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Pauli: Episode 3 Transcript

Saint Pauli 

Leoneda Inge

Where do you call Home? I'm not just talking about your mailing address, or even a physical place at all. Home can be defined by so much more. A community, or one special person. It's wherever or with whomever you feel the most comfortable, the most whole, the most complete.

So where do you call Home? It's a big question that might take a while for some of us to answer. Others of us might not have an answer, because a home isn't guaranteed, and can sometimes take us our whole lives to find. That was the case for Pauli Murray. Throughout her life, Pauli was a part of countless groups. She was on presidential commissions and involved with national coalitions and human rights organizations. But it's likely Pauli felt Home alongside a person she considered her closest friend, Irene Barlow. Pauli doesn't talk much about their relationship in her memoirs, but many people have speculated the two women were actually life partners. A 2017 biography of Pauli nods to their relationship as romantic, and one that lasted nearly two decades. Barlow died of a brain tumor in 1973. It was then, after that loss, when Pauli took a turn and ventured into the community she would call Home for the rest of her life: the clergy. Despite being in her early 60s, Pauli decided to leave a tenured professorship to enter seminary.

Pauli Murray 01:44
It seemed to me as I looked back over my life, that I was being pointed in the direction of the priesthood or service to the church. It seemed to me that it came out in my writings. It came out in my speeches, it came out in my rather steadfast devotion to the notion of reconciliation as well as liberation. And I asked myself, “What do you want to do with the time you have left?” And this seemed to be the answer.

Leoneda Inge 02:19
That's Pauli during an interview in 1976. Just a year after that Pauli became the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. She brought to the priesthood the same power she'd carried as a firebrand all her life.

Kelly Brown Douglas 02:36
Pauli Murray wasn't about changing demographics. Pauli Murray was about changing the world. Pauli Murray was not about window dressing in the church. She was about the church being church. And that's the legacy that we have to carry forward.

Leoneda Inge 03:02
I'm Leoneda Inge. And this is Pauli, a podcast from North Carolina Public Radio, about the power of one person to reinvent herself and change what's possible for us all.

Kelly Brown Douglas 03:30
Pauli Murray was a bad, a bad black woman.

Leoneda Inge 03:36
You're so polite, because when my mic was off, I was saying she's a badass, right?

Kelly Brown Douglas 03:42
Well, yeah I..

Leoneda Inge 03:43
I was like, you're not gonna say that, but I guess I can say it.

Kelly Brown Douglas 03:44
I'm not gonna lie. That was in my mind. But I had to, you know. [LAUGHS]

Leoneda Inge 03:53
Kelly Brown Douglas is Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Kelly Brown Douglas 04:00
I also serve as canon theologian at the Washington National Cathedral.

Leoneda Inge 04:04
Dean Douglas has been a part of the Episcopal Church for a while now. She was ordained in the early 1980s, and throughout her journey in the clergy, Pauli Murray has been with Dean Douglas along the way,

Kelly Brown Douglas 04:19
What I knew of Pauli Murray as a young priest or aspirant for the priesthood was that wow, you know, this Black woman took on the Episcopal Church in the sense that she was wow, first Black woman to be ordained a priest and that could not have been easy. And so I always had this deep sense that Pauli Murray really paved the way

Leoneda Inge 04:49
But like in every other chapter of Pauli’s life, there were some hurdles in the road. When she entered seminary in 1973, the Episcopal Church was not ordaining women, but Pauli still went without a guarantee she would ever become a priest.

Kelly Brown Douglas 05:06
What's interesting to me is that she went to seminary, knowing that she may not be ordained because they were not, the Episcopal Church was not ordaining women. Though she had fought for the ordination of women prior to that, so she went to seminary to really, to live into and to understand more her own faith journey, and what that required of her.

Pauli Murray 05:35
My strong conviction that basically all of these problems of human rights in which I had been involved for most of my adult life, sex, race, all of the problems of human rights, that basically these were moral and spiritual problems.

