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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Our Multiple Identities

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Ken Redd and Carol Boston, Worship Associates, Dayna Edwards, Director of Religious Exploration, the Chalice Dancers and the Choir

Our Multiple Identities
A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church
October 6, 2013

As you know if you read the October issue of our newsletter Branches, we have a worship theme happening this fall, with other themes coming up in the winter, spring and summer. It’s an experiment to give some shape to our worship for the year, without being too dogmatic about it.

For the fall, the theme is “identity.” We began with our Unitarian Universalist identity, starting with the Ingathering Service on September 8th and then the subsequent two services. Now we have moved into consideration of the various identities we humans have, among them gender, race and ethnicity, class, age, abilities - physical and otherwise, family roles, personality types, and levels of self-differentiation and confidence.  We will also be considering the identity of our church, its neighborhood, and our nation.

Last Sunday, the focus was gender identity. In a pulpit swap that took me to First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, their minister David Carl Olson preached here on being an ally for transgender people, a topic I asked if he would address, knowing of his good work toward the still-not- passed Transgender Rights Bill in Maryland.  Having since listened to our recording of his sermon, I now know that his commitment is deep and long-standing.

As an aside, State Delegate Jocelyn Pena-Melnyk, who represents the district in which PBUUC is sited, told me during the wedding reception for our members Kay McGraw and Carolyn Byerly a few weeks ago, that State Senate Speaker Mike Miller had promised her he would bring the bill out of committee and suggested that a group of clergy should make an appointment to meet with him and hold him to it.  I’ll be joining that delegation with Rev. Olson and the UU Legislative Ministry of MD. Stay tuned!

Today, I want to address our multiple identities. We each have many. Some we wear openly; others are hidden behind masks, as in the poem to which the Chalice Dancers danced a few moments ago, “Hiding in the Mask” by Ellen Bauer.

Like the Biblical character Joseph, whose story was told in the Together Time today, we have gender and familial identities and identities vis a vis our status or power in our context, and they may change – even back and forth – through our lives. Remember how he was favorite son, brother, slave, prisoner, dreamer/visionary, advisor to the Pharaoh, 2nd most powerful man in Egypt, and then back to brother and son at the end?

This sense of multiple identities is captured well in a poem by the long-time activist, attorney and, later, the first African American woman to be an Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray. We will explore more about this intriguing and admirable person in a few minutes, but for now here is her poem, “Prophecy.”

I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
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.

“I seek only discovery of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.” This is what Worship Associate Ken Redd seeks too. He said toward the end of his reflection, “The key thing for me is that to the greatest extent possible I get to choose what I want to be rather than have it chosen for me by someone else’s expectations.”

The poem is certainly autobiographical. Pauli Murray’s sexual and gender identity was complex, as was her racial identity. Her aspirations in life were far higher and her drive to achieve them much more daring than the norm for women, black or white, of her time. And, her universalist ideals, of rights and respect for all persons, put her in the minority politically and philosophically. She worked, her whole life – first in advocacy organizations, then in law, and finally in religion – that there would be someday the “new American” of whom she sang.

The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray came to my attention very recently, last March at a small conference at which I spoke at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, where her activist and legal accomplishments as well as her complex and challenging multiple identities were presented. Prior to then, I only knew of her as the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest, which she did in 1977, and I remember the coverage of that occasion.

However, I was fascinated by her longer story, pondered the sexism that must explain why my reading about the civil rights movement had not brought her to my attention, and resolved to share her story with you in a sermon some time. Carol Carter-Walker’s bid on my Auction Sermon, scheduled to be preached in the fall, seemed the perfect time. Fortunately, she was intrigued too! So here we are. (And let this be an invitation to you to contribute something to the Auction, like I offer a sermon).

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, and raised by her maternal aunt and grandparents in Durham NC after the death of her mother when she was only four. Murray’s grandmother had been enslaved and was the daughter of an enslaved woman who had been raped by her slave master of Irish descent. Her ancestors also included free blacks and Native Americans.

She moved to New York to finish high school and prepare for college, and lived with a cousin there. In 1933, she completed her Bachelor’s Degree in English from Hunter College, a free university of the City of New York, though she’d had to take a year’s leave for financial reasons – it was the Depression Era, after all.

In the years after until she entered Howard University’s School of Law in 1941, Murray’s experiences were wide-ranging: rejection from the University of North Carolina on the basis of race which the NAACP considered taking up in her defense but ultimately didn’t, two psychiatric hospital stays during which she asked for treatment for the feeling of being a man trapped in a woman’s body, satisfying work for several civil rights organizations and helping to start CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality; and, as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an arrest for refusing to move to the back of a Petersburg, VA bus on the way to Durham. The legal issues around that event led her to want to become a civil rights lawyer.

