Harrowing Of Hell
July 5, 2020

Pauli Murray

Frank Lawler, lay preacher

Do you know how topics for lay sermons are selected?  You are generally given a choice of biblical readings from the lectionary, but sometimes, there is another option.  I reviewed the relevant passages from the lectionary, yet none particularly jumped out at me. I then looked at the additional choice given to me – talking about an upcoming commemoration in the calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church.  I wasn’t aware that there was such a thing, and I wondered what made someone an Episcopal saint. According to the General Convention,

“Individuals so honored shine forth Christ to the world. They mirror the myriad virtues of Christ in order that, in their examples, we might recognize those same virtues and features of holiness in people closer to our own times and contexts.”

The Calendar of Saints lists the celebration, on July 1st, of the Reverend Doctor Pauli Murray. I had never heard of her. So, I did a google search and came across a photograph of her, the first female African American Episcopal priest, being ordained in 1977 at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. 

She was in the center of the image, but my eye was drawn to a face in the upper left, standing about ten feet away from her.  A very familiar face.  My Dad!

I realized that the Holy Spirit was saying, “You need to tell people about the Reverend Pauli Murray”.  I will eventually explain why my father was there that day, but first let’s talk about the life of Pauli Murray to understand why she was elevated to Episcopal Sainthood and why her story and example are so relevant in today’s world.

Pauli Murray, born in 1910, experienced a global pandemic (the Spanish flu), an economic freefall (the Great Depression) and as a black woman growing up in the south, more than her share of racial oppression and violence.

She was one of six children, but when she lost her mother at an early age, the siblings were split up among relatives, and Pauli was raised by an aunt.  When Pauli was in grade school, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic swept through the nation, forcing schools to close or to be repurposed as hospitals.  The city she grew up in, Durham, North Carolina, had two Episcopal Churches, side by side: one exclusively for white parishioners, the other just for black parishioners. Before the Civil War, there had been a single church with a slaves-only gallery at the back. Not so much progress as a lateral move.

When Pauli was 13, her father, who had been hospitalized for mental illness, was beaten to death by one of the white staff in front of several witnesses.  It was ruled manslaughter, and yet compensation was denied to her family.

Notwithstanding the trauma of her childhood, Pauli was a quick learner with a brilliant mind and finished high school by the age of fifteen.  But she faced rejection after rejection either because she was a woman or because “members of your race are not admitted to the University”, to quote a letter from the University of North Carolina. Eventually, she was accepted to New York City’s Hunter College, then a school for women only, but found herself graduating right into the worst job market in history, the height of the Great Depression.  For a while she joined the ranks of the three million unemployed who rode the rails or hitchhiked around the country in search of jobs, living in encampments called “jungles” that grew around railway tracks.

The federal government’s response to the Depression included the WPA – the Works Progress Administration, which assisted hundreds of thousands of people. But it was of particular help to African Americans, who had been shut out of many fields of work before the WPA came along and opened them up. 

Pauli was given a job as a teacher with the WPA Workers’ Education Project. Listening to poor white laborers – victims of eviction, starvation, beatings by union-busters, disenfranchisement due to poll taxes – made her realize that African Americans were not alone in their struggle. They were the most visible, most oppressed and most resilient of the downtrodden, but they were also part of a universal struggle for freedom and human dignity.  With the arrival of the Second World War, the horrors of the holocaust abroad and the unconscionable internment of Japanese-Americans at home strengthened her resolve.  

By 1942, Pauli had entered Howard University Law School with a recommendation by Future Supreme Course Justice Thurgood Marshall. Howard, a Historically Black College, however, exchanged racial discrimination for gender discrimination: All the other law students were men.   Her first day there, one of her professors declared out loud that he didn’t know why a woman would want to go to law school. In 1944, she graduated top of her class. 

In 1950, she compiled States’ Laws on Race and Color, an enormous and invaluable resource cataloguing segregation laws across America, which Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.” She was later appointed to President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, and she co-founded the National Organization for Women.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg credits her as the inspiration for her brief in the ruling that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution applied to sex discrimination.

But starting in the late 1960s, Pauli saw the civil rights movement sidelining women, and the women’s movement in turn sidelining minorities and the poor.

She had experienced people of color being asked to defer unquestioningly to the white majority for the sake of the greater cause of The New Deal; then for the greater good of the War Effort. 

Black women being told to defer unquestioningly to their male counterparts for the sake of the cause of African Americans in general. 

And finally, the poor being asked to defer unquestioningly to the wealthy for the sake of blessings all would receive through what would later be known as “trickle-down economics”. 

She herself hated to be fragmented into an African American on one particular occasion, “a woman at another, or a worker at another.” 

In 1973, she resigned from being a tenured professor at Brandeis, where she had taught law and championed African-American and women’s studies, and enrolled in seminary, becoming, four years later, part of the first cohort of women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.  Which leads me to the picture I found of her ordination.

What was my Dad doing there that day?  When he was the rector of St. Margaret’s Church in Ottawa, Canada, one of his parishioners was a woman named Elizabeth Wiesner.  Her children recently grown and her husband often away on trips, time was “hanging heavily” on her hands. Dad encouraged her to get involved in church activities: social service and outreach, hospital visits, diocesan conferences. She did, and gradually, she realized that she was being called by God to the ministry. The year was 1966, when the idea of women priests was unorthodox if not blasphemous to many.  When she told my father of her calling, he supported her fully and became a mentor on her long journey to the priesthood, which culminated in her ordination in 1977, alongside Pauli Murray, at the National Cathedral in Washington. Dad was there as one of her presenters.

A month later, Pauli Murray celebrated her first eucharist to an overflowing interracial congregation at the same church in North Carolina where her great grandmother Cornelia had been relegated to the balcony reserved for slaves.

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray died in 1985, after serving at parishes in Baltimore and Washington, DC. She led a life of faith and fortitude through dark times very similar to our own today. Her compassion in treating all human beings as members of God’s family led to her elevation to the Episcopal sainthood in 2012.

Shortly before her death, she completed her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, which I highly recommend.  It concludes:

“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.”


Some source material and further reading;