Kelly Brown Douglas 05:58
She moves toward accepting a calling to the priesthood and going into seminary, but I think it's much more than that. In those times, you find yourself really asking these other sort of questions about who you are, you know, I always say, I’m a theologian, people don't do theology because there's nothing better to do. A theology emerges out of these contradictions or crisis in life when we are forced to ask, “Who is God and who are we in relationship to God, etc. Who has God called us to be?” That's what happened for her.

Pauli Murray 06:36
I began to realize that universally all of mankind is constantly falling down from these high ideals which we have set. That racism and sexism are actually sins, the sickness of sin. That human beings are not really in harmony, in relationship, to to their Creator.

Leoneda Inge 07:10
The Episcopal Church wasn't anything new for Pauli Murray when she entered seminary. She grew up going to St. Titus Episcopal in Durham with the grandparents and aunts who raised her.

Pauli Murray 07:22
From earliest childhood I have always been a part of the churc. There have been times when I have left it, but I have always more or less been in some way involved with the church.

Leoneda Inge 07:37
Pauli preserved this connection between faith and family throughout her spiritual journey. Shortly after she was ordained, Reverend Pauli Murray offered her first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Choosing that church was intentional. It’s the same one where Pauli’s grandmother Cornelia was baptized more than a century earlier, while still enslaved. Through this tribute to her family lineage, to her roots, Pauli was tapping into a calling Dean Douglas says had been there since the beginning of her life.

Kelly Brown Douglas 08:13
You know, I like to say if you're a priest, you're called from the womb. Pauli Murray was called from the womb. You may or may not recognize it, but but she did. And if you sort of look at her life's journey, Pauli Murray was being a priest throughout her life's journey in so many ways. And so to read back in, you can see, yep, this was the inevitable sort of last, if you will, part of this journey.

Leoneda Inge 08:41
How does Pauli’s priesthood mirror the social justice work that she did for decades? You know, in a way, she continued that work, even going into the priesthood, maybe she almost saw it as parallel work. And I don't know, the priesthood may have been the cherry on the top.

Kelly Brown Douglas 09:04
Yeah. First of all, you know, this allows us to know that it's one thing to be a religious institution, and another thing to be church and so she found herself, even obviously prior to going to seminary, trying to push the institution that was the Episcopal Church toward being more inclusive. So pushing it to ordain women, pushing it to ordain LGBTQ persons, etc. Pushing it, as I like to say, to be church.

Pauli Murray 09:41
The church, which one would expect to be on the side of the oppressed, on the side of human dignity, on the side of human equality, sexism calls in God as its authority. Incidentally, this is the whole thing. This is the basic theological argument in barring women from the priesthood. That the male, that God represents the male principl. That Jesus Christ himself was a male, and that he selected male apostles, and therefore, that it is impossible for a woman to represent Christ.

Kelly Brown Douglas 10:22
I also like to think that as she moved toward seminary and the priesthood, that there was no separation between sort of the secular and the sacred side of her. This was about one piece. And it so reflects in so many ways the Black faith tradition, that the Black faith tradition, the church is, indeed, as W.E.B Du Bois once said, "the religious center and the social center.” These two things go together, and so they came together in Pauli Murray. So that wasn’t sort of this divide for her. And the cherry on top is, you would say, was that she would get to be ordained, but that was no different than the way in which she fought for inclusivity in this daggone country.

Leoneda Inge 11:20
Pauli retired from the priesthood in the early 1980s. She passed away just a few years later in 1985 from pancreatic cancer. But her spirit in the Episcopal Church continues to shape it as more and more clergy follow in her footsteps.

Kelly Brown Douglas 11:37
You know, I think in a in a real visible sense that her legacy is the fact that we now have six Black female dioceses and bishops. That wouldn't have happened without a Pauli Murray. It just wouldn't have. And each of those women recognize the significance of Pauli Murray.

