The more I learn about the life of the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, the more I believe shes just the kind of saint we need.
First, a little context on that.
The Episcopal Church, which ordained Murray as its first black female priest in 1977, commemorated her as a saint last month as part of its progression toward a broader definition of that status honoring, in our time, not models of absolute perfection but men and women whose lives, with all their diversity of gifts and graces, were reshaped by Gods redemptive activity, as written in the churchs Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints.
Individuals whose lives Christians can look to as we realize that, in spite of their failings and ours, we are all alike redeemed sinners called to be saints.
That sounds very much like Murray to me.
Born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore in 1910, but raised by her grandparents and aunts in Durhams West End, Murray marshaled her intellectual gifts and activists spirit to become a champion for civil and human rights, a brilliant lawyer, talented author, inspiring teacher and more.
While she is much lesser known than civil and womens rights icons Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, her story is singularly awe-inspiring.
Murray challenged Jim Crow laws on Virginia buses in 1941, years before Rosa Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., sparked the boycott that would ignite the civil rights movement.
Her States Laws on Race and Color, published in 1951, was touted as the bible for civil rights lawyers by Thurgood Marshall and others who worked on landmark cases including Brown v. Board of Education.
And with Friedan and 30 other feminists, Murray founded the National Organization for Women.
Those are only a few highlights from her resume all reasons that Durham, my home and the home of the Pauli Murray Project ( paulimurrayproject.org/
) should be proud of the part its played so far in sharing Murrays story and legacy with the world.
On a personal level, considering all that Murray accomplished challenges me to do more and be more, to reclaim my boldly ambitious side and push myself to achieve some of my biggest dreams like not only finishing the novel Ive been writing for more than 10 years, but finally publishing it and starting a new one.
In early July, in a video recorded at the Episcopal Churchs General Convention in Indianapolis, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina recalled that Murray was not always popular. People did not always agree with her, but they knew where Pauli Murray stood. She was a bridge person who helped to bridge some of the divides that keep us separated from each other.
And as befits a daughter of Durham, she was feisty, Curry said in a News 14 Carolina interview after a July 18 service celebrating Murray at St. Titus Episcopal Church, located in a neighborhood near NCCU. If Pauli didnt like something you said, shed cut you off at the knees.
She wasnt no sweet saint, but she was a saint, he chuckled.
Even as Curry reflected on Murrays very human side, his colloquialisms also spoke to her complexity.
She was feisty enough to take great risks in fighting for freedom, yet faithful enough to embrace and serve a church that she sometimes saw as an obstacle in freedoms path.
She was bold enough to be undeterred by blatant discrimination based on her race and/or gender, and even to lobby President Nixon for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but she had the sensitive soul of a poet, proven in 1978s Dark Testament and Other Poems. In it, Murray writes in a lyrical voice reminiscent of Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
What better example could there be for 21st-century Durham, a city where various cultures and viewpoints must co-exist, even when they cant collaborate and where fierce politics certainly could benefit from the empathy found in true priests and poets.
By an approving vote of the Episcopal Churchs General Convention, its Holy Women, Holy Men compendium now includes July 1, the anniversary date of Murrays 1985 death, among its holy days. Her name now appears on the list of those faithful departed who were extraordinary or even heroic servants of God and of Gods people.
A sense of just how remarkable that is filled St. Titus on July 18, when I joined a crowd of more than 300 school-age children to seniors, black and white, wearing suits and dresses, T-shirts and shorts in celebrating Murrays new status and her incredible life.
Later, as I read Murrays poem Prophecy at paulimurrayproject.org/
, I recalled our collective singing, praying and giving thanks for her life that night. And I now can imagine her speaking to us in her own prophetic words: I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound. I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness. I have been slain but live on in the river of history. I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge. I seek only discovery. Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.