Murray’s legal career was groundbreaking, even as a student. At Howard, she was the only women student in her law school class, which is where she began to give the name “Jane Crow” to sexism, and she graduated first in her class in 1944. The story of how she didn’t then get to break ground at Harvard Law School is priceless. You see, although men who graduated first in their Howard University School of Law classes prior to her year had been given a fellowship for graduate work at Harvard University, Murray was rejected for it because of her gender. She wrote wittily to Harvard in response, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?

She instead earned a Masters at University of California in Berkley’s law school, and then became the state of California’s first black attorney general in 1946; and later was the first African American, male or female, to receive a J.S.D. from Yale Law School, which she did in 1965.

Her book States Laws on Race and Color published in 1950 was instrumental in the arguments that won Brown vs. the Dept of Education in 1954. And, as a member of the first US Commission on the Status of Women, to which she was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, she published an essay that launched the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment banned discrimination based on sex as well as race.

In 1963 she became one of the first to criticize the sexism of the civil rights movement. In a letter to leader of the 1963 March on Washington A. Philip Randolph, among other grievances, she criticized the fact that no women were invited to make major speeches at the March or to be part of its delegation of leaders who went to the White House after the March.

In 1965 Murray co-authored an article, Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII which drew comparisons between discriminatory laws against women and Jim Crow laws, to which future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said she was indebted in winning the 1971 Supreme Court case that for the first time extended the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women.  In 1966 Pauli Murray was a cofounder with author activist Betty Friedan of the National Organization of Women.

Then, after a six years in academia, most of it as a professor at Brandeis University, she was drawn to ministry in her Episcopalian tradition, and entered seminary; and at age 66 in 1977 she became the first African American female priest, one year the ordination of women was approved by the Episcopal Church. I love that Pauli Murray offered communion for the first time as a priest in the same church, in Chapel Hill NC, where her enslaved grandmother was baptized one hundred years prior. She worked the next seven years as a priest, most of it in Washington DC, focused mainly on ministry with the sick, and died in 1985 of cancer. She was named an Episcopal saint in 2010 for her advocacy of the universal cause of freedom and as the first African American female priest ordained by the Episcopal Church.

We know from the writings of Pauli Murray that she struggled painfully and openly from an early age with who she wanted to be around her sexual and gender identity. She sometimes wore trousers and was open about her relationships with women. She wrote that she felt she was a man trapped in a woman’s body. She referred to others as “homosexuals” but not to herself; she preferred to identify herself as having an “inverted sex instinct.” Did she just wish to be a man because she was chafing against the limits on women at the time? Or did she feel she was a man?

When she was 32, in 1943 while she was a law student, she wrote to the aunt who raised her referring to “this little boy/girl personality as you jokingly call it.” And saying, “To live by society’s standards sometimes gets me in trouble. The world doesn’t accept my pattern of life. And to try to live by society’s standards always causes me such inner conflict that at times it is almost unbearable. I don’t know whether I’m right, society’s right, or some medical authority is right. I only know how I feel and what makes me happy.”

If Pauli Murray had been born in 2010, instead of 1910, would she be freer of sexism, racism and gender-expression oppression to discover “the illimitable heights and depths of her own being” more completely and with less internal struggle? Yes, and in her law career, she helped to make it so!

If she was born in 2010 instead of 1910, would her gifted intellect and abundant energy be unleashed to do even more good in the world than she accomplished in the times in which she did live? Or, was it somehow the very ways in which she lacked power and privilege that fueled her great achievements?

From where did she get the courage to live such a determined, purposeful life? How did she do it?

She didn’t wear masks. She was as open about and expressive of who she was as was possible in her times. She overcame society’s obstacles and struggled with internal dilemmas to discover the depths and heights of who she could be, using her extraordinary talents to increase freedom for all.

Let us, too, take off the masks behind which we hide any identity around which we struggle. Whether it is our gender, race and ethnicity, class, age, abilities - physical and otherwise, family roles, personality types, or level of self-differentiation and confidence… may we be more whole tomorrow than we were yesterday.

In many ways, this is a new day. In many ways, we’ve come a long way, though we have longer to go still. For African Americans like Pauli Murray, for women like Pauli Murray, for women-loving-women like Pauli Murray, for transgender people among whom she might have counted herself had she been alive today… we have come a long way, have farther to go, and you – we – are the new day!

CHOIR sings “You Are the New Day” by John David.

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauli_Murray is a detailed, well-documented biography. The talk on Pauli Murray at the Switchpoint Stories: Tales of Sex, Race and Sexuality Conference is at


You can play an MP3 audio file of this sermon by clicking: HERE.

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