Leoneda Inge 12:04
We've talked a lot on this podcast about deserved recognition for Pauli Murray, and what kind of tributes to her legacy are appropriate. If you haven't heard our earlier episodes, check those out right after you finish listening to this one. In 2012, Pauli was finally honored in a manner no one could argue befit her greatness. The Episcopal Church elevated her to sainthood. Saint Pauli. Now that has a nice sound to it.

Kim Jackson 12:40
Pauli Murray was what we would call a progressive Christian before we even knew what progressive Christians were. And some of that I'm sure came from her clear awareness about kind of who she was and her own value. I mean, honestly, I wouldn't be here without her, and if she hadn't brought that theological lens to the church and really advocated for it.

My name is Kim Jackson. I am an Episcopal priest, so I guess technically I'm the Reverend Kim Jackson, and I'm also the senator-elect for Georgia State District 41.

Leoneda Inge 13:17
You might also say Jackson is something of a modern-day Pauli Murray. Pauli was truly one of a kind. But there are definitely people who are standing tall on Paul's shoulders. Reverend Kim Jackson is one of them.

Kim Jackson 13:33
So, you know, there were a couple of things that I knew really clearly about myself as a young adult. One, I was called to ministry. Two, I was called to do the kind of ministry that brings about public change, that changes the world. So meeting Pauli Murray in her papers, right, in books, she's my girl, right? Like, she did exactly what I feel very much called to do in my own life.

Leoneda Inge 13:59
And just like Pauli, Reverend Jackson isn't only using the pulpit to push for change. She's also using the political stage as a state senator in Georgia. Pauli herself never held political office, but the two women are kindred spirits, protesting inequality and poking holes in patriarchal institutions. I spoke with Reverend Jackson just days before she was about to be sworn into office.

Kim Jackson 14:27
I’m this African American woman who was raised in the South in a Baptist tradition, and as a young adult, I came out as a lesbian. I also came out as saying I am a woman who feels called to ministry in a church tradition that did not ordain women. And so I went searching for people who looked like me, for women who were Black, who were also serving or who had served historically as pastors and as priests in the church. And so of course, Pauli Murray was one of the first ones that came across my radar. I also joined the Episcopal Church, and so I was particularly inspired to find, you know, that Pauli Murray was the first African American woman Episcopal priest, who also had this real passion for issues of social justice.

Leoneda Inge 15:16
You had a mentor though and didn't even know it. You know, that's because she did the impossible when she decided to be a priest. You know, there were no other Black female priests, definitely not in the Episcopal Church.

Kim Jackson 15:30
That's right. You know, I have spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be the first. I am the first LGBTQ person who will be sworn in, in the state senate here in Georgia. And so I've spent a lot of time talking about first. And I've also found a lot of inspiration and comfort in knowing that Pauli Murray was a first in many things. And she set the path for me and she continues to inspire me even from the grave. I'll just say on Monday when I'm sworn in, I will be wearing a Pauli Murray stole that she has passed down to other female Black priests in the church. I will wear one of those in honor of her.

Leoneda Inge 16:14
Well, I hope you have a professional photographer somewhere nearby, not like grandma mama cousin with their phone shaking. No, we need a good picture Reverened Jackson.

Kim Jackson 16:25

Leoneda Inge 16:26
Please. So when you think of Pauli Murray, what are some of her other actions that you think that you've adopted? You know, it's not just about theology, but actual, you know, the behaviors and practices, too. So how do you see yourself living into Pauli’s legacy with your actions as a reverend, and I think as a policymaker?

Kim Jackson 16:50
So one of the things that Pauli Murray was very clear about was that women had a role in the society that was significantly greater than the role that she was born into, right. And I think coming from the rural South, as I did, I grew up and was told that there are certain things that girls do and certain things that girls don't do. And, you know, one of those very specifically was being a pastor. Girls don't become preachers, that was very clearly expressed to me. And so, you know, defying that and that's what Pauli Murray did, I think over and over again, Pauli Murray defied the norms, defied these really, absolutely patriarchal rules. And I've tried to live into that as well. And every time I've kind of hit a barrier that said, you know, because you're a woman or because you're queer, you can't do these things. And I've said, "Yes. Yes, I can." I feel clear that perhaps as a part of my faith, I think some of it is just the sense of resistance that was birthed in me that has been passed down from our ancestors who resisted in all these different ways. I've said, yes, those barriers are not real, we can overcome those to really flourish and thrive in the society.

