NB: There is some debate about which pronouns to use for Murray. The author and editors feel it is best to use those that Murray herself used
I first discovered Pauli Murray in the stacks of a Housing Works in New York City. Her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, was tucked under a dog eared copy of a red Marx-Engels Reader. I didn’t know it yet, but both of those books would serve as a compass towards not only great political development in my life but also help me navigate questions around Blackness in the Episcopal tradition that I’ve called home within the last two years.
I grew up as a Roman Catholic black child, who went to catholic schools with black and white students, but I was often the only black and catholic student attending. I was raised by a very devout Catholic grandmother who, in addition to naming all of her 12 children after saints, raised me with a daily discipline of prayer. Novenas and twice-weekly Mass was the norm in my household of my mother, grandmother, and me. I was exposed to the wonder of the Sacraments at an early age. I didn’t understand why, but I had many questions and a love for the Eucharist. I loved knowing exactly what to expect at Mass: the standing, kneeling, crossing oneself; the bodily movements anchored me in this knowing of something larger than myself was occurring in this strange space. The large crucifix of a man who I did not yet know would keep me thinking of what it exactly meant to be human. Above all, receiving the Eucharist felt like I was in two worlds -- one of God and one of bread and wine and childhood dreams.
I would often attend services with my family at either my local Catholic school or a parish that had a primarily African (specifically Ugandan and Kenyan) congregation. The differences between the restrained smiles, lackluster attempts at passing the peace, and the short 10-minute homilies at the former and the bright, joyous, gospel-esque forms of African worship spaces were massive. Sometimes I couldn’t understand the dissonance.
As I grew up, I became acutely aware of my uniqueness within the church. As a girl, I was often discouraged from asking too many questions about theology, and I was often chided for my precociousness. As a teenager, I became disillusioned with the limited roles for women in the church and grew frustrated after realizing that women could not become priests. After times of devastating loss, namely the death of my grandmother, I drifted away from the church.
Which brings me back to the dog-eared copy of the Marx-Engels Reader, and Song in a Weary Throat, in its original edition. I was grabbing a cup of coffee when I passed a Housing Works in Manhattan. I stepped inside to peruse the books. I stumbled across that bright red Marx-Engels Reader and marveled at the bold lettering and the size of the thing. I decided to pick it up, and beneath it was Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. It was written posthumously. I decided to purchase both.
I devoured Pauli Murray’s autobiography on the subway ride home. I resonated with Pauli’s life experiences, especially her childhood -- it was very chaotic, being raised by her Aunt Pauline, her namesake and her grandparents. I myself was raised by my grandmother, and extended family had a major part to play in my upbringing. Pauli and I are quite similar, both very weak children, but very stubborn and shared a love of books. Pauli read everything and threw herself into activities. She always wanted to be the head of things. She describes herself as follows:
I was an all-around athlete, I was the editor in chief of the high school newspaper, I was a member of the debating club, I was involved in most of the things that kids are involved in. I enjoyed doing these things, but underneath I hated segregation so that all I wanted to do was to get away from segregation.
I grew up in poor Black working-class neighborhoods, and I insisted on doing well in school because I saw that as my way out into a better, more stable life. The more I read, the more I started to identify with this woman, person, being, saint -- in a way I couldn’t identify with others.
Pauli was raised in the Episcopal Church, whereas I found it in my early 20s. I found the Church at a time in my life where I thought God didn’t love me. I was burnt out from organizing and it felt like the Episcopal tradition was what I needed.
Pauli Murray’s early twenties and beyond ended up being taken up by social justice work. Pauli committed herself to the labor of social justice, becoming a community organizer for the case of Odell Walker, a project that pushed her into the fold of the civil rights struggle for years to come. I myself became politically active after the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police. Our paths are different, yet similar.
Pauli Murray is one of those public figures that truly inspire the world. She described, years before the term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, the unique experience of “Jane Crow.” Black women have historically been discriminated against not just for their race, but also for their gender. Pauli knew this intimately and articulated it while in attendance at Howard University Law School.
As a Black woman in the Episcopal Church, I have experienced many microaggressions, frequently racist remarks, and isolation. Our Church is known for its inclusivity but it is only to a point. We use the LEVAS Hymnal only during Black History Month. We mention Black saints only during the month of February. Our churches tend to cater to the white, rich, and elderly. At times it feels as if there is no place for me. I love this tradition. I love the prayer book. I dislike the discrimination that I and others from marginalized backgrounds have had to undergo. It is hard to speak truth to power, and it is even harder to pattern your life as one who fights for justice even when it is difficult.
I mentioned the Marx-Engels Reader earlier. The words of Marx and the words of Murray don’t actually differ all that much. They both discuss inequities in society, and provide a lens through which to encounter the world. I identify as a Black, Marxist-Leninist Christian because I am committed to the struggle for justice and freedom for all peoples. I see the Gospel and dialectical materialism as lenses through which we encounter something larger than ourselves, which propels us towards a place of freedom.
