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"Strong Women Were a Given"
WE MIGHT EXPECT PERSUASIVE PREACHERS, such as Barbara Harris and Michael Curry, to be talented raconteurs. Indeed these two friends are truly gifted storytellers. In their conversations, stories pop out like mice scurrying from their holes. This was particularly true as they spoke with one another about their relatives. Women were named first when describing their ancestors. Mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers played leading roles in their lives. Their fortitude and deep faith were regularly acclaimed. These women shaped and deepened their families' faith. Barbara's and Michael's experiences in several respects mirrored the matriarchal character of other African American families. Michael, for example, points out that one of his heroes — the prominent African American author and theologian Howard Thurman (1899–1981) — was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. As Thurman once noted, his grandmother knew "everything about Jesus and about life."
In his recent book, Songs My Grandma Sang, Michael bears witness, again and again, to the wit and wisdom of his maternal grandmother, Nellie Strayhorn. As young children, Michael and his sister relished the time they spent in her kitchen listening to her humming, singing, and telling stories. Later, when Michael was a young teenager, his grandma stepped in to help "raise the children right" after the long illness and death of her daughter, Dorothy, who was Michael's mother. This was after she had buried a husband and several children. Nellie Strayhorn often had a song on her lips, as Michael said:
This woman, then in her late seventies with cane always in hand, grabbed that cane, sang her songs, praised the Lord, told stories of old North Carolina, and helped our father rear some more children, singing all along, "I'm so glad Jesus lifted me."
Michael will tell us more about her as our conversations continue. The spiritual gifts of Nellie Strayhorn, along with those of Michael's father, who was a busy parish priest, would prove foundational in shaping Michael's emerging vocation.
When telling about the strength of her women ancestors, Barbara's tales feature her great-grandmother on her mother's side, Ida Brauner Sembley. Ida was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland in 1857. In her later decades, Ida Brauner Sembley, whom Barbara called "Mom Sem," lived within the multigenerational Harris household and died in 1938 when Barbara was eight years old. Barbara has vivid memories of Mom Sem, especially clear images of her great-grandmother walking with steady steps, tall as a ramrod-straight pine tree:
I would have to say that my great-grandmother on my mother's side had to be a woman of great faith. She was a slave and was emancipated. And one thing that was reported in our family was that she had a twin sister who had been sold south. And, somehow, miraculously, and I do not know the details, they were reunited in Washington, DC, after emancipation. And I think my great-grandmother must have been a woman of indomitable faith. And I guess that was something that has been passed on to me.
Michael softly responded "Hallelujah" upon hearing this story.
Most of all, it was Ida Brauner Sembley's outspoken courage that caught Barbara's attention. She likes to tell a favorite story about Mom Sem's encounter as a young teenager with General Ulysses S. Grant:
She was about twelve years old on the plantation in Maryland. And General Grant came onto the plantation and asked her to pump a dipper of water, which she did. And then he swished it around and threw it out and asked her to pump another dipper. And she said, "You didn't need to throw it out. The dipper's clean." And he said, "Well, I don't know, some people around here have been trying to poison me and my men." And then he did the unthinkable, but it wasn't unthinkable in that day. He rubbed the top of the child's head, as if for luck, and said, "I've been fighting for little boys like you." To which the young child replied, "I don't need anybody to fight for me. I can fight for myself. And I'm not a little boy!"
When Barbara was a young child, Mom Sem typically chose to spend more time with her older and perhaps quieter sister, Josephine. Barbara has not forgotten that she was
a very strong woman with very strong feelings. If she liked you, there was nothing she wouldn't do for you. If she didn't like you, stay out of her way. She doted on my sister, who was five years older than I was, and she would take my sister into room, slam the door in my face and say, "Thee is not fit for human company."
So it was a special event for Barbara to go on out with her great-grandmother who would
occasionally take me on her little grocery shopping forays, and that was a treat to be able to go with her, except that I could not understand why, on a bright sunny day in August, she carried this big, black man's umbrella extended over her head. It wasn't raining and I didn't know anything about her shielding herself from the sun on a bright August day. But I can remember walking up the street with her and passing this corner saloon and all the men leaning against the wall of this saloon saying, "Good afternoon, Ms. Sembley," and tipping their hats as she walked by.
Barbara believes her great-grandmother's indomitable faith was passed on to her and other women in the family.
