican Communion was going to be the preacher and celebrant. I must admit, I had no idea of the significance of the Presiding Bishop’s presence at that service. But the occasion for the service and the condensed history provided and articulated by Jefferts Schori and others connected the dots for me.

The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline Murray was ordained the first female African-American priest on January 8, 1977, at the mature age of sixty-six.  She celebrated her first Eucharist and preached . . . just a little over a month later . . .  at the Chapel of the Cross.   On this particular February day in 2007, the Episcopal Church was celebrating the 30th anniversary of that historic event.   Historic . . . not just for the Church . . . but, also for what it meant to Pauli personally. 

The Chapel of the Cross was built on land given to it by her grandmother’s paternal family, the Smiths.  Her grandmother, Cornelia, was baptized in that church and regularly attended services there with her father’s sister, Mary Ruffin Smith.  But once Pauli and her aunt Mary entered the church, the familial ties she enjoyed privately with her father’s family were not to be acknowledged publically.  When they entered the church, Mary Ruffin Smith would go sit in, what I assume, was the family pew . . .  and Cornelia would go sit in the balcony — where the slaves sat.  For Cornelia, Pauli’s grandmother, was the daughter of a slave, Harriet,  and her slave master, Sydney, who was Mary Ruffin Smith’s brother.  However, unlike many slaves of similar parentage, Cornelia was acknowledged as the child of the master, moved into the big house at the insistence of her Aunt Mary, lived a type of quasi-slave existence in the Big House and was reared to have pride in being a Smith, but while being reminded that she was still a slave.   

After the Civil War, Cornelia, married a free black from the North, Robert Fitzgerald, himself the son of an inter-racial marriage – his mother was white and his father was black.   But this marriage was one freely entered into by both.  Robert fought with the Union Army during the Civil War and after the War ended, he moved South to help educate the freed people of color, having been trained as a teacher at what is today, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.   Robert was fiercely proud of his heritage as a free person of color and his contribution as a Union soldier during the Civil War.  His wife, Cornelia was equally as proud of her Smith heritage and found it impossible to reject that part of who she was.  Though her father raped her mother and never granted Cornelia her freedom, she loved him and her Aunt Mary.  She was a Chapel Hill Smith and proud of it.  And while the Civil War freed Cornelia, she remained on the Smith plantation until she married Robert. 

Pauli Murray, reared by her maternal grandparents and aunts, grew up in this complex environment, due to both Robert’s and Cornelia’s personal histories and constant recounting of them.  It is partly for that reason that Pauli abhorred identity labels  because she felt they simplified identity.  She was always a staunch supporter of  the integration of all of who she was – Negro, White, Native American, female, male, poet / writer, lawyer, social activist, priest.  She wasn’t afraid to take the risks associated with exploration of the intersections of her life and how that contributed to her sense of her own identity.  She saw herself — the complex human being that she was — as an example of the Body of Christ being reconciled one to the other, embodied within her being.  This is alluded to in her sermon at the Chapel of the Cross on that memorable day in 1977.  She said:

“My entire life’s quest has been for spiritual integration, and this quest has led me ultimately to Christ, in whom there is no East or West, no North or South, no Black or White, no Red or Yellow, no Jew or Gentile, no Islam or Buddhist, no Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic, no Male or Female. … There is only Christ, the Spirit of Love and reconciliation, the healer of deep psychic wounds, drawing us all closer to that goal of perfection that links us to God our Creator and to eternity.”

Schori told us of the debt, she and other women clergy, owe to Pauli Murray.  She talked about the fact that her present reality as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the only female primate (head of church) within the Anglican Communion,  ) was as a result, in large part, to the doggedly persistent efforts of Pauli Murray for justice and reconciliation of all of God’s people.  Pauli Murray was relentless in helping the Church come to terms. . . theologically . . . with its practices of gender discrimination in the visible, leadership roles within the church.   She refused to let anything or anybody mute her voice.  Katherine Jefferts Schori said, “I know that I stand here today only because she stood here before me. Her proud shoes have carried many others down the road to freedom.”

Little did I know when I walked into that historic, original chapel on the grounds of Chapel of the Cross, on that day in February 2007,  that I would leave that service, a women rejoicing in the spirit and witness of Pauli Murray and obsessed with finding out everything I could about her.  She was a woman of incomparable achievements . . . as a lawyer, a womanist, a human rights, civil rights, and social justice activist.  She used her God-given gifts as a poet, priest,  prophet, trailblazer, and saint to further the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Much in her life resonated with me.  I, too, grew up in the segregated South under Jim Crow.  I experienced the unforeseen challenges of Jane Crow, Jim’s twin, once I graduated from college in a field dominated by men, and like Pauli, at age 62, I surrendered to God’s call to ordained ministry and started seminary. 