Leoneda Inge 18:09
So have you found yourself out marching a lot lately? Have you gone taking your actions to the streets as sort of this social change agent?

Kim Jackson 18:20
Absolutely. I've spent a lot of time marching in the streets. And in fact, I like to tell the story, I've spent more time on the steps of the Georgia Capitol leading rallies and protests than I have actually inside of the Capitol. So I'm actually looking forward to bringing some balance to that. But my real formation as a priest has been one who serves as a protest chaplain or a part of a movement chaplaincy work. And so really the last 10 years of my priesthood, for the entire time that I've been in this vocation, it has been one in which it's coupled with the pulpit and the streets.

Leoneda Inge 19:01
You know, one thing I just thought about when you spoke about, you know, being in the streets outside the Capitol, you know, when Pauli decided to go to seminary, you know, she was an old lady, they almost didn't let her in because she was an old lady. But if you've been a priest for a decade already, it seems that you knew early on what you wanted to do, and maybe, you know, in your early 20s, you moved into this direction. What made you do that?

Kim Jackson 19:33
Yeah, so I knew that I was called to ministry when I was only eight years old. And that's when I found out, that's when I hit that brick wall and was told that girls can’t become pastors. And so this has been a long journey. And similarly, I knew at 13 that I wanted to make a positive difference in the world, and that elected office was one of the ways that you could do it, because I was a part of a group of 13 year-olds who were taken to the City Hall. I listened to them make these decisions. And I had that lightbulb moment that every teacher hopes for in a child that said, “Oh, this is how change is made. And I want to do that.” So this has been a long journey for me in many ways, despite my age. And you know, I was ordained at age 26. I was one of the very youngest priests, ordained the first Black, queer, priest ordained in my diocese, and really was able to confront those barriers, because I've known with a deep, deep conviction that this is what God has called me to do, and this is the way that I'm called to live it out.

Pauli Murray 20:41
I hope that I will continue to do what I have tried to do most of my life. And that is, when there was a principal I felt that I ought to act on, I did not stand in fear of consequences.

Leoneda Inge 21:01
If Saint Pauli were with us today, I like to imagine she'd be out there in the streets, marching alongside Reverend Kim Jackson. And then come Sunday, keeping the church accountable from the pulpit with Dean Douglas.

Kelly Brown Douglas 21:17
If Pauli Murray was still alive and a voice in our church, right, Pauli Murray would, we wouldn't have to ask, “Where's the, where's the Episcopal Church?” Pauli Murray's voice would be out there on the public square, she would have led the way to, no, she would have already been at that church greeting Trump in front of that Episcopal Church and saying, “Ain’t no way, you're gonna stand here holding that Bible.” So Pauli Murray as a priest, oh my goodness, Pauli Murray would be so restless.

Leoneda Inge 21:59
And that's the kind of spiritual and social justice leader we need and deserve. One who is restless, can't sleep for wanting to make the world better for her people and for everybody else. "Hope is a song in a weary throat." Pauli Murray wrote those words in 1970. In her final years after decades of fighting, writing, praying and preaching for what's right, she had every right to be weary, and yet, she sang anyway.

We're going to keep unpacking Pauli’s inspiring life, from her experience during the Harlem Renaissance to her long friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to her influence on democracy abroad.
Pauli is a production of North Carolina Public Radio. Special thanks to the Southern Oral History Program. Our producers are Charlie Shelton-Ormond and Stacia Brown. Lindsay Foster Thomas is our executive producer. Jenni Lawson is our engineer. I’m Leoneda Inge.