Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more

For St. Margaret and All the Forgotten Women

For the past four years, I have been staring at this image of St. Margaret of Antioch. It hangs on the wall of a church called by her name, where I was the Associate Rector for Youth Formation until a few weeks ago. The image shows St. Margaret standing on the dragon that she is said to have defeated. Everyone in the church knows that part of her story. We even jokingly call ourselves “the church of the Dragon-slayer.” Yet until recently, very few of us knew much more about her than that, including me.

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Meeting the Saints, or The Power of Saintly Kitsch

OurCloudImageI have never been a person with a lot of idols. I don’t mean the golden calf variety. I mean the role model sort.

There are lots of women I look up to, lots of priests I admire, lots of people who do something I see and think, “I’d like to do that, too.” But I realized, one or two years into my ordained life, that part of my problem is that in my particular pinky of the Body of Christ, young women have never been ordained before. When women were first ordained in the 1970s, they were generally older—with families, careers, lives already established. The pendulum didn’t swing back to allow younger, first career women until very recently. So there’s no road map for how to be a young woman and a full-time religious person, all at the same time. I spend a lot of time fussing at the Church for being confused by my female, ordained presence, when neither the church nor I had many models for how this was supposed to look. (I mean, what should I wear, for starters?!)

Then I started hanging out with the saints.

I became a Celebrity Blogger for Lent Madness in the summer of 2012. I was ecstatic.

Lent Madness, for the uninitiated, is an online devotional styled after the basketball tournament of similar name (yet which is trademarked, so I can’t namecheck it here). Each day during Lent, two saints “compete,” as their respective bloggers write and post their biographies. Readers vote on which saint they feel is more deserving, and the winning saint advances to the next round of the bracket until finally, only one saint remains to claim the Golden Halo. It is educational, a lot of fun, and the only place on the internet where I can stand to read the comments.

Writing for Lent Madness introduced me to a whole cast of characters who were wholly holy, warts and all. There is a round in the contest based on Saintly Kitsch, in which we must find the weirdest pieces of nonsense that people have associated with a saint. Harriet Tubman on a throw pillow! Brigid’s own brand of beer! Egeria on a postage stamp! For some folks, that’s the round that drives them away. There are comments every year saying how disrespectful the whole thing is, questioning how we can live with ourselves, claiming that true saintly people never drank beer, etc.

But this quickly became my favorite round. Far from tarnishing the image of each saint, for me this exercise in kitsch served to fill out the saints and make them real people, with quirks, baggage, and hang-ups aplenty. None of the people I wrote about were perfect, yet each one shone the light of Christ into the world even through their foibles. It was like the kitsch was a parade of their humanness. The more ridiculous the stuff a saint was associated with, the more approachable they became.

Through all of Lent, year after year, round after round, the saints became real people to me: people who got frustrated, made decisions (both wise and unwise), were loved and hated in their turn. It turns out, they were much more interesting than the endless parade of pious nuns and martyred virgins I had expected. I found in them the role models I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere. Brigid, who bought her own freedom from slavery and then marched across Ireland to free her mother, too, is often said to be the first female bishop thanks to divine intervention. Harriet Tubman not only led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom, she also was a spy and a captain in the Union army for years. When the government finally paid her, decades later, she used her earnings to build a retirement home for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Egeria traveled across the known world—by herself, in the 4th century—because she wanted to know more about other Christians in other places. Lydia ran her own business (producing dye from snails!) and funded and led Paul’s ministry in Philippi.

These saints dealt with life, not as frail flowers walled off somewhere, but as thinking, feeling people who had ideas, hopes, and dreams as varied as they themselves were. They wanted to make a difference. They wanted to follow their faith. They wanted to follow Christ, wherever he led, whatever that meant in their lives, and they would do it in their own way, no matter what. They put their whole selves into their walk with Christ—quirks, idiosyncrasies, and all—and the world was a better place for it.

Those are role models I can relate to.