So, the question loomed in my mind after learning of  all she had done – Why had I never heard of this phenomenal woman?  This question also plagued a young, bright law student in 1963.  Her name was Eleanor Holmes Norton and she met Pauli Murray while both were at Yale Law (this was another first for Pauli.  Eleanor was there getting her J.D.  However, Pauli was there getting her J.S.D.  (She was the first African-American, male or female, to get the J.S.D., Doctor of the Science of Law, degree from Yale). 

After  learning about everything Pauli had done in the areas of law, human and civil rights, Eleanor Holmes Norton said she was “stunned on learning about the ‘nerve and bravery of this little woman’” who had in 1940, been arrested in Richmond, VA. for disorderly conduct stemming from violation of bus segregation laws – 15 years before Rosa Parks did a similar thing in 1955.  She was stunned to learn how in 1944, Pauli, along with several other Howard University women, provided the leadership for a non-violent sit-in at a segregated Cafeteria in Washington, DC . . . some sixteen years before similar actions became hallmarks of nonviolent direct action by blacks within the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.   In 1944, Pauli did this without the safety and protection of the Civil Rights movement and the changing national attitudes about race relations and gender discrimination, legally embodied in this country’s laws and institutional structures, more popularly known as Jim Crow and Jane Crow, Jim’s twin.   Eleanor Holmes Norton was stunned upon learning of the legal writings Pauli did, both while at Howard Law and subsequent to graduation . . . that were indispensable to the NAACP legal team, headed by Thurgood Marshall, in their arguments before the Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954.  The actions of Pauli and others, whose names have been forgotten, have largely gone unheralded in the pages of history . . . but their actions paved the way . . . laid the foundation for those agents of social change who followed and who garnered the headlines.  Eleanor Holmes Norton has said, “that Pauli “lived on the edge of history, seeming to pull it along with her.”  This removed her from the spotlight of those changes when they actually did occur. 

Now what does Pauli’s story have to do with our Scripture readings appointed for this, her Feast Day.  The Gospel lesson, typically referred to as “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants” is a story in which Jesus teaches by comparing something with which the audience is familiar to something that is more intangible and harder to grasp without the use of comparison.  Jesus told this parable to a large crowd gathered around him to hear him preach, just days before his crucifixion. 

Now, this crowd was comprised of largely, the poor, the marginalized, outcasts, the disreputable, and ordinary, working class people . . . those who subsisted on the fruits from their daily labor.  While there were clearly some Jesus-followers who were privileged by class, money, and power and there were some non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles, who were among the crowds to whom Jesus taught, Jesus’ teachings were blind to such distinctions.   Jesus’ call to discipleship, throughout his ministry, was consistent and constant  to all – no matter whether one was Jew or Greek, male or female, homosexual or heterosexual, slave or free.  The call was that those ethnic, gender, societal, and political distinctions were superficial . . . they were identity labels . . . and were not the basis on how the human family should relate to one another or to God.  Jesus taught them, but more importantly showed them how Torah . . . how God’s law should be interpreted and applied.  We are all one in Christ Jesus and should treat others  . . . all others . . . as we ourselves want and expect to be treated.  

These teachings of Jesus . . . that the lines of social and political distinctions between the “haves and the have-nots” be obliterated . . . clearly threatened the elite and the Jewish and Roman power structures.   Scripture attests to increasing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leadership over the three years of his ministry.  He is consistently being accused of breaking Jewish custom and tradition.  He ate and associated with the poor, sinners, marginalized, women, and crazy people.  He has been touched by a bleeding woman . . . an outcast . . . a no-no under Jewish law.  He has performed miracles of healing, both mental and physical and has done many of these things on the Sabbath. 

During this particular encounter with those anti-Jesus, Jewish religious leaders among the crowd, Jesus tells them this “Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” a story that relates  very violent and evil happenings . . . beating and murder of slaves . . . murder of a slave and son of the landowner.   Reading this parable through the lens of the rich landowner,  as many Biblical scholars over the years have done, one could assert that it is the tenants who are evil and without remorse.

Read through this lens, a common interpretation of the symbolism and its relativism to the listeners of this parable are:

  • Landowner = God or the kingdom of God
  • Tenants = the religious leaders OR the rebellious nation of Israel
  • Vineyard = God’s chosen people – Israel
  • Servants = prophets
  • Son = Christ

The overall theme seems to be that God will judge those leaders in his kingdom who are faithless toward him and treacherous toward his people.

However, I would like to suggest using a different lens in interpreting this parable.  If we look at this parable historically and culturally, it may chronicle and reflect a situation, prevalent in 1st century Palestine . . . a time and situation known by and relevant to first-century Jesus-followers.    If we look at the historical context at the time the Gospel of Mark was written (60-80 C.E.), we know that this was a time of war, disenfranchisement of the Jewish people, destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.).  We know that many of the working-class people, mostly subsistence farmers, had lost their land.  Imagine that they are now tenants on land that was once theirs . . . a kind of share-cropper to use a term to which we, in this country, might better relate.  Imagine that this was land on which they grew their food to eat and sell at market.  Now, they are to grow grapes,  a crop that takes 3-5 years to mature for harvesting.  What will they eat and how will they live in the meantime?   How is the landowner respecting the dignity and well-being of the tenant?  Is there exemplified in this parable God’s call to live in mutuality and equality with each other and creation?   Don’t get me wrong  . . . there is NO Christian MANDATE for the violence reflected in the parable.  We are never called to seek vengeance . . . to do violence. 

