Guest commentary by T. Denise Anderson
It was April 7, 2014, and my friend and I boarded a bus from Washington, D.C. for a daylong adventure in New York City. We were headed to Union Theological Seminary in the for the premier of
“Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.” The film was an offering by the late filmmaker (and Union alumna) Anika Gibbons, and it featured the founding mothers of Womanist theology and ethics as they told their stories in their own words.
My friend, another African-American woman, was newly ordained. I was still navigating the ordination process and fighting off discouragement. The call to which I believed I was called didn’t seem eager to make room for me. Oh, it was much deeper than experiencing some difficulty with a justifiably rigorous process. I respected the boxes I was asked to check, and I checked them. I finished my Master of Divinity program with high marks. I passed all the ordination exams on the first try. I was “call-ready,” but there was no call ready for me. And even in an otherwise pastoral relationship with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I sometimes felt as if I was speaking a different language from them.
Actually, I was speaking a different language. My social location was decidedly African-American, and that came through in my articulation of my faith and sense of call. I was not speaking the same cultural language as my denomination, which can be a gift if we let it. But, even in their most earnest and benevolent attempts, systems that lack self-awareness can’t help but promulgate white supremacy. The denomination I loved and had become invested in was no exception to that tendency.
That April evening, I was eager to be in a decidedly Womanist space. I needed to be affirmed. I needed the care and renewal inherent to the gatherings of black women. I needed to be around some truly brilliant people. I needed to sit at the feet of elders and big sisters who’d trod the stony roads of institutional politics. And I needed to be in the presence of one such giant who had navigated the very system I was navigating: The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon.
I did not expect to meet Dr. Cannon. Honestly, I knew she would be swarmed at that gathering and had resigned myself to the satisfaction of simply being in the same room with her. But I did get to meet her, at the insistence of my companion who had already developed a relationship with her in her still-nascent career. Dr. Cannon was just open like that: always willing to talk, to answer questions, to mentor, to pour into someone else. She graciously agreed to take a picture with me, which turned out blurry thanks to the shaky hand of the photographer. But I didn’t ask for a retake. I was too honored to take up any more of her time. I had evidence that I had shared space with my hero. That’s all I needed.
The lights were lowered and the screening began. With greater clarity than that of my photo, Dr. Cannon’s face shone on the screen, her voice commanding and comforting as she told her story, nudging us towards righteous resistance.
“Even when they call your truth a lie, tell it anyway! Tell it anyway!”
The moment I heard her say that was the moment my truth-telling ministry began. That was the day I stopped trying to shrink myself to fit a mold that was too small for me. That was the day I lost my appetite for the crumbs that fall from the table. That was the day I grabbed my chair, pulled it to the table and took my seat.
I would later start writing. I quit a dead-end job. I shared my story like my life depended on it, because in many ways it did. If I was going to follow this call in this system, I would need to make room for myself. I would need to raise my voice so the walls in front of me would tumble. I would need to tell my truth for my freedom and the freedom of others. I couldn’t hear her words and not respond.
If you have ever benefited from the ministerial leadership of black women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), you have Katie Geneva Cannon to thank for that. She opened the door for us. She gave this church pastors, chaplains, theologians, professors, ethicists, executives — and moderators. She was the midwife to our ministries. In telling her story, she gave us permission and courage to tell our own. Of course, her reach was not limited to black women or women of color. She intellectually and spiritually challenged all who were her students – those who matriculated at Union Presbyterian Seminary and those who did not – that we might view our ministries through the lens of justice and de-center the privileged and powerful. She knew that specificity did not equal exclusion, which is why she spoke specifically and unabashedly about the unique witness of black women. The church and the world were made more just because of her work. Thank God she told her truth!
I shared space with Katie again earlier this year, this time as her colleague. This time, I showed up as co-moderator of the denomination we share. This time, I was the invited speaker at an event at Union Theological Seminary where she taught. This time, she sat and listened to me. That was not lost on me. I don’t remember what I said to her that night we first met, but this time I made sure she knew that whatever I had accomplished or would accomplish in my career is due to her influence, her challenge and her love. And I am by far not the only one. Many of us stand on her shoulders. We all have similar stories of how she sat us down and firmly but lovingly disabused us of our thin theologies and anemic ethics. Whether in person or through her writings, she changed us so that we might change the world. May we count ourselves worthy of her legacy and, as boldly as she did, tell the truths that will set the entire world free.
DENISE ANDERSON is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland and was co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.