Katie Cannon

by | Aug 13, 2018

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel.

Micah 5:2a

Today I intended to write about the Presbyterian Church’s tradition and perspective on civic engagement.  While some live by a popular rule to never discuss religion and politics, those of us from the Reformed tradition have believed otherwise, which may be why we’re known for our vigorous and persistent debates.  We cannot forget that our theological forebear, John Calvin, was trained in the law and held great political and religious influence in Geneva, Switzerland.  As Reformed Christians, we believe not only in praying for a blessed afterlife, but also engaging in the world to carry out Christ’s mission of justice and compassion.

I wanted to point to some helpful resources from the PC(USA) in case you and your church are interested in promoting open and fair elections this November.  There is a list of resources to consult on issues related to voter education, voter registration, and guidelines for churches to act as 501(c)(3) non-profits; you can find it here.

For a summary of what is and is not permissible, you can consult the Election Checklist from bolderadvocacy.org.

I know many of our churches open their doors as polling places, which is great.  If you are interested in partnering with another church in providing nonpartisan workshops or other election support activities, please let me or Wendy Gist know.

I also wanted to remind folks that we have the great opportunity to hear first-hand from a leader in Haiti who coordinates local work in promoting agriculture, environmental improvements, clean water, and education.  What a great benefit it is to have Fabienne Jean, coordinator of Hands Together Foundation, come to our Presbytery this September.  Please contact Liz Daley of Calvary Presbyterian in South Pasadena if you want to invite Ms. Jean and World Mission Co-Worker Cindy Correll to your church September 22-26.  Scroll down for more information, and contact Liz at Liz@Daley.name to schedule a visit.

Another timely opportunity is coming up August 23, 9 am—noon.  The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health is holding a light networking breakfast for local faith leaders—pastors, staff, and volunteers.  The presentation is on “Spirituality and Mental Health:  What can we learn from each other?” and will be presented by John M. Warrington, PhD.  The County has some good resources on working with those struggling with mental illness, especially among our homeless population, and they have occasionally reached out to provide resources to our churches.  I recommend you attend this, as these workshops don’t happen often.  The meeting is at Covina Community Church, 1551 E. Old Badillo Street, Covina 91724.  RSVP by August 20 to Evelyn Lemus at ELemus@dmh.lacounty.gov or (626) 430-2937 or Vicki Xu at yxu@dmh.lacounty.gov or (626) 430-2938.

But today, I want to honor Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, who passed away of leukemia last Wednesday.  Most recently, Katie was the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia, and a foremost scholar of womanist theology and ethics.  By raising the voices of African-American women, she enriched the Christian church in ways only God can quantify.  Katie was ordained in 1974, the first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Several people, especially women of color, have shared memories of Katie and her impact on their lives and ministry, among them Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Rev. Dr. Rhashell Hunter, director of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries.  Rev. T. Denise Anderson, recent co-moderator of the General Assembly, wrote a beautiful remembrance of Dr. Cannon, remembering the liberating moment when she heard her say “Even when they call your truth a lie, tell it anyway! Tell it anyway!”

Denise writes:

The moment I heard her say that, that was the moment my truth-telling ministry began. That was the day I stopped trying to shrink myself to fit a mold that was too small for me. That was the day I lost my appetite for the crumbs that fall from the table. That was the day I grabbed my chair, pulled it to the table and took my seat. . . .

If you have ever benefited from the ministerial leadership of black women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), you have Katie Geneva Cannon to thank for that. She opened the door for us. She gave this church pastors, chaplains, theologians, professors, ethicists, executives — and moderators. She was the midwife to our ministries. In telling her story, she gave us permission and courage to tell our own.

I had my own brief and empowering encounter with Dr. Cannon, who was tireless and generous in her work to support not only her students at seminary, but so many people around our church, especially those who were not sure this church was open to us.  I was helping to host a meeting of Presbyterian women college students, and Katie was there to share her wisdom and encouragement.  Katie had a way of being real in all that God made her—an academic, a pastor, a theologian, yes, but she never forgot that her roots, her identity, came from her Black Presbyterian family in rural North Carolina.  She shared her sharp wit as she navigated the sometimes hostile waters of academia, uncharted by Black women until she came along.  She shared how, as among the first African-American women to earn a PhD from Union Theological Seminary in New York, professors would question her intelligence, writing on her papers, “Good work.  Who helped you with this paper?”  She also critiqued the narrowness of the Western academic tradition, including the common expectation that theologians study German, saying “I wondered why I needed to learn German in order to write about poor Black women in the South.”  Finally, I always smile at her family’s adventures attending the wedding of her nephew, Nick Cannon, to singer Mariah Carey!

As I reflect on her life, I marvel at the ways that God can work through all of us in amazing ways, and how that work can be magnified through the lives we touch.  God delights especially in working through those of us who are young and small like the shepherd-king David, or unimportant places like Bethlehem, the little country of Israel, or even young Black girls from Kannapolis, North Carolina, like Katie Cannon.

I close with the woman who inspired me to write this column, because she herself wrote a moving tribute to her mentor.  Dr. Charlene Jin Lee, a Korean-American scholar, had a deep connection with Katie Cannon from her time as a PhD student at Union Virginia.  She writes:

It was my first doctoral seminar in Dr. Cannon’s classroom on the second floor of Watts Hall where I found my voice. The agency and substance of my voice. Dr. Cannon amplified it by adding hers to mine then fading away until one day I heard the fullness of my solo sound, at times with boom boom, surprising myself at the cadence and rhythm of my own truths. . . .

She is the kind of teacher-woman-scholar I want to emulate. And in the years since, in every classroom, behind every lectern and pulpit, I have made my earnest attempt. . . . I realize that what I was ultimately emulating was her radical generosity, genuine curiosity, deliberate attention: her love. There was poetry in her majestic, humble way.

In gratitude for Dr. Cannon’s generosity, Charlene shared some of the wisdom she remembers:

Prepare. Always prepare. Go prepared. You must be doubly prepared, for you are required to be expert of the truth occupying the structural center and expert of your own truth: “Read even when the lights are out.”

Listen. Listen attentively. But don’t listen for too long. Speak. Interrupt. Announce!

Don’t be stingy with time for people, for conversation, for relationship.

Don’t be stingy with affirmation and encouragement.

“People’s rejection is God’s protection.”

It is possible to be simultaneously an astute theologian, a church woman, a lover. All with integrity.

And I say, Read Katie’s Canon! (especially, Appendix: Exposing My Home Point of View).

Charlene Jin Lee is in fact carrying out Katie Cannon’s legacy.  I met Charlene when she joined the SFTS faculty here in Southern California.  She taught the incoming seminarians in the integrated “Introduction to Ministry” course that, according to several students, was a life-changing experience for them.  She also teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at SFTS, again helping experience pastors to open their eyes to their identity, their calling, as practical theologians.  Charlene has returned to church work, now at Brentwood Presbyterian, as well as sharing her life with husband Rev. Dr. James Lee, president of International Theological Seminary and their three children.

Consider the people who have been impacted directly by Katie Cannon, and the countless people whose faith lives have been formed and affirmed by them.  All from one Black woman from the rural South.  What an example of God’s glory shining forth throughout Christ’s church!

May you take up your place in spreading the life-giving love of Jesus Christ in your life, and may you have a glimpse of the ways your story has lifted up the lives of others.

Thank God for Katie Cannon, and thank God for you,