The Spiritual Legacy of Pauli Murray
March 21, 2022
The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray is currently being rediscovered for her activism against racial, gender, and economic injustice and her advocacy for reconciliation between all Americans. But her trailblazing work as the first Black female Episcopal priest in United States and her lifelong commitment to spiritual values often goes overlooked in discussions of Pauli’s legacy. We are honored to feature the Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, as our keynote speaker for our March 14 webinar, “The Spiritual Legacy of Pauli Murray.” Dean Douglas, as one of the first ten Black women ordained in the Episcopal Church USA, is directly inspired by Pauli Murray’s legacy.
Here is the Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ keynote speech:
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Thank all of you for being here for this important hour as we reflect up on the life and legacy of Pauli Murray.
Pauli Murray, was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood on January 8th, 1977, thus the first black woman to become an Episcopal priest. As historically significant as Pauli’s ordination was for the Episcopal Church, as well as for the global Anglican Communion of which the Episcopal Church is a part, it does not capture the profound historical significance of Pauli’s priesthood. For Pauli Murray, was a priest long before the Episcopal Church recognized that fact in 1977 and it is who she was as a priest that propelled her civil rights social justice activism, fueled her refusal to submit to society’s binary constructions of human identity, be it racial, ethnic or gendered sexual binaries, as well as prompted Pauli to enter seminary well before the church consented to the ordination of women.
In many respects, Pauli Murray’s call to the priesthood serves as an illuminating frame through which to understand her remarkable journey, allowing us to appreciate not simply her historical importance, but also her spiritual significance for us today. To appreciate the Pauli Murray that was the priest allows us to further appreciate why it is important for documentaries like “My Name is Pauli Murray” to be made as well as future films such as the upcoming scripted film of Pauli’s life being made by [indiscernible], any other projects that will surely come for to be sure, the fullness of who Pauli Murray was and Pauli’s meaning for us cannot be captured in a film, a book, singular project, or panel. But with that said, let me try to at least point to Pauli significance as a priest so to understand Pauli’s historical and spiritual meaning and legacy for us today. As I was wrestling with my own call to the Episcopal priesthood, in light of protests and opposition that I received from Episcopal clergymen, my mentor and spiritual father in the priesthood, Fred Williams told me this, he said, “KD, as he called me, if you are a priest, that is between you and God, for it is God who calls you, not the church,” he said, And so whether or not the church recognizes that call, it is left to you to live into it.
And so it was for Pauli Murray. Pauli Murray, lived into their priesthood way before that January 8, 1977 day in Washington National Cathedral where she was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Creighton. Indeed, Pauli, perhaps long before recognize the call to the priesthood, even as she/they did not name it as such, for they poignantly recognize that their November 20th 1910 birth was in the year of Halley’s Comet, and that it was on the same day that Leo Tolstoy died. Both events marking for Pauli more than simply a coincidence, but perhaps a sign regarding what was to come in their life. And to be sure, Pauli never forgot the words that Bishop Henry Delaney, one of the first black Episcopal bishops, spoke to her on his deathbed, as he pronounced Pauli a as he said, “a child of destiny.” Perhaps I always think a moment in which an official from the church in fact recognized Pauli to be a priest, to say the least, the fact that Pauli Murray notes these events as momentous moments in their life, in the very least suggested for fueling Polly’s historical trajectory, with some sense of a spiritual trajectory, that is a recognition of a power beyond themselves to which Pauli was connected, if not accountable.
