(Saint) James, Pray for Us

by The Rev. Craig Lemming

“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:16

James Baldwin dancing with Lorraine Hansberry. Photograph by Steve Schapiro.

As James Baldwin’s birthday approaches, I’ve turned again to contemplate Toni Morrison’s exquisite Eulogy for her beloved friend. Only Morrison’s language is virtuosic, tender, and sacramental enough to communicate the sacred gifts James Baldwin lavished upon the world.

Morrison’s Eulogy reminded me of my first encounter with his genius in 2010 when Baldwin’s essays, articles, polemics, reviews, and interviews in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings accompanied my work commute on the #64 bus to and from the Landmark Center. And yes, thanks to the enthralling spell Baldwin’s sentences cast, I missed my bus stops several times. The Eulogy also takes me back to reading Giovanni’s Room over Thanksgiving weekend in 2016 when I retreated to the Episcopal House of Prayer. Full-time seminary, working three jobs, and doing one-too-many grand jetés through ordination hoops and over immigration hurdles required silence, solitude, stillness, centering prayer, walks, and James Baldwin’s language, courage, and tenderness to put the pieces of my fragmented life back together again.

Towards the end of Morrison’s Eulogy, her choice to quote from If Beale Street Could Talk to illustrate James Baldwin’s gift of vulnerable tenderness is breathtaking:

It was your tenderness – a tenderness so delicate I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did. In the midst of anger it tapped me lightly like the child in Tish’s womb: ”Something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart . . . the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better . . . in the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me.”

Knowing how desperate the world is for this vulnerable tenderness, I am returning not only the novel but to the “love as strong as death” preached in Barry Jenkins’ stunning film adaptation of Baldwin’s timeless “love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined.”

As we continue to face the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and Racism together, I leave you with James Baldwin’s prayerful conclusion to The Fire Next Time:

“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others–do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”


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