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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

The black community's cloud of witnesses

Three brave women walked with Jesus


For 28 days in February, we black scholars find ourselves running to and fro speaking on black history, religion, politics and spirituality.

I have been thinking about the lives and recent deaths of two black women who, in their quiet and understated ways, helped to revolutionize this nation by sitting down and standing up for justice and the God-created dignity of their people. I am, of course, speaking of the late Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, two women who seem too often to be placed in the shadows when we discuss the civil rights movement. But they lived a span of years that enabled many who weren’t there in the beginning to affirm their lives and their deeply held faith in a wonderworking God.

I would also like to add to their company the name of another woman who is perhaps less known, but just as important in her time for the changes that she helped to bring about by founding the first black Catholic religious order for women -- not just in the United States but in the world. I am talking about Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (died Feb. 3, 1882). A free woman of color who left Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in the aftermath of the first successful revolution of blacks in the Americas, Elizabeth Lange eventually came to Baltimore, where she refused to accept the menial and servile jobs allocated to black women, who were at that time mostly slaves. She saw God in them and herself, and thus saw a higher calling for black women than others would initially allow.

These three women were not extraordinary in any particular way except that they lived their faith rather than just talking about it. Today we are surrounded by persons of every faith who claim to have the ear of God but who live lives that deny that intimate relationship. But Mother Lange, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King let others do the boasting and speechmaking for the most part. They were willing to let their actions speak for them, and those actions spoke so loudly that the world was forever changed. Knowing that their lives could be forfeited, as well as the lives of those they loved, their acts of quiet courage and dignity serve as a reminder to us of what “walking the way of Jesus” truly means.

Mrs. King lost her husband when he was only 39. He left her with four young children. I am sure that initially she felt overwhelmed and frightened of the future. Yet she did not allow her fears to win but walked on in faith, ensuring that the efforts of her husband and other martyrs of the civil rights movement would not be forgotten and would receive the place of honor they deserve in our nation’s history.

Mrs. Parks had to leave her home and family in Birmingham, Ala., to escape the many threats against her life. She moved to Detroit, where she continued to fight for the God-given dignity of all persons of African descent and to teach young people about the ongoing work of faith and justice.

Mother Lange resisted efforts by those in the Catholic hierarchy to suppress her order and to reduce the women in it to domestic servants. As Oblate Sisters of Providence, they respectfully refused to be denied their mission in life, which was to serve the illiterate and poor, the orphans and elderly of the black community rather than to cook, clean and sew for the elite in society. They saw themselves as servants of God, not humanity, and insisted on the respect due them as women religious living a vowed life. The sisters continue her work today, 177 years later, not just in Baltimore but in cities across this nation. These women saw what others were unable or refused to see: the myriad possibilities available for a people of faith whose eyes were “always watching God,” as Zora Neale Hurston wrote.

Last year, we watched as Mrs. Parks was honored by lying in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. In February, we watched as four presidents paid homage to Mrs. King -- the wife of Martin, yes, but a woman due respect in her own right. Today, the cause for the canonization of Mother Lange has been sent to Rome along with the prayers of people from all races and ethnicities that she will be officially welcomed into the canon of saints where she so rightfully belongs.

These women, and so many men and women like them, are the reason I don’t complain about the added work I must do in the month of February. I want to share the stories of this great cloud of witnesses upon whose shoulders I and so many others now stand. I exist, we exist, because they did more than exist; they fought for what should have been theirs at birth, the dignity and respect due to all human beings because of our creation in the image and likeness of a God of love.

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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