Guest commentary by Linda Kurtz
I’m sure I don’t have all the right words to pay tribute to the life of a woman so innovative that she shepherded a whole new field of theology; so determined that she was the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary and the first black woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, among other firsts; so loved that the Watts Chapel of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, was full to bursting as we remembered her today.
I was often rendered speechless in front of Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, particularly when I sat in her class as a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. She was always by far the smartest person in the room and her life held a treasure trove of learnings she graciously shared with her students over the decades. I always wanted to know more of what she had to say.
Now, facing Dr. Cannon’s death, I find myself similarly speechless. How can I even begin to articulate the impact she had on my life – and more significantly, the lives of everyone else who encountered her through word or deed?
Today at Union Presbyterian Seminary, about 300 of Dr. Cannon’s family, friends, students, mentees and colleagues gathered to remember and give thanks to God for her life. And there was so much to say. For many of us, we “remembered the things we never knew” about our beloved Dr. Cannon — which was something she often said, Paula Owens Parker, adjunct assistant professor of spiritual formation at Union, reminded us. Tears were shed and laughs shared throughout the memorial, and I can’t help but think that Dr. Cannon wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Every person who shared what it was like to know and love Dr. Cannon reminded us that we are all better for knowing her. Speaking of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, Stephen G. Ray Jr. said, “We may have been much less than we are today” had it not been for Dr. Cannon. I can’t help but think that statement applies to all aspect of life and ministry influenced by Dr. Cannon.
Through all of the voices who gave tribute and testimony to Dr. Cannon’s life during the service, one message was loud and clear: It is up to us to keep Dr. Cannon’s legacy alive. Union president Brian K. Blount gave the eulogy, proclaiming that Dr. Cannon was sent by God to be a teacher. And teach, she did. I wanted to pause time and ask every person in the room how Dr. Cannon taught him or her. For many of us, Dr. Cannon was our professor. Current Union students sat in the chapel alongside alumni who had learned from her since her arrival in Richmond in 2001. And there were many others: those engaged in her work with the Center for Womanist Leadership at Union; those for whom Dr. Cannon paved the way for ministries previously thought impossible; those who knew Dr. Cannon in her childhood years; and those who read her work in Christian ethics and were forever changed.
The variety of people gathered to celebrate Dr. Cannon’s life was like the liturgical art in the worship space: bright colors in abstract shapes drawn by Dr. Cannon herself (“Esau’s Wisdom Eyes” from February 1998). And again, I don’t think Dr. Cannon would have wanted it any other way.
President Blount also shared that near the end of his last visit with Dr. Cannon in the hospital before she died, she told him that she still had work left to do. And so, he told us, it us up to usto get to work. Even though her work was left unfinished, it is up to the rest of us – those impacted by Dr. Cannon’s life and ministry – to take the legacy of her work and make it our own. To go out into the world and continue Dr. Cannon’s story.
Today I was reminded that it’s not about finding the right words to say; it’s about having the heart and will and courage to act.
At the end of a semester, Dr. Cannon would look at the faces of her weary students – exhausted from nearly 12 weeks of reading, writing, studying and exegeting – and utter some of the sweetest words an overwhelmed seminarian could hear: “We’re coming in for a smooth landing.”
Dr. Cannon, thank you for the gift of your wisdom, your teaching, your humor, your life. You have changed us all for good. And I pray that your landing in God’s kingdom – into the arms of your maker – was as smooth as can be.
Linda Kurtz is a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. She also serves as the communications specialist for NEXT Church and is a candidate for ordination from National Capital Presbytery. When she’s not reading or writing, Linda enjoys being outside and taking photos of anything but people.