“Turn from evil and do good,” the psalm we just prayed reminded us. “Seek peace, and pursue it.”
Until a few days ago, I did not know who the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon was. In 1974, she was the first black woman ordained a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. In 1983 she would go on to be the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Union Seminary.
Dr. Cannon is the architect of womanist theology, taking that term from Alice Walker, who described it this way:
A womanist is “A black feminist, or a feminist of color…usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Responsible. Serious.
“…Traditionally capable, as in: ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’
“Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
“Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.”
I had heard of womanist theology but I did not know it, until this past Tuesday when my friend and colleague the Rev. Jane Henderson shared a link with me to a keynote address that Dr. Cannon gave for the Women and Ministry conference at Princeton Seminary last year. Titled “Thinking with our Hearts and Feeling with our Brains,” Dr. Cannon presented womanist theology as a system that demands integrity at its core: demands the integration of body and mind and spirit; demands the integration of women and men; demands the integration of people – who for generation upon generation have been treated as something less than fully human – demands that they instead be recognized as the reflection of the divine image that they are.
How could God want anything less than that? How dare we aspire to anything short of it?
As I listened to her talk and reflected on the readings for this week, the piece I could not get out of my head was this verse of Psalm 34: the call to turn from evil, to do good, to seek peace that is lasting and real.
The psalms give us words for praise, but that praise has never been fully lived when it is disembodied, when it does not have substance within it. Something important and necessary is lost, if we sing songs of praise here within these walls on Sunday mornings and then forget the claim that gift of grace has on our lives throughout the rest of our days.
“The psalmist does not separate the practice of praise from a life of justice and peace.” Living our lives of faith gives us the opportunity to tie our praise to substance, to be integrated in word and deed as we depart from evil, and do good, and pursue peace.
There is a peculiar quality to the relating of trauma in a manner that strips it of interpretation, so that the fact of what has happened can stand on its own, can become its own wisdom, its own citation of evidence. That is the style Dr. Cannon used in her telling of each piece that she laid out in its own right, in that keynote address she gave at Princeton…syllable by footnote of sacred memory in history.
She described herself, as a child of five years old, who knew by heart: the Lord’s Prayer, the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm, the Beatitudes, and the questions of the Catechism – as well as her appropriate responses.
And as a black child born in 1950 in Kannapolis, North Carolina, she knew as well that it was forbidden for her to attend the local public school where white children learned, that it was illegal for her to play on the swings at the public park, that the doors of the public library would not be open to her.
She described herself at that early age, wondering “What did we as black people do that was so bad?”
She described enslaved Africans shackled in the cargo holds of ships, so close that their faces were pressed up against the backs of the people in front of them, in a voyage that one of every eight people would not survive.
“They had to learn to think with their bodies,” Dr. Cannon said.
And she described her great-grandmother, Mary Nance Lytle, who was born in 1832. Her great-grandmother gave birth to fourteen children. Only the last, Emmanuel Clayton Lytle, Dr. Cannon’s own grandfather, was born free – four months after the end of the Civil War. Dr. Cannon described her great-grandmother, Mary Nance Lytle, re-gathering her children after the war. The legend of their family is that Dr. Cannon’s great-grandmother walked hundreds of miles, from plantation to plantation. “That one’s mine, and that one’s mine, and that one’s mine,” she would say, of children that had been taken from her and sold into slavery before their hands had lost their chubbiness, before their permanent teeth had come in.
And child by child, she did it. Step by step, Dr. Cannon’s great grandmother put her family back together again. She refused the dis-integration that an unjust system had forced onto her and her family.
Isn’t that what it means to turn from the evil that would divide and disembody and enslave us? Isn’t our call to seek the wholeness and healing and reconciliation that a just and lasting peace, finally, is?
Every Friday morning, a group of us gathers in the chapel for Eucharist, remembering the life of a saint whose feast is somewhere in near proximity to that day. Many of that blessed company of witnesses whose lives we recall lived and died hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago.
The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon died just eleven days ago, on August 8, of acute leukemia. What I know now is that I know people who knew her. She had dinner in my friend’s apartment in New York during the heady days of striving towards women’s ordination. She preached at the blessing of my dear friends’ union before it was legal for them to be married. The separation is not that much – it’s not told in decades or millennia, but in days and with people who knew her voice, and wit, and deep conviction, and faith in the God who wanted more.
I wish that separation was less.
I hope we will remember Dr. Cannon as one who called us all to turn from evil and do good, and who sought to do the same. I hope we will be inspired to think with our hearts, to feel with our minds.
I hope the church will know her for her legacy, as the great-granddaughter who refused the dis-integration that would have been forced on her by too many, but who instead said, theologically: “That one’s mine, and that one’s mine, and that one’s mine…” who sought to put all God’s family back together with honesty and courage and hope…to make us whole.
 Alice Walker. Definition of a “Womanist” from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1983.
 Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi. “Psalm 34: Theological Perspective.” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 344.
 Katie Geneva Cannon. Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. New York: Continuum Press, 1995. 28.