Thank you, all, for allowing me to be part of this service–to the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart for organizing us, and to all who have offered your reflections. You all knew Bishop Barbara Harris far longer than I did. Your presence here is a living tribute to her life and legacy. In speaking I feel a bit like one of the laborers in Jesus’ parables who was invited to work for the last hour of the day and yet given the same wage as those who had toiled since dawn.
Meeting Bishop Harris for the first time was also an experience of being afforded a blessing I had not earned. I will never forget the afternoon when she and the Rev. Nan Peete came to my house and we shared a meal. It was then that Bishop Harris decided, on the spot, to love me, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Her way with me was, of course, her way with everyone. She felt called to love everyone. Among the more extraordinary passages of her memoir, Hallelujah Anyhow, is a portion of a sermon she preached about her experiences in Greenville, Mississippi in 1965. She describes a man that she likens to Judas Iscariot. Apparently this man would attend all the mass meetings and church services of the movement and then go down to the police department and tell the authorities everything he heard. About this man she writes:
Whatever might have moved him to betray his own oppressed people lay between him and God. But as surely as Judas Iscariot was loved by Jesus, so this man was within the circle of our Lord’s embrace as well.
Sadly, I never spoke to him. I never got to know him nor find out anything about his life. Had I been more sensitive, more perceptive, more like the Christ I ciam to follow, one day I might have engaged him in conversation. Instead I glared at him like some loathsome leper and I let the opportunity for some Christ-like encounter or some reconciling engagement slip by. . . I was more ready to judge than to understand; more ready to condemn than to forgive; more ready to be right than to be loving.1
No lest I, as a white person, imagine that in her kindness toward me and her desire to love as Jesus loves, Bishop Harris would let me off the hook, she was equally clear in her critique of those who mindlessly benefit from institutionalized racism. Writing of her high school years in an all-girls, and nearly all white, academically advanced school, she says this:
The few blacks girls at the school learned to stick together and support one another, so I suppose good did come out of all the disappointments and rejection. I’m wary of saying, “It came out all right,” because that school treated us very poorly and it hurt. Just because we preserve through raciism and grow stronger in the face of discrimination doesn’t mean it was right in any way. . . The damnable thing about institutionalized racism is that well-meaning white folk don’t have to do anything overt to insure its perpetuation. If they just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other, they will continue to benefit from their unearned white privilege at the expense and denial of people of color. . . to eradicate institutional white racism demands that people take intentional steps to identify how it permeates our society, recognize their complicity in it and do what they can to dismantle it. It is a continuous and arduous task. . .
She concluded this section on a word of hope and challenge:
There is a remnant of God that lives and looks and speaks to the future in the minds of those who understand struggle; in the hearts of those who have dedicated their lives; in the hopes of the people for whom it is waged; in the fears of those against whom it is directed; and in the strength of those who will carry it out.
Being in Bishop Harris’ presence, and reading her words now, inspires me to be about that continuous, arduous task.
This biblical passage that comes to my mind when thinking of Bishop Harris is a line from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In describing himself and his unlikely calling to be an apostle of Jesus, Paul confidently declares, “By the Grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (I Corinthians 15:10)
I was always struck by how comfortable Bishop Harris was in being herself–in the way she carried herself, the way she dressed. You could always find her at House of Bishops gatherings outside the meeting room, usually smoking a cigarette with a colleague with whom she disagreed on nearly everything, grateful for the companionship across vast differences.
Bishop Harris died right as the pandemic was closing everything down. Bishop Gates and I were in conversation, knowing that there needed to be a service for her in Boston and at Washington National Cathedral. In the end, there was neither. There may be someday, but there’s also something powerful about what’s happening this week. For all around the country, as we begin to truly take stock of all that we have lost this past year, there are services like this commemorating Bishop Harris. We’re all here drawing upon her spirit and her faith to see us through.
She has moved on to better things now–going from strength to strength in the mystery of what one day awaits us all. And she is here cheering us on, reminding us now what she said so many times as she lived: the power behind us is greater than the task ahead of us.
Thank you, Barbara. May it be so.
1 Barbara C. Harris, Hallelujah Anyhow! (Church Publishing, 2018), p.57.