Black people have constantly had to fight to be recognized and valued by society. We have had to organize ourselves, boycott, start movements in order for us to get even a modicum of rights. Our leaders have been assassinated and harassed and even jailed. We work for revolution knowing that we might not live to see it. Pauli Murray worked diligently throughout her life for a justice that she did not live to see. I recognize that although Pauli and I disagree on methods of social change, we both understand that the journey towards justice is long and filled with obstacles. And yet, we believe in a God that accompanies us on that journey.
Black people are part of the Church because we are a creation of God. We deserve to be loved and respected as fellow children of God. Our God, as James Cone writes, is a “God of the Oppressed.” Through the struggles that Black people in this country and in the African diaspora have undergone, our God stays with us. At times it feels like the Church only wants us around when it’s convenient. Even though we have a Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, who is Black, representation isn’t enough. Black people who live their lives at the margins are prayerful witnesses to the Gospel, not tokenized symbols of an “inclusive” church. It is a matter of how do we value the Black people in our parishes? How do we treat them as our neighbors, friends, the beloved family of God?
The Episcopal Church has a history that has historically been aligned with power. It’s the Church of presidents and slaveowners, but it is also the Church of laborers, immigrants, and working class people. It’s a place where experiences and identities converge. It is a place where many historically black congregations are closing, while white parishes have millions in endowments. It is a place where some people are perfectly content with the status quo, and where some people are prayerfully fighting for justice in an unjust world. We cannot have a beloved community if we cannot reckon with the reality of the Church, and the inequities present.
The organizer, the lawyer, Saint Pauli Murray was one who challenged the status quo in favor of a more equitable future for Black people and women of all backgrounds. She tirelessly fought back against the system. Even though later in life, she became more mainstream and not as radical as I suppose I think myself to be, she never forgot the work she did, and why she did it.
The thing I love about Pauli Murray is that her sermons really touch on the key parts of the Christian life but in very direct ways. She wasn’t beating around the bush. Pauli preached often on the necessity of loving one’s neighbor. The golden rule, encompassed in Matthew 7:12, says “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” and yet we, being sinners, continuously struggle to do this in our daily lives. It’s not easy, and I struggle with it myself. But our predominantly white parishes don’t seem to do this. Racial reconciliation is more than just “doing community outreach when it is beneficial” or “reading Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me for a book club and yet not talking to the two Black parishioners in your church.” It isn’t enough to be anti-racist, but we must be accomplices in the struggle against racism. I wonder what our churches would be like if they confronted the anti-blackness that they perpetuate in favor of living into the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the greatest commandment.
Even Pauli Murray, as accomplished as she was, who got sainted rather recently is still the subject of controversy over her sainthood in the Episcopal Church. Some clergy believe that she shouldn’t be included on account of the 50 year moratorium on the addition of people to the sanctoral calendar -- which automatically seriously lessens the pool of saints and blessed people to a mostly white, male, heterosexual pool of people. Even after the grave, Black people still are not valued in the church.
I’ve gotten to a point where I’m learning that I need to value myself and what I bring to the Church despite the continuous struggles I’ve gone through in the past two years in the Episcopal Church. I must have faith that even here, where I’m often isolated, God is still present in me as much as He is present in others.
One of my favorite sermons by Pauli Murray is titled “The Second Great Commandment.” She gave this commandment at the Epiphany Parish in Winchester, MA on November 21, 1976. This passage articulates her theology quite well. “Pivotal to my relatedness to God, on the one hand, and to my neighbor, on the other, is my relationship to myself. Unless I love and accept myself, I am not free to love and accept my neighbor.” Loving myself in this context simply means self-respect, a self-regard born of the realization that I am the object of God’s limitless love and mercy, part of God’s creation. Self-acceptance does not mean uncritical self-approval, but self-understanding, awareness of my strengths and weaknesses, and the blessed assurance that God-in-Christ is working in me and through me toward the perfection of my life. When I can believe, as St. Paul did, that “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I am liberated from self-preoccupation that blocks my capacity to care for others.
That passage speaks to why I am still in the church. Despite the pain, the anti-blackness, and the struggle of isolation, I must love and nourish myself, and understand my role as God’s own. God is working in me, and God is working in every church, no matter the congregation. The love of God is deep and broad and my prayer is that we can prayerfully work towards a radically loving and united church.
Over the past few months of Black death and mourning and the rise of uprisings against police violence, I have been praying on Romans 8: 12-39. This verse keeps me steadfast in faith despite a capitalistic, anti-black society that would rather see me and those I hold dear dead. St. Paul writes, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Even as our world falls apart, I pray that any forces of evil, hatred, and works of oppression fall before the mighty love of God found in Christ Jesus.