Friends, fans honor the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first African-American woman to be ordained by the PC(USA)
April 12, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon “would have been appalled” by the heartfelt and spirited salute she received by about 80 people gathered at an event this past winter at Second Presbyterian Church in Louisville, according to the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown.
“She didn’t seek accolades,” the Bandy Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta said in what was equal parts sermon and stirring tribute to her friend and mentor. “She just did the work.”
Cannon, a groundbreaking scholar who helped found the Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary, died last August at age 68. To honor her legacy, the Presbyterian Mission Agency has created a scholarship fund to support Presbyterian women of color, clergywomen, college women and other women with opportunities for leadership and spiritual development as well as mission opportunities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
A favorite Cannon theme, Brown said, was “widening the margins of biblical texts to allow us to see ourselves in the Bible.”
To that end, Brown preached on Numbers 27:1–7:
Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our fathers’ brothers.”
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.”
“Use your own words,” Brown advised those gathered to honor and remember Cannon. “That’s the topic for today. Words help us tell the truth, they can change lives and save humanity. Words have power.”
It took five women to change Israel, noted the Rev. John Odom, the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky’s presbyter for community life, but only one — Cannon — to change the PC(USA).
These days, Brown delivers powerful thoughtful sermons in a rapid-fire manner. But as a girl, she said, she’d hunch her shoulders and mumble. “I don’t know what your shoulders mean,” her mother would tell her. “Open your mouth and use your words.”
That’s what Zelophehad’s daughters did. “They weren’t letting anybody ‘mansplain’ for them,” Brown said. “They avoided the withering stares of people in the temple, and some of you have had to do that. Why wait for someone else to rescue you?”
Of course, speaking one’s mind sometimes means “someone is going to say, ‘You need to shut up,’ ” she said. Then Brown quoted the novelist Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Cannon was one to help her students turn aside unhelpful assumptions, Brown said.
“Dr. Cannon strove to have persons get rid of conditional stereotypes of women found in the biblical texts,” Brown said, “like sin-bringing Eve and hen-pecking Jezebel and prostituting Mary Magdalene and conspiring Sapphira.”
“I would not be here if it were not for women like she who used her own words,” Moffett said, “and had the audacity to stand flat-footed and bold in the midst of rejections.”
Moffett said the scholarship established in Cannon’s name “will make sure women of color have the opportunity to develop ourselves and become the best that God has created us to be.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
God of all creation, as we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, we give thanks for the ministries of the women of color you call and equip for Christ’s service. Amen.