Christians and people of other faiths often can name their favorite songs. Hymn tunes and texts may also become identified with friends and relations. Michael amply illustrated this association in Songs My Grandma Sang. He described how the songs of many grandmothers
reflected a deep faith and profound wisdom that taught them how to shout "glory" while cooking in "sorrows kitchen," as they used to say. In this there was a hidden treasure that saw many of them through, and that is now a spiritual inheritance for those of us who have come after them. That treasure was a sung faith expressing a way of being in relationship with the living God of Jesus that was real, energizing, sustaining, loving, liberating, and life-giving.
In Barbara's life this "hidden treasure" recently prompted vivid memories of her great-grandmother. One Sunday while attending a Boston Camerata performance, Barbara heard the soprano soloist sing a very early slave spiritual that was deeply familiar to her from her early childhood. The text of this song is:
Jehovah, Hallelujah, the Lord will provide. Jehovah, Hallelujah, the Lord will provide. The foxes have a hole, and the birdies have a nest. But the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Jehovah, Hallelujah, the Lord will provide.
The song was one of the earliest slave spirituals to be annotated in the first 1867 collection of these texts. It has been described as one of the oldest and noblest tunes and originated from Port Royal Island in South Carolina. The tune that others today might recognize as similar to it is: "Hallelujah, Thine the glory, Revive us again."
Surprised by hearing this spiritual, Barbara suddenly recalled her great-grandmother often singing the same song over and over.
Well, I almost lost it as that woman was singing. I was just sitting there, waving my hand, with tears in my eyes because I could see Mom Sem sitting in that rocking chair ... and I could hear her singing too. My God, I haven't been moved like that for a long time. Well, I had to go to this woman singer afterward and thank her for doing that. Then I told her a story about my greatgrandmother, and a couple of guys who were with her in this ensemble stood there with tears in their eyes. And then I told them the story about Mom Sem's encounter with General Grant.
To which Michael replied, "Yeah, that's one of the best stories I've ever heard."
Michael marveled as he listened to Barbara speak about her great-grandmother. On hearing these stories, he laughingly responded, "The apple didn't fall far from that tree!" Undoubtedly the family traits of feistiness and faith were passed on down to Barbara. Michael concluded that "strong women were a given ... they just had to be." Barbara concurred. The family's survival was at stake.
Generations of their parents and grandparents survived tough times. Some of their former slave ancestors had endured a new system of economic exploitation known as sharecropping. In addition to living through the harsh realities of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, Jim Crow practices were pervasive, and in many places segregation remained the law of the land. For those who traveled this difficult and stony road, faith included a firm belief that with God there was always another possibility. It is hard to overstate the pervasive role of faith embedded in African American history and culture.
Ida Brauner Sembley and one of her daughters were AME. The African Methodist Church had been started by Richard Allen in Philadelphia in 1781. Absalom Jones, the first person of African descent to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, joined Allen in founding this new congregation. Much of this activity happened not far from Barbara's Philadelphia birthplace. As a denomination of over 2.5 million members, the AME Church recently celebrated its 200th anniversary as a group of independent African congregations. Tragically it was at another AME Church, Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, where in 2015 nine members in a Bible study group were gunned down. Appreciative references to AME connections, friends, and AME influence on their preaching, drifted in and out of Barbara and Michael's conversation.
Although Barbara's mother and mother's mother were Episcopalians, her ancestors included Baptists. Two of Barbara's grandfather's brothers were Baptist ministers. One of them, Smith Price, founded the Wayland Temple Baptist Church, also in Philadelphia. Michael also came from a family of preachers. There were "Alabama preachers all over on my daddy's side." One of his ancestors, his paternal grandfather, was described as a "fiery evangelist who liked the ladies." Apparently this preacher was portrayed as preaching the Ten Commandments, yet not always keeping them. Today in Michael's extended family, most are Baptists, with others from the Pentecostal Holiness and the Episcopal traditions.
Michael's mother and father were raised as Baptists. His mother became an Episcopalian in graduate school after reading C. S. Lewis. When they first met, his father was a licensed Baptist preacher who was attending Seabury-Western Seminary. Both in his book Crazy Christians and in the sermon he preached for his investiture as presiding bishop, Michael relates the story about his father's decision to convert to the Episcopal Church. When they were courting, Dorothy Strayhorn invited Kenneth Curry to attend an Episcopal service of Holy Communion. He was attracted to this community after he observed black and white parishioners drinking from a common cup. His father later said, "Any church in which black folks and white folks drink out of the same cup knows something about a gospel that I want to be a part of." This practice brought him to the Episcopal Church. For Michael his story of radical inclusion and liberation from prejudice would prove a hallmark of his preaching.