Whatever the case may be, Pauli would come to recognize and reflecting back at their activism that in as much as she was fighting the legal and political battles for workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights and more, that even in those battles, they she was, in their words, always more concerned with moral and ethical issues, as opposed to political and legal issues. Thus, Pauli came to realize that in her words, she was quote, unquote, “Doing ministry all along.” As Pauli was trying to make the world and I quote, Pauli, again a “true community based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity, one that affirms the richness of individual diversity, as well as the common human ties that bind us together,” end quote. This transcendent vision of a future that affirms the richness of individual diversity was indeed what compelled Pauli to doggedly claim their nonbinary being in terms of gender and race. In doing so, Pauli refused to accept a segregated world, let alone a segregated society for not only did such a society betray as Pauli would say, common human ties, but it actually created internal segregated realities within Pauli and thus struggles for Pauli and others like Pauli. It set, in other words, the various identities that were Pauli in opposition to one another, not allowing Pauli to flourish into the fullness of who they were called and created to be as Pauli said, and I quote, Pauli, “I do regard myself as a representative of blended humanity. Carrying in my bloodstream,” Pauli said, “the three great races of man, Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid,” end quote.
Bottom line Pauli’s fight against segregation was political, personal, and spiritual. It was spiritual in that the very person of Pauli as a child of God suggested that God’s human creation was and is not a bifurcated binary creation. And the journey was personal for Pauli in that Pauli’s very personhood was more complicated than the binary social markers of race, gender, identity, and sexual expression would hold and thus for Pauli it was a political journey as Pauli fought against those social, political, and even ecclesiastical structure systems, policies, and ideologies that negated the sacred value of Pauli’s full personhood and soul. That Pauli identified the intersectionality of oppressions as Jane Crow was born not from abstract analysis of the inequities and inequalities of laws that privileged white cisgendered hetero males but it was born from Pauli’s own lived experiences as someone who queered, if you will, the boundaries of the laws and the way in which justice could and should be enacted so that all could be respected and treated equally. And Pauli sense of justice therefore, was about catching up, catching up to what God created the world to be.
The point of the matter is that even as we rightfully reflect upon the ways in which Pauli Murray’s courageous activism and tremendous contributions from Brown versus the Board of Education to now to the fight for the ERA, laid the foundation for a more just and equitable nation. It was I believe Pauli’s priesthood, as one being called from the womb that propelled them, if not sustain them on this, their journey, justice-seeking journey, and as such, their significance in as much as it was about changing policies and laws, this journey was most significantly about opening up our moral imagination for what was possible. What was possible from Pauli’s vantage point as a priest transcended social politics and legislative agendas. What was possible was a world where a Pauli Murray would be able to walk in freedom, quoting from Pauli “proudly before God and man and to glorify creation to the genius of their unique self expression,” end quote.
This was a world that reflected the very God that called Pauli into life on November 20, 1910, and thus from the womb into the priesthood. It is no wonder therefore, that Pauli’s journey would culminate into ordination for as Pauli explained, it was an ordination that and I quote, Pauli again, “all of the strands of my life came together,” Pauli said, “descendant of slavery and a slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher and friend.” Now Pauli said, “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 towards the goal,” Pauli said, “of human wholeness.”
And so what is the significance of Pauli Murray for us today? It is that as a priest, Pauli expanded our moral imagination to envision a society where in fact, there are no binaries of first and last, because all are treated equally and respected in their varied richness as the sacred creations that they are. And so, let our moral imaginations be expanded by the priests that was Pauli Murray, to go about creating a world that could hold and allow for a Pauli Murray to flourish into the fullness of whom God has created them to be.
And so it is left for us to carry forth the spiritual legacy that was Pauli Murray, by resolving to partner with God if you will, in moving toward a more just future. This is our spiritual call, one which Pauli captured most pointedly and words from her poem, Song in a Weary Throat. And so I will, in my remarks with a stanza from that poem as Pauli wrote,
Give me a song of hope.
In a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith,
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope in love
And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.
Other highlights of the conversation:
“Murray invites us to understand that there needs to be a transformation with the text… there is something very futuristic about queerness.” -Jé Exodus Hooper
If you missed our webinar on the spiritual legacy of Pauli Murray, you can watch it here: https://t.co/mEHasowdo6 pic.twitter.com/MUIQfupy4Y
— InterfaithYouthCore (@ifyc) March 19, 2022
To view the whole conversation: