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Rejection, Rejected, Respond, and Responsibility: Pauli Murray sermon
given by Simone Monique Barnes
at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Austin TX, USA
Sunday, September 22, 2019
during the 8am, 10:15am, and 5:30pm services

UNCPauliMurray

By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion
But the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Far I
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Far I
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion

Please be seated.

Born Anna Pauline Murray in 1910, “Pauli,” p-a-u-l-i, intentionally used a chosen name that reflected a self identified, quote,“he/she” personality. In today’s language and societal norms, Rev. Murray may have identified with labels such as queer, non-binary, transgender, or two-spirit. I certainly wrestled with how to honor the full spectrum of color of who Pauli Murray was, and I struggled with how not to revise nor conform the memory and history of Pauli Murray to someone I, you, they, or we want Pauli Murray to be or to have been.

Biographer Rosalind Rosenberg wrote about pronoun usage in her book Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. She says: “While I was writing this, I struggled with pronoun usage, and especially for the chapters of the 1930’s and 1940’s when Pauli Murray was desperately seeking medical help and especially testosterone to make her outer body conform more closely to her inner sense of self. It seemed to me that male pronoun would be most appropriate…but in the end I realized that I was transporting into the past my own sense of what the pronouns should be. They weren’t pronouns that she asked for, although she went as far as she could…But to use male pronouns at a time when that was not an available choice for her ultimately struck me as ahistorical, and similarly for gender neutral pronouns, there still wasn’t, at least as of this writing, the support for that broadly in the culture, and again, it wasn’t available to Pauli Murray at that time. So, I used the pronouns in use when she lived, in part to make clear what she was up against.”

With the count of violence against transgender people climbing every day I feel that we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the complexity of Rev. Pauli Murray’s gender identity. Too often we only choose to shine a light on the parts of a story that feels comfortable from our own perspectives. I don’t have the answers on how to do right by and honor the fullness of Pauli Murray. But I think it’s important that I/we begin to ask the questions and continue the conversation of how to better honor and love one another in the way that we each need and asked to be loved. It is with hesitation, yet with the intention of respect that I will use the pronoun her for the duration of this sermon.

Rejection.

If you haven’t already read up on or viewed documentary footage, interviews, and discussions of or about Rev. Pauli Murray, consider this your invitation to be encouraged to do so, as the complex story of a child whose mother died when she was 4 years old, whose father was beaten to death in a hospital when she was 13, whose entire young adulthood occurred during the Great Depression; who was brilliant yet turned away from schools and jobs because of racism and sexism, yet pushed back and changed the world, certainly resonates with the collective story of St. James’ Epicopal Church in Austin, Texas, a church founded and continued by members and a community of people, who also know a thing or two about rejection, pushing back, and changing the world.

This sermon is a mere teaser, if you will, of the life and legacy of Rev. Pauli Murray, whose legacy has long been undervalued by our denomination and our nation. And yet the we that exists today is greatly because of the complex and impactful life of the full human being who we celebrate and lift up on this day.

A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, and legal theorist who counted Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Betty Friedan, as friends and colleagues. A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, and legal theorist whose legal work was instrumental in the arguments that won Brown vs. the Dept of Education in 1954, whose work was the basis for Ruth Bader Ginsberg winning the 1971 Supreme Court case that extended the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women. A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, and legal theorist who was the first African American woman ordained an Episcopal priest in 1977 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

If I read through every moment of rejection in Pauli Murray’s life, we’d probably be here for several days.

Rejected.

As I get more and more acquainted with the struggles and hardships that Rev. Murray faced, today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah evokes those feelings of rejection and hurt. You can almost feel the pain of the original author and that of Rev. Murray’s pain. Verse 8:18 “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…” or verse 8:21 “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”

And yet, while dismay may have taken hold, rather than be silent and without action, Pauli Murray chose to respond.

Respond.

“Collect for Poplarville” which we read a few minutes ago, is an example that the warrior and poet Pauli Murray left for us on how to speak up and respond to the pain of the world.

It is a poem, adapted to the rhythm of a evening prayer, a collect in The Book of Common Prayer, that Murray penned after the lynching of a Black man, Mack Charles Parker, in Poplarville, Mississippi, which made national news in 1959. No indictments or arrests were made, even though the perpetrators–a group of white men–had admitted what they had done. Despite the cries of the people that justice isn’t blind when it comes to the issue of race, the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, responded that he would not call for stronger civil rights legislation.

Even our heroes have breaking points. Twenty one years later, when Rev. Murray reflected on that season of her life and US history, she remarked, “Each of us reaches a point where we can’t take it anymore. I reached it with Poplarville.”

There is another R word that most go hand in hand when we respond to injustice. And that word is respite. Murray went to Ghana in 1960 and began teaching classes on constitutional law for a while before returning to the United States.

Whether you are a poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, legal theorist, or a priest, you will need time for rest and respite.

Responsibility.