Growing up, the family and the church were daily centers of activity. Family connections ran deep. During the final year of her life, Michael's mother lay in a coma in a nursing home. The family would spend their evenings there with the children watching television or doing homework. Prayers by Daddy and by Grandma Nellie Strayhorn, with hers more effusive, would close the evening. In this good-natured family, getting along, making it work was what they did.
My father used to kid my grandmother and her best friend. We used to call them Mary and Martha. Daddy said, "Mary and Martha drove Jesus crazy. Y'all drive me crazy too, because the two of you just go on and on." Because one was a Baptist, the other AME Zion, and they used to argue about who was getting to heaven first. I mean, they were having fun together, but they were some tough sisters. They really were.
Both were women of unyielding faith. Good humor was part and parcel of their resilience.
In their conversations neither Michael nor Barbara dwelt on the struggles they have experienced in their families and in their professional lives. They do not deny tough times, yet they have chosen not to be defined by them. They also show a reluctance to name some of the harshest trials. As Barbara is fond of saying, both in sermons and in everyday conversations, "The Spirit of God behind you is greater than any problem ahead of you."
Stories of strong, tough women have to include Barbara's mother, Beatrice Price Harris, "Ms. Bea," as some called her. Her father, Walter Harris, was a steel worker who died at the age of sixty-four in 1959. Mr. Harris wasn't a churchgoer, yet Ms. Bea always invited him to come along. St. Barnabas, a black church, was Barbara's home church, where she, her older sister, Josephine, and her younger brother, Thomas, were raised. She did her best to make sure that her children were regular participants at St. Barnabas and that they had the best resources she could provide. To pay for Barbara's piano and voice lessons, she washed and ironed other people's clothes, earning the $4.50 a month lesson fee.
When Barbara was newly ordained, she served as the priest in charge at a church just outside of Philadelphia, St. Augustine of Hippo. Soon after she arrived there, the organist quit. Ms. Bea offered to bail Barbara out until she could find another organist. It didn't take long before mother and daughter sparred over the way one hymn was sung.
One Sunday morning the congregation sang a hymn so sourly I said, "We are going to sing that hymn again, and we're going to sing it right this time." My mother leaned over the railing of the organ loft and said that well, it wasn't my choir. So, after the service, I said, "Mom, don't ever do that again." She said, "Well, you were wrong." I said, "Look at this bulletin. It says Barbara C. Harris, priest in charge, not Beatrice P. Harris, organist in charge." To which Ms. Bea replied that it wasn't Barbara's choir!
When Barbara left this parish after four years, Ms. Bea stayed on, playing the organ and directing the choir there until she was ninety-one years old.
It is clear that Ms. Bea fiercely supported her talented daughter. Early on she encouraged her to stay at an all-girls' academic high school where a principal had made clear that black girls were not welcome. Barbara remained in the school and was one of the most popular girls in her class. In addition, she graduated with three friends made in the ninth grade, who have continued as her lifelong "best friends." Ms. Bea and Barbara did not always agree. At first Ms. Bea was not very enthusiastic about women's ordination, though she later changed her mind. Ms. Bea knew her daughter well, checking with her, for example, at the time of her election as a bishop to be sure this was what Barbara really wanted. Ms. Bea was there as well at Barbara's consecration as a bishop, sitting across from her daughter. At one point after a statement protesting Barbara's ordination was read, Ms. Bea crossed the aisle, looked into her daughter's eyes, and said: "Have no fear. God is on our side. Everything is going to be all right. This is your Momma speaking!"
It is no wonder that Ida Brauner Sembley, Nellie Strayhorn, and Beatrice Price Harris were featured in their descendants' conversations. These were strong-willed, resilient women. They were women of indomitable faith who, well into their old age, modeled testimonies of hope in the ultimate victory of a loving God. These exemplary women left enduring legacies of courage and faithfulness for future generations. Through their witness we become better acquainted with Barbara Harris and Michael Curry.
Excerpted from "In Conversation"
Copyright © 2017 Michael B. Curry, Barbara Harris, and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The First Ones Ever 1
1 "Strong Women Were a Given" 7
2 "You've Got to Bless the World" 16
3 "A Gift Given to Me" 27
4 "A Deeply Pastoral Calling" 36
5 "Marathon Courage and Nonviolent Perseverance" 49
6 "Trailblazers and Truth-Tellers" 62
7 In Their Own Words 72