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Conviction of Things Not Seen

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray J.D. was a Black woman born in 1910. She grew up in the segregated South and was arrested in 1940 for riding in the whites-only section of the bus—long before Rosa Parks. That experience led her to pursue a career in the law. She was the only woman in her class at Howard University Law School. This was in the early 1940s, mind you. On the first day of class, one of her professors wondered aloud why any woman would want to go to law school. She graduated first in her class. But that didn’t mean anything to Harvard University, who wouldn’t allow her to do post-graduate work there because she was a woman. So she went to Cal Berkeley instead. Eventually another Ivy League school recognized her brilliance and brought her in. She received her doctorate from Yale.

She went on to have a powerhouse career in fighting gender and racial discrimination. Her legal arguments informed the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that desegregated schools. She served on President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Her ideas helped to make sure that gender was a protected category in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I could go on and on.

Inspired by many Episcopal women she worked with in her activism, Pauli Murray decided she wanted to become an Episcopal priest. She became the first Black woman ordained to the priesthood and was actually among the first women in general to be ordained in our Church. That was in 1977. She was in her 60s.

Perhaps most subversive for her time, though, was that Pauli Murray was queer. I say this in a very general way, because I don’t want to put any specific labels on her. I’ll just quote her own words instead. After being married for a very brief time to man, she wondered, quote: “Why is it when men try to make love to me, something in me fights?" When Harvard rejected her on account of her gender, she wrote, "I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds.”

She didn’t say these things casually. In just about every way she could, Pauli Murray lived as a man. She wore men’s clothes, had a man’s hairstyle. And, as we’ve already heard, she pursued what were in her time men’s careers. All of this during the 40s, 50s and until her death in 1984. She was queer well before there was any acceptance or equality for the queer community.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Pauli Murray’s life was a living testimony to faith. A successful working woman in a time when women were actively discouraged from working, let alone being successful. A Black person wielding power at the highest levels of our legal system in a time when laws prevented Black folks from even sitting in the same sections of restaurants as white folks. A person whose gender expression was not in line with her assigned gender in a time when, well, that could put her in a lot of danger.

Pauli Murray lived as if a different world was possible. The way Abraham did. The way Isaac and Jacob did. The way Moses did.

All of these, our epistle says today, died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.

Pauli Murray died having received a portion of God’s promises for our world: she saw the Civil Rights Act passed, and the 14th Amendment extended to protect the rights of women. But she was gone before the gay rights movement paved a way where she could have loved who she loved openly, like I do. She didn’t get to live in a time when she could explore her gender freely. Today, her Black siblings still live under the weight of systemic racism. Women still make 83 cents for every dollar a man makes, and their rights around bodily autonomy are once again under attack.

We still haven’t received the promises of God’s Kingdom, the ones Pauli Murray saw from a distance and greeted. But every day of her life, she lived as if the Kingdom of God was possible. The Kingdom of God in which every person’s gift, skills, and ways of being are valued and celebrated. The Kingdom of God where the poor are blessed with what they need to thrive, where the hungry are fed, where the merciful are held up as models, and the peacemakers lead the way.

In 2012, The Episcopal Church honored The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, JD with a Feast Day, which is on July 1st. So I’m a little late. But when I saw our epistle for today, I couldn’t help but talk about her. Because she exemplified our faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Pauli Murray lived with hope, which meant she lived with deep, deep trust. She trusted in the goodness of God. She trusted in the goodness of so many people around her, the people from whom she learned and the people with whom she worked. She trusted in her own goodness, despite what the world told her about herself. Living her hope, she trusted that the world could be transformed, and therefore she transformed the world with her trust. Pauli Murray made the Kingdom of God manifest with her life.

May she be an example for all of us.

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