At its General Convention in 2012, the Episcopal Church voted to add Pauli Murray to its calendar of commemoration for the day of July 1. While the Episcopal Church does not have a canonization process like that in the Roman Catholic Church, such a vote is as close as Episcopalians come to declaring someone to be a saint. A person placed on this calendar faithfully shows forth to others what it means to serve God and God’s people, following in the way of Jesus Christ.
A key factor for Pauli Murray appearing on the church’s calendar in 2012 was an initiative spanning the previous decade to ensure that those whom the Episcopal Church remembered reflected the diversity of humanity that God created. Pauli Murray certainly represents such diversity. Before becoming the first female Black priest ordained in the Episcopal Church, Murray made pioneering contributions to advance civil rights for Black people and women during the 1950s and 1960s. An accomplished poet and writer, Murray was a life-long Episcopalian who turned to the priesthood as the final act of an amazing life. And yet, Murray also wrestled with gender dysphoria, convinced to be a man within a woman’s body. Today we would describe Murray as gender non-binary or transgender, yet that vocabulary was not available during Murray’s own lifetime.
The story of Pauli Murray’s life has spread widely in the Episcopal Church and across society in the past decade. Murray’s memory has been retrieved at the very same time in which Black Lives Matter has emerged to the fore and when the power of women has become a new political reality. And Pauli Murray’s own courage in matters of gender and sexuality became a lodestar for many during a decade when non-binary and transgender people have moved bravely into the public arena.
As a straight white man, I can see all of Murray’s accomplishments and affirm them as signs of God’s gracious actions. I can see in Murray the fruits of a committed Christian life. And yet, the true power of remembering this life happens when I see Murray through the eyes of others who are not like me.
I have discovered that remembering Pauli Murray matters a lot to the people in my community. It matters to my colleagues, students, and friends who are Black, who are women, who are queer. It matters to them that the Episcopal Church can say, “Yes, this person showed to all of us what it meant to follow the path of Jesus Christ. We see Pauli Murray, and we see you too, walking that same path.” My colleagues, students, and friends are inspired by Pauli Murray to continue walking the way of following Jesus and the church is blessed by it.
Two years ago, the Texas Pauli Murray Scholarship Fund was established at Seminary of the Southwest through a collaboration with St. James Episcopal Church in Austin and the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. This scholarship gives an annual scholarship to a student of color from Texas to study at the seminary. As a celebration of this scholarship and the legacy of Pauli Murray, the seminary showed the new documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray” last week. After the screening audience members reflected on the continuing power of Murray’s legacy. They were inspired and resolute in their determination to continue Pauli Murray’s work of making the church and this county a place where all can thrive with integrity and dignity. The power of remembering Murray’s courage and determination was palpable. May we all be blessed by that power of memory.
Question: What about Pauli Murray’s life do you find most relevant or vital?
What other people have you learned about recently that inspire you to better follow Jesus Christ?
This fall, Sowing Holy Questions reflects on pandemic re-entry, with emphasis on the theological, equity, and/or mental health ramifications of living in these times.