Shafts of Light, I: Mary McLeod Bethune
Bill, Katie, and I are excited to begin a new sermon series beginning today. Each week we will highlight one of the groups extraordinary, faithful individuals, whose faces shine through the Malott chapel windows upstairs.
The title of this sermon series is taken from the eulogy honoring today’s subject, Mary McLeod Bethune. The eulogy was given by Black theologian and preacher Howard Thurman who said that Dr. Bethune had the remarkable ability to turn every frustration and handicap into a “burning shaft of light.” The first three verses from the first Psalm will inspire us today.
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
This coming July, a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, carved of marble from the same quarry as Michelangelo’s David, is scheduled to be added to the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. She will be just one of 10 women represented in the 100 Statue Collection, and the only African American. The state of Florida chose Dr. Bethune to replace their statue of confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith.
Florida’s statue selection illustrates our nation’s ongoing struggle to understand what it means to live in what historians have called “the central paradox of American history,” —to live in the complexity of a country whose founders erected a structure of freedom that serves as a beacon of hope around the world —alongside a brutal system of slavery.
Dr. Bethune, whose long list of accomplishments includes being the only female founder of a historically Black college, Bethune Cookman University in Florida, knew well this paradox of freedom and slavery. Born in 1875, she was the fifteenth of seventeen children, and the first of her siblings born free.
While visiting the house of her parents’ former master the young Mary picked up a book. One of the white children made it clear that Mary could not read. This instilled in her a burning desire for education. When a mission school opened five miles away, Mary got her chance. What Mary learned, she came home and taught to her brothers and sisters, as the family could only afford one child’s education.
Thanks to a scholarship from a Quaker seamstress from Denver, Mary was able to attend Scotia Seminary, and then Moody Bible Institute here in Chicago in 1894—just two years after the founding of Kenilworth Union. She was the only African American student at Moody. Later in Dr. Bethune’s life she reflected on the scholarship that opened a way for her, “To this day my heart thrills with gratitude at the memory of that day when a poor dressmaker, sewing for her daily bread, heard my call and came to my assistance. Out of her scanty earning, she invested in a life—my life!”
Out of her own desire to invest in the lives of Black children who had little access to education in the post-civil war south, Mary opened her school for girls in 1904, with just $1.50 for a down payment, about $30 today, and 5 students. The school continued to grow under her leadership; almost 3,000 students attend the university today.
The young Mrs. Bethune had both a vision and the uncanny ability to persuade others to participate in it. Through the Black workers who labored in the vacation homes of Daytona’s wealthy, Bethune began to network. She connected with James Gamble, of Proctor and Gamble, asking him to become a “trustee of her dream.” He was the first chairman of the school’s board. Over the years Dr. Bethune enlisted the support of an astounding list of well known wealthy families including the Astors, Guggenheims, and Marshall Field III.
As the school grew, Dr. Bethune promoted integration when the south was deeply segregated. Blacks and Whites were seated together as they arrived for the Sunday Temperance meetings and student concerts. But even her impressive connections could not shield her from racism.
In 1917 Mary McLeod Bethune’s efforts to organize voter registration angered the Klan, who came to her school in the night, torches flaming. She stood steadfast, the frightened students sang hymns, and eventually, impossibly the Klan left.
She was a champion of education, human rights, and democracy. Her impact and influence steadily grew to the national stage as she became the first African American woman to hold a federal post when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as administrator to the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration. At Roosevelt’s second inauguration, she refused to be seated at the back remarking how “vitally important” it was to be there as an example to others. Later in her life she carried President Roosevelt's cane, a gift to her from her dear friend Eleanor.
I encourage you to pick up a copy of her biography at the library to learn more about her involvement in the integration of the Red Cross, the women’s armed services, and her role as the Vice President of the NAACP. She eventually reached a level of international influence as the only African American woman present at the 1945 conference to draft the United Nations Charter in San Francisco. She accomplished more than many of us can imagine—and did in the early 1900’s—a time when the voting rights of women and African Americans were severely limited.
Her fortitude and her influence cannot be overstated. Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955, just 9 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Decades before the Civil Rights Movement we are more familiar with, she transformed obstacles into “Burning shafts of light,” shafts of light which shone brightly for Dr. Thurman, Dr. King and many who have sought justice over more than a century of United States history.
Dr. Bethune is one of four women featured on the Willet Stained Glass Window commissioned by this church to represent “Fortitude and Patience.” Where did her impressive and formidable strength come from? In many of her writings and letters, especially her spiritual autobiography, Dr. Bethune made it clear that God was the source of her strength and faith, in spite of the fact, that even in the church she fought against racism and segregation. She served as a delegate to the merger between the northern and southern Methodist churches that had split over slavery.