In 1977, one month after becoming the first African American woman on record ordained by the Episcopal Church, the very first Eucharist Rev. Murray celebrated was in the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was the same church where her grandmother, Cordelia Smith, was baptized as a slave 123 years earlier. I need you to process that. I need you to digest that of all the places that Rev. Murray could have asked to celebrate this important first moment of ministry and witness, she chose the place where her grandmother was baptised as a child, her grandmother who was born out of violence–the daughter a slave and a slave master, her grandmother who was “one of the five servant children belonging to [a slave master’s sister aka her biological aunt,] Miss Mary Ruffin Smith” as noted on the parish register, her grandmother who had to sit in the balcony because she wasn’t permitted to sit in the pews on the main floor of the church. The magnitude of that multigenerational rejection. And the magnitude of Pauli Murray’s response.

Reverend Murray reflected on the enormity of the event, “All the strands in 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.”

Beloved ones, this work isn’t easy. It is emotional; it is tiring.

We have a responsibility.

We have a responsibility to radical hospitality. Because it is a part of the DNA of this church, this St. James’, to know rejection and the pain of feeling rejected. We have a moral obligation to respond, to speak up, to bear witness, and to change the circumstances that are causing pain. It is our responsibility to welcome the stranger, the friend, the neighbor, the family, and as Rev. Murray has shown us, even the perceived or very real foe.

But we have to do so honestly. We can’t pretend that there has been no pain, or act like there had been no wound.

Would you please join me in reading Pauli Murray’s poem “Words”, which is printed in your bulletin. We will read it responsively.

We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.

But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–
Those we hoard.

The slowly wrought words of love. Slowly wrought words. Slowly hammered, shaped words of love. The slowly worked over time words of love.

And the thunderous, loud, rumbling, intense words of distress, sorrow, and unhappiness.

Let us share in each others growth and change, in our struggles,and pain, joys, passions, and histories, and let our love for one another be honest and real.

Lord we thank you for the beautiful soul Pauli Murray, who was a “rebel, instigator, and survivor, at times a nettle in the body politic, an opener-of-doors, and always a devout child of God and friend of [hu]mankind” who reminds us that “hope is a song in a weary throat.”

So let the words of my mouth
And the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Lord
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion

Amen


READINGS

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.

Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:

“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”

(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

Collect for Poplarville
(ADAPTED FROM THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER)

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; Teach us no longer to dread
hounds yelping in the distance,
the footfall at the door,
the rifle butt on the window pane.

And by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;
Give us fearlessness to face the bomb thrown from the darkness,
the gloved hand on the pistol,
the savage intention.
Give us courage to stand firm against
our tormentors without rancor—
Teach us that most difficult of tasks—
to pray for them,
to follow, not burn, thy cross!

New York, May 1959
Dark Testament


RECOMMENDED RESOURCES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT REV. PAULI MURRAY

Essay and Books

Selected Books, and Letter, by Pauli Murray

Online

Videos


References included in the sermon

  1. The Melodians. “Rivers of Babylon.” Trojan Records, 1970. Vinyl. Notes: The lyrics are adapted from the texts of Psalms 19 and 137 in the Hebrew Bible.
  2. “Identities: between male and female,” Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest: An exhibit about the life and legacy of 20th Century human rights champion Pauli Murray, Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Durham, North Carolina. https://sites.fhi.duke.edu/paulimurrayproject/identity-map/
  3. “Pauli Murray and gender pronouns” Oxford Academic, June 20, 2017. https://oupacademic.tumblr.com/post/162352190740/pauli-murray-and-gender-pronouns
  4. Schulz, Kathryn. “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray: She was an architect of the civil-rights struggle—and the women’s movement. Why haven’t you heard of her?” The New Yorker, April 10, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/the-many-lives-of-pauli-murray.
  5. “Timeline.” Pauli Murray Project. https://paulimurrayproject.org/pauli-murray/timeline/
  6.  Murray, Pauli. “Collect for Poplarville.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing Corporation: a Division of W.W. Norton Company, 1970, pp. 32.
  7. Murray, Pauli. “Conflict.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing Corporation: a Division of W.W. Norton Company, 1970, pp. 65.
  8. Azaransky, Sarah. “Descendants of Hagar (1950s).” The Dream Is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.52.
  9. “Pauli Murray From TV Series “On The Road”, 1985,” The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice, accessed September 21, 2019, https://www.episcopalarchives.org/church-awakens/items/show/57.
  10. Wise, Jim. “Forgotten monument spurs historian’s quest.” The News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, March 13, 2015, accessed September 21, 2019, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/article13467845.html
  11. Jones, H.G. and David Southern. “Saintly Daughter.” Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, 1760-1924, p.101-108.
  12. Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. Liveright Publishing, W.W. Norton & Company, pp.569.
  13. Murray, Pauli. “Words.” Poetry Foundation, accessed September 21, 2019, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147937/words-5ba11eeee6316.
  14. Bell-Scott. “Introduction.” Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, by Pauli Murray. Liveright Publishing. May 8, 2018, pp. xiv.
  15. Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing Corporation: a Division of W.W. Norton Company, 1970, pp. 13.
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