A sermon by guest preacher Kat Lewis
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
To begin, I would like us to pray over a poem by the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray:
To the Oppressors
Now you are strong
And we are but grapes aching with ripeness.
Squeeze from us all the brave life
Contained in these full skins.
But ours is a subtle strength
Potent with centuries of yearning,
Of being kegged and shut away
In dark forgotten places.
We shall endure
To steal your senses
In that lonely twilight
Of your winter’s grief.
Amen. Please be seated.
Before I speak further, I want to make it clear that the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray did not claim a transgender identity themself, but in their letters to doctors, they write about a familiar feeling of gender dysphoria. That does not mean that I can perpetuate the role of the colonizer and map a gender identity onto Pauli, but it does mean that Pauli and trans people have something in common when it comes to feeling stifled by a cis world and struggle to recieve gender-affirming health care. Scholars use various different pronouns for Pauli, and I proceed with caution as I use gender neutral they/them pronouns for Pauli because I think they are descriptively appropriate. However, I use them with the understanding that pronouns are not the same as gender identity and I do not wish to prescribe a gender identity to Pauli Murray.
Pauli Murray was ahead of their time and foundationally changed civil rights in the United States. They were the first Black person to earn a Doctor of the Science of Law from Yale Law School, a founder of the National Organization for Women and the first Black person perceived as a woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Pauli Murray’s legal arguments and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution were winning strategies for public school desegregation, women’s rights in the workplace, and an extension of rights to LGBTQ+ people based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In our Baptismal Covenant, the concluding promises we make are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. Pauli Murray led an exemplary life dedicated to these promises as a devout Episcopalian, civil rights activist, lawyer, and community member. Their poetry poignantly captures the despair of living in a world that tries to suffocate you as the Other. An escape from this despair is faith and hope that the world to come will be kinder to us than our current one is. We deserve to be ourselves limitlessly. I wish Pauli could have embraced themself as a “boygirl,” as their aunt lovingly called them. We lose so much when we do not celebrate and acknowledge queer identities and bodies.
Pauli Murray was arrested in 1940 while traveling from New York to Durham, North Carolina on a bus. When the bus reached the Mason-Dixon line in Virginia, it was expected that Pauli and their friend would move to the back of the bus. The next available seat was broken, and in refusing to sit in a broken seat, the pair of friends were arrested. The jail cell was cold and infested with bed bugs. When Pauli protested these conditions, the correctional officer threatened to put them in solitary confinement.
Many different marginalized people, including queer people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, migrants, women and femmes around the globe face death or incarceration because of their resistance to governments, corporations, and police. This is something that has been happening for centuries. Line 3 is a tar sands pipeline that runs through Northern Minnesota and violates the treaty rights of Anishinaabe peoples and nations in its path. When I was arrested at a direct action protesting the Line 3 oil pipeline, the officer who was arresting me tried to break my fingers. When I shouted in pain he gave up and settled on tying my zip ties so tight I couldn’t feel my hands. I shouted in more pain from the back of the patty wagon and a different officer loosened the ties. This was not the same for the water protectors I was with that were Black, Indigenous, people of color, or more “visibly” trans water protectors. Their hands remained bruised and swollen from their zip-tie handcuffs. In jail, we were deprived of our prescription medications and phone calls we are legally entitled to. My friend in the cell neighboring mine pleaded for their medication more than the correctional officers liked, so they threw them against a table and sent them to solitary confinement. I was given spoiled food and ate very little over the course of the 3 days I was in custody. Being in jail felt like an iron box that God’s eternal love could not penetrate. I read the Bible, but it felt stale and meaningless in my hands. I did not think I could believe in God anymore, if a place like this not only exists, but is considered normal. Far, far worse conditions that incarcerated people are held in are considered normal. I remember the correctional officers told me that I needed to repent to God and admit the wrong I had done. They thought they were so powerful, telling me about Jesus, through the thick door of a jail cell. I remember thinking that there is no God in a place like this. Pauli’s poem, “Love’s More Enduring Uses,” reminds me of this time:
Round and round I’ve paced these walls of sorrow
Seeking some pitying ray of light,
This darkness presses heavily upon my mind.