Perhaps, this parable should not be called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants,  but the Parable of Desperation.  Perhaps this parable tells the story of how even good, God-fearing people can, when,  living in oppressive and sub-human conditions . . . when disenfranchised and marginalized . . . can be pushed to perpetrating acts of violence and doing other things that separate them from being in right relation with God and with neighbor.  Perhaps this is a story of warning and not judgment . . . a story that warns the human family that we must submit ourselves, anew, to the call of discipleship as exemplified for us in the life and ministry of Jesus; otherwise, estrangement from God might result.

Perhaps this parable should not be called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, but the Parable of Liberation and Reconciliation.  Perhaps, we are in this day and time, being called to transform systemic and internalized structures, laws, and practices of oppression.  We have clearly, in the last few months, seen how these could be considered to ignite acts of destruction and violation of God’s law.   The call for reconciliation, one with the other and with God, is resounding and constant.   Perhaps, we are being called to truly internalize and act our baptismal covenant.

Perhaps, this parable is calling us, the Body of Christ, to continually reflect and discern how to be “the Body of Christ” . . . how to act as “the Body of Christ” in our neighborhoods, in our communities . . . on Wall Street . . . in our legislatures . . . in our courts . . . in our country . . . and in the world. 

Why,  would the Church decide to use this parable with all its violence and interpretative complexities as the Gospel reading to celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline Murray? 

Perhaps it is because this parable, like all parables is representative of a different reality  . . . a reality that one is forced to come to grips with in the retelling of the parable across time.   We live in an early 21st century reality of an ever-widening chasm between the “haves and the have-nots.”  We live in an early 21st century reality of increasing and unending violence.   A reality in which violence is met with more violence . . . violence against neighbor . . . violence against creation . . . and therefore against God.  Violence is a symptom of problems . . . of being non-reconciled with neighbor, Creation, and with God.

Pauli would advocate addressing the “chasm” and the sources of violence in a way that looked at the complexities of societal and global living . . . guided by the Christian ethical principle of “simple justice.”  [Define briefly and simply]

She would urge us to be inquisitive . . . to question  . . . to not just accept simple labels that we slap on things and that have come to connote something good or something bad.  Pauli abhorred labels for that very reason . . . because they often provide neat little contained meanings.   People tend to embrace and use these labels without thinking through what Jesus would really say about the interpretive constructs which guide our thinking and actions.  GIVE EXAMPLES, e.g. socialized medicine, African-American, Black = badness; white = goodness, male, female, homosexuality is against God’s law, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, women’s roles, men’s roles.

Pauli Murray realized that the political system in this country failed to make “sustained and positive change regarding the race question” and by extension in our reality today, the every-widening chasm between the “haves and have-nots.”  Therefore, doing nothing and assuming the political process will work was not an option for her., nor should it be for us.  Nonviolent direct action or agitation done in the light of the “global nature of the ‘will to power’ was what she advocated and devoted her life to, stating that she could “no longer compromise with the notion of race supremacy.” [15]

Murray’s experiences of racial injustice were critical to her growth in understanding of the infrastructures of racial bias and the merits of nonviolent direct action. [15]   Pauli said that ministry was “an unavoidable life move revolving around a desire to place compassion for the preservation of human dignity into both the ‘mundane’ and ‘sacred” [p. 39 of Pinn’s, Becoming America’s Problem Child.]

My sisters and brothers . . . doing nothing and assuming the political system will make sustained, systemic, and institutional changes to right societal injustices is not an option for us.  Our baptismal covenant calls us respect the dignity and well-being of every human being . . . of all of God’s Creation.   Our baptismal covenant calls us to non-violent direct action against all societal injustices. 

Pauli said in one of her sermons, “Whatever future ministry I might have as a priest, it was given to me that day to be a symbol of healing.  All the strands of my life had come together. Descendant of slave and of slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend.  Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female – only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”

We are here tonight to celebrate Pauli Murray’s life, her Christian witness, and her legacy to us.  We sing her song this night . . . loud and clear.   When we leave this place, let us sing her song out there in the world.   I have recently learned of resources in our community, committed to understanding the many faces of racism and other social and oppressive practices and then doing something about it.  The Pauli Murray Project is a good source of learning about some of the resources available to us to honor the legacy of this phenomenal woman throughout the year. 

In the words of Pauli Murray, let us hold in our hearts and our Christian witness, that we are “One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female – only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”

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