Dr. Bethune’s life embodies the truth of today’s scripture: that those who delight in God’s teachings, who find their strength in God, planting themselves firmly by streams of living water, will grow into strong trees. Trees able to withstand the toughest seasons; trees that bear fruit for the generations to come. Like the Beatitudes, Psalm 1 does not promise life without struggle. Dr. Bethune faced enormous struggles. Instead hope and happiness are found in pursuing the righteous path, of looking beyond our own needs to work for the betterment of our community, our nation, and our world.
If you visit the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Park, you will see her handing a copy of her legacy to two Black children. She knew that creating a just society, one that reflected the kingdom of God, was work that stretched beyond one person and one lifetime. She knew she was part of a story greater than herself—God’s story.
As the United States entered World War II, she spoke on NBC’s “Town Meeting of the Air”, sharing her belief in democracy, even as she said, African Americans “live too often in terror of the lynch mob; are deprived too often of the Constitutional right of suffrage; and are humiliated too often by the denial of civil liberties. ...Our faith envisions a fundamental change as mutual respect and understanding between our races come in the path of spiritual awakening.”
Violence, including racially motivated violence, voting rights issues, and denial of civil liberties are also heartbreaking realities today. Those who selected the individuals shining in the Malott chapel windows had great foresight. Dr. Bowen wrote in a 1993 Children’s Ministry newsletter that the hope was that these individuals would be the people the children of Kenilworth Union Church might idealize and follow.
The window choices prompted me to reflect on what was happening in the 1990s. At that time I was a student at Northwestern, doing my field education in Chicago Public Schools, which had just been named the “worst in America.” Alex Kotlowitz had just written a heart wrenching biography of two young boys living in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, titling it, “There are no children here.” And some of you may remember, throughout 1993, violence raged. So much so that the front page of the Chicago Tribune included the story of every child that was killed.
As I reflected upon the similarities between Dr. Bethune’s era, the time the windows were installed, and the period we live in now, I see the same intertwined injustices in each.
Yes, Dr. Bethune saw education as a balm to heal many of the nations’ wounds. But do not think of her only as an educator. Her work for suffrage, her founding of a hospital, and her international influence testify to the fact that she knew education was vitally important—but alone not enough to dismantle systemic racism.
In 1937 Dr. Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt did a short radio discussion on what they called America’s “imperfect democracy.” Together they named the need for “people of all nations and creeds to understand one another that they might participate in the struggle for human rights and interracial understanding.”
That same need exists today, eighty-four years later, when the lives and livelihoods of people of color are at risk daily. In 1993 this congregation knew the complexity of the world we continue to live in and they—YOU—chose a hero that could illuminate God’s path of justice for generations to come. Dr. Bethune's life and character are deep and rich enough to help us struggle with the paradox and complexity of the world we live in.
Now, the hour has come for us. Our faith calls us to use whatever power and privilege God has entrusted us for the betterment of all people. If Dr. Bethune can start an institution of higher education with $1.50 and a dream, surely we can invest in the lives of children today. If the first free child born of slaves can rise to lead a federal department that created educational opportunities for tens of thousands, surely we can exercise our right to vote and work to ensure the rights of others. If a Black woman in 1917 can stare down the Ku Klux Klan threatening her school, certainly we can condemn racism and violence when we witness it.
Thanks be to God for the gifts of our faith ancestors. For Dr. Bethune’s enduring legacy, and for those who in 1993 had the vision for stained glass windows filled with “shafts of light,” shafts of light who continue to illuminate the way of the righteous and point us toward God, the source of our fortitude and strength. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Cascone, Sarah, “A Statue of an African American Will Replace a Confederate General in the US Capitol,” https://news.artnet.com/art-world/us-capitols-statuary-hall-gets-first-statue-african-american-replacing-confederate-general-1249463.
Ruane, Michael E., “Freedom and Slavery: The Central Paradox of American History,” The Washington Post, April 30,2019.
Long,Nancy Ann Zrinyi, Mary McLeod Bethune: Her Life and Legacy, 7.
Aloui, Sarah, “Championing Equality At Home and Oversees: African Americans Leading the UN,” https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/championing-equality-at-home-and-overseas-african-americans-leading-at-the-un/
Bethune, Mary McLeod, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air: What does democracy mean to me?” https://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/mmbethune.html.
Aloui, Sarah, “Championing Equality At Home and Oversees: African Americans Leading the UN,” UNFoundation.org
Bethune, Mary McLeod, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air: What does democracy mean to me?” accessed on American Radioworks.
Cascone, Sarah, “A Statue of an Afircan American Will Replace a Confederate General in the US Capitol,’” Artnet.com
Long,Nancy Ann Zrinyi, Mary McLeod Bethune: Her Life and Legacy.
“Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt Comment on America’s Imperfect Democracy,” New York Public Radio.
Ruane, Michael E., “Freedom and Slavery: The Central Paradox of American History,” The Washington Post, April 30,2019.
Roosevelt Interview: https://www.wnyc.org/story/209566-mary-mcleod-bethune/
Thomans, A. and Smith, Elaine, Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World - Essays and Selected Documents.