Preached by the Rev. Canon Renee Fenner at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009.
Good morning, saints! Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, which is undoubtedly one of the most important feasts in the Church year. All Saints is a day that calls us to prayerfully remember all those who have gone before us and to remember those who still walk among us. This morning I would like to share the story of a saint who touched my life.
Her name was Thea Bowman. She was born in the small town of Yazoo City, Mississippi. Thea was the granddaughter of a slave and an only child. Her father was a doctor whose patients paid their bills with eggs and chickens and all sorts of odd jobs. Her mother was school teacher who witnessed the poverty of children not only in the classroom but in her neighborhood and actually did something about it. Thea often told the story of her mother making tuna fish salad and placing scoops of it into ice cream cones. For some of her friends it was the only meal they had that day. The Bowmans were Methodists, so was Thea until one day she discovered a nearby Roman Catholic Church. At the age of nine years old Thea announced to her mother that she wanted to be a Catholic. When interviewed many years later, Thea said that it was not the beauty of the liturgy that drew her in. “It was not the doctrine (I didn’t know anything about that” she said); it was the witness of Catholic Christians who were really making a difference in people’s lives.” In her late teens Thea joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a Roman Catholic women’s religious order. Sr. Thea had a brilliant mind and taught in primary schools as well as at the university level. After 19 years of teaching, the bishop of Jackson, MS invited Sr. Dr. Bowman to become the consultant for the Office of Intercultural Awareness for the diocese of Jackson. Sr. Thea accepted the bishop’s invitation and worked feverishly to break down racial and cultural barriers. She was a strong advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised and spoke often about literacy and healthcare for all. She also made it her life’s mission to share her African American heritage and spirituality “in song, prayer, teaching, and preaching.” Boy, that woman could preach! By the time I met her in 1989 she had already been diagnosed with breast cancer. Did that slow her down? No! She only worked harder to bring people closer to God. And she had a knack for bringing out the best in us. She used to say: “You have a gift. You have a talent. Find your gift, find your talent and use it. You can make this world better by letting your light shine and doing your part. You can help somebody just by caring about somebody, just by loving somebody. And then when you get through showing them how much you love them, sometimes folks need to hear it, so make sure you tell them, I love you, I love you, I love you. I really, really, really, really love you!”*
To Thea, it didn’t matter if you were black, white, purple or green. It didn’t matter if you were male, female, gay or straight. It didn’t matter if you were Roman Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, or Jewish, if you had a church or no church at all. Everyone was a child of God!
In spite of the pain from the cancer that later riddled her bones, Sr. Thea, though wheelchair bound, was a constant source of hope as she traveled from one corner of these United States to other and from one continent to the other with a message of inclusion, of tolerance, of inspiration, and of joy in the Lord. Thea was not afraid to challenge laity and bishops alike. When she could no longer travel she taught from her sickbed. When asked about her impending death she would simply say, “I am going to live until I die.” That is what she did. My friend and mentor died in late March of 1990 at the age of 52.
Today are many schools, centers, and organizations named after this amazing woman. Sr. Thea Bowman is not an official canonized saint though I am told that her congregation, the Franciscan sisters, and others are making a case for Thea’s canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. Regardless of whether her name goes through that rigorous process or not-she is a saint to many. I admire her not only for her strength and courage but for the way she pointed everyone to Christ. She always reminded her hearers to let their lights shine. “Your light is supposed to shine!” she would say. “Don’t hide it under a basket!” Then with a chuckle she would sing, “Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!” Her life fits one of the best definitions of a saint I’ve ever read. It comes from the former dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, the Rev. Alan Jones who once said, “Saints are those persons whose lives are so transparent to God that God’s light shines through them into the life of the world, and into its structures, organizations, and programs.” That is just so right on!
There is a great story of a mother and young son who stopped to pray in a church that had many beautiful stained-glass windows. The boy kept interrupting his mother’s prayers, asking her who was pictured in this and that window. The mother would explain, “That’s St. Joseph.” “That’s St. Andrew.” The boy was silent for a moment, then he said, “I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a saint.” “Why, Billy,” the mother replied, “you don’t even know what a ‘saint’ is.” “I do so,” the boy said. “A saint is a person the sun shines through.”
Have you known people like this? Whose lives are so transparent that all you can see is God’s radiance? Perhaps we do a disservice to this Feast of All Saints when we ONLY remember those saints who are immortalized in stained-glass and stone or whose names appear in our calendar.
Look around you. Go ahead, look around you and see all the other people sitting in this service. There are people you know and people you don’t know at all. There is probably someone or perhaps a few someone(s) you know by sight but for whatever reason you’ve never gotten a chance to speak to. See the visitors and guests among us. Now, think of those persons who are away today and those who cannot be here because of illness or infirmity and other reasons. Think of those persons who were once part of this community who have moved away. Imagine the thousands of people who have been a part of Christ Church Cathedral for 190 years. Now, imagine those yet to come. And finally think for a moment of those you have personally loved, whose lives touched yours in some way, who have gone home to God. ALL of these people, all of us, are members of the communion of saints we honor this day.
Today let us remember that there is nothing that keeps you and I from being saints in this journey called life. There is nothing that can keep us from living godly lives except living selfishly for ourselves. There is nothing that can keep God’s radiance from shining forth in us. Let us each continue to reflect God’s glory in this world. And let God’s light/your light shine. “Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”
*taken from “Thea Bowman: In My Own Words”, compiled and edited by the Rev. Dr. Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R., page 73.
For further reading on the life and witness of Sr. Thea Bowman please see:
“Thea Bowman-Handing on Her Legacy”, edited by Christian Koontz, R.S.M., Sheed & Ward (a service of National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, Inc.), 1991
“Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches”, edited by Celestine Cepress, FSPA, forward by Mike Wallace, St. Mary’s Press, 1993.