Oh, I am weary of eternal night.
I would be off again, heavenbent
To catch the arrows of the sun,
Bruise my wings on tips of stars,
Ranks of snowy clouds outrun.
But love, alas, holds me captive here,
Consigned to sacrificial flame, to burn
And find no heart’s surcease until
Its more enduring uses I may learn.
Love held me captive in jail. Not the love of Jesus the correctional officers told me would save me, but love for God’s creation: the water, land, and God’s children that are harmed by the climate crisis. I chose to act in a way that would end with me getting arrested, because I felt called to, in some way, take action to stop further colonization and theft from Indigenous people and land. It was an intentional political statement I chose to make. Pauli Murray’s arrest was under very different circumstances. I did not act alone, or come to this decision by myself; I had the support of the intergenerational community I found in the Stop Line 3 movement. I made connections that felt very familial. In my head I nicknamed people my movement grandmas, mothers, cousins, and older sisters, many of them have been involved in various struggles for justice far longer than I have been alive. They mentored me, prepared me for jail and what to say and not say while being booked.
It is only in hindsight I am able to see where the Holy Spirit was with me in that experience; the bond formed between me and my co-defendants, especially my cellmate, who I am still in touch with. I was never given my medication or allowed to see the nurse, and I was beginning to feel delirious. My cellmate spoke to me gently and reminded me of the love that brought us here. While we were getting picked off, tackled and dragged by police officers in a construction site, the crowd of water protectors sang a song. We also sang this while my friend was dragged into solitary:
People gonna rise like the water,
gonna to shut this pipeline down
I hear the voice of my great granddaughter,
saying keep it in the ground.
I had my arms linked with one of my movement grandmas, a pastor wearing her collar, and I sang this song through tears while she was ripped out of my arms and thrown to the ground by a police officer. We sang this tune against the backdrop of our beloved earth being torn up for profit. When I go back to Northern Minnesota, I usually get a tingle in my body with the memory of being arrested, but swimming in the headwaters of the Mississippi reminds me of being baptized. It’s a feeling of being forgiven by the water, that despite all of our efforts to protect her from being polluted and drained for a pipeline, we are allowed into her forgiving embrace to swim and float. Thinking back to our Baptismal Covenant’s concluding promises, I wonder what it would be like for us to love and serve the water we baptize people with as much as we love those we are baptizing. How might we learn of love’s other enduring uses, as Pauli wrote in their poem?
We all have unique lived experiences that affect how we are reckoning with the overturn of Roe v. Wade. The reality is, migrant people, disabled people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, poor people, and incarcerated people have all been forcibly sterilized, forced to have abortions, and been forced to give birth in various circumstances for hundreds of years in this country. Transgender people have been fighting for bodily autonomy and accessible, gender-affirming health care for years. Pauli Murray was part of a fight for justice that had been taking shape and evolving for years, and it is still ongoing. In our readings today, we hear a lot about standing up to authorities and people with power. In the Galatians passage we hear that we are liberated by faith and in the Gospel we hear a call from Jesus to think outside of the status quo of social power and to join liberation movements. Now is a good time to ask ourselves how we can meaningfully contribute towards love and justice in solidarity because it is never too late to join, or form, or further equip our community with these two powerful things.
For transgender Christians, in order to wholly claim our gender and faith at once, we have to look beyond what our current churches provide for us and be spiritually, creatively, queer. Pauli Murray is a gender non-conforming saint that we can all learn from. They lived in a time where any excuse to incarcerate or kill Black queer people was used, whether it was to put them in prison or institutionalize them for their queer desires and any signs of potential mental illnesses. Their ability to not just survive, but to also live a full and long life filled with people they loved shows me that despite all these enduring injustices and institutional violence, people in community know how to care for each other. People in community know that it is our duty to love and serve one another. We gather here to worship together for many reasons, one of them being to uphold this practice. Love in this world is not scarce.
The world gives marginalized people very little safety, inclusion, and peace, and yet, we sing songs about water and our great granddaughters. As Pauli Murray wrote,
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.