Saints and Role Models in the Struggle for Racial Justice

Jan 9, 2024 9:00:00 AM / by Jessica Davis

As the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Black History Month approach, congregations across the US are making plans for how they will mark these dates in their worship and educational offerings. One approach that has potential to inspire congregations to grow in their anti-racism efforts is highlighting the faith and work of both Black and white Christians who lived out their faith by fighting for equality.

The person most likely to come to mind when looking at Christian leaders who engaged in exemplary anti-racism work both inside and out of the church is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most American Christians today are familiar with a few of his most famous speeches and sermons, but fewer are aware of the radical egalitarian vision and call for reparations that typified his later work. White Christians in particular may have read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but may not have been challenged and equipped to make manifest his calls to direct action and breaking unjust laws.

Another important figure who has the potential to inspire individuals and congregations is Rev. Pauli Murray, JSD, a noted poet and both the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale Law and the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. (It is important to note that, while Murray used she/her pronouns at the time of ordination, in other periods, Murray used he/him pronouns and is considered by many scholars to have been a part of the transgender community.) Rev. Murray's life and work not only turned attention to the harmful effects of sexism, racism, and misogynoir, it also highlighted the struggles and joys of queer Christian community.

One white Christian leader with much to teach those seeking to grow in their anti-racism commitments is Rev. L. William Youngdahl, a Lutheran pastor who put his career on the line in an attempt to improve race relations in his local community. Youngdahl's work has the potential to be exemplary for white allies in many regards, particularly that fighting for the rights of marginalized people means being willing to give up one's own privilege and that even work that appears unsuccessful in the moment is still worthwhile. The experiences of Rev. Youngdahl, the congregation who fought his efforts, and the Black Lutherans and local community members directly affected by that work were documented in the 1966 film A Time for Burning.

The work and faith of these figures can be highlighted in our teaching and preaching, particularly the ways in which their work can influence and inspire Black congregants to demand the equality and care they deserve and white congregants to make daily commitments to radical change. Gathering to discuss “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Pauli Murray's sermons and poems, or A Time for Burning (recently re-released and available online) can spark not just conversation but real commitments to action. For faith traditions in which some anti-racist leaders have been declared saints, there is the potential for robust discussion around what sainthood means and how the lives of saints are connected to our own. And in all our communities, engaging this work has the potential to open hearts to the whispers and shouts of the Spirit that sends us out in the world together as God's body.

Topics: race, Martin Luther King Jr, MLK Day, MLK Jr, saints, Black History Month

Jessica Davis

Written by Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis, MA is a Christian educator, pastoral counselor, church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Their ministry passions include youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, they can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with their work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.


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