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"The Way of Authority: Mary McLeod Bethune" Sermon from Sunday, October 11, 2020

Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking

Message: "The Way of Authority: Mary McLeod Bethune

Sermon Transcript

In August 2013 I was in Washington, DC with my son John and sister-in-law Kim, preparing to speak at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The day before the event, speakers were required to go to the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women to pick up passes for themselves and their guests. We made our way to the site of the NCNW offices which sits on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the buildings of Congress.

Inside the building I noticed a bust of Mary Mcleod Bethune. I knew Ms. Bethune had been a Methodist, and that she was a founder of the Methodist-related Bethune-Cookman University, one of the most respected of historically Black universities and colleges. I knew she had been an educator and reformer, but the breadth of her life’s work and achievements I was unaware of.

Mary Mcleod Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina to parents who had been enslaved. Bethune left South Carolina for North Carolina where she graduated from Scotia Seminary then went on to Chicago to attend Christian evangelist Dwight Moody’s Institute for Foreign and Home Missions. Upon graduation with no church willing to sponsor her as a missionary, she became an educator.

A woman of faith, there was no doubt in her mind that she was called to bring opportunity and equality to Black persons and especially to women. In addition to being one of the founders of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, she founded the National Council of Negro Women which was the first non-governmental organization to have status at the United Nations, and was vice-president of the NAACP from the time she was 65 until her death at age 80. She was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and had the ear of both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, being appointed to high federal posts by each.

In 1974, a statue of her was erected in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Park, across a courtyard from a statue of Lincoln himself. It took no small amount of organizing to have the statue of Lincoln turned 180 degrees so that Bethune and Lincoln were face to face rather than her looking at his back for eternity.

One of her successors as President of the National Council of Negro Women was Dr. Dorothy Height, who was famously denied the stage at the original March on Washington by the all male organizing committee. The building where the NCNW is now housed is named the Height Building after her.

And this is the building where speakers were told to pick up their tickets, the building that housed the famed organization that Bethune started and Height also led. It was an interesting choice, when the ticket pick up could have happened in any number of buildings, some much closer to the site of the event. The proverbial house that Bethune built was where this important piece of admission was conferred.

I have to wonder if it was intentional. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was organized by the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolence and Social Change with the lead organizer for the event being Bernice King, executive director of the Center and King’s youngest daughter. Was Bernice King trying to right a past wrong, saying implicitly, Black women were barred from speaking 50 years ago but today, to even get through the gate, you must pay homage to Dorothy Height and Mary McLeod Bethune. Maybe the women were kept from speaking in 1963, but 50 years later, if you were going to speak, you had to go through the women first!

Our scripture today from the book of James which you heard Abby read, is about a kind of gatekeeping that grants access based on symbols of power or place in society. Hear these words from James again, “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Bethune was a different kind of gatekeeper. She stood for the door being open for all people, but she held it wider for those who were disenfranchised, those who were poor, those who experienced the weight of systemic and interpersonal oppression.

One of the remarkable things about Mary McLeod Bethune, though she herself came from humble origins, she did not ascribe any particular weight or offer additional respect to the many persons of wealth and power with whom she worked and organized. They, like she, were laborers in the fields of the Lord, beloved children of God.

Mary McLeod Bethune’s authority was not based on wealth or inheritance. Her authority is what we call moral authority. The power with which she spoke was based on absolute confidence in the promises of God, that love was love and each person’s worth was a God-given gift. She enjoyed teaching and spending time with poor Black children, fearlessly faced white opponents (and sometimes converted them through loving welcome), and confidently walked into the White House to advise the President and First Lady.

Returning to the scripture, James continues, “Listen, my dear siblings: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom God promised to those who love God?” And we see that not only are we to live out a radical equality with respect to all persons, but that in fact, God’s priority, like Bethune’s, is for the poor.

This can be a hard paradox for the non-poor to accept. Used to having and getting, used to the idea that God loves all of us the same, we startle at the idea that God would have a priority for the poor. But it was this paradox that Mary McLeod Bethune understood—that not only was no one better than she but that as long as there was social inequality, she had authorization from God to address and eliminate that inequality. As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has written, “In the Bible, poverty is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God.”[1]

The tension of this paradox has been present in Methodism from the beginning. John Wesley the eighteenth century Anglican priest felt that the Church of England was too focused on the social hierarchy of the day. He felt that the message of grace and love was not reaching the miners, the laborers, those who did not feel welcome in a church or parish that expected, whether implicitly or explicitly, a level of material wealth expressed in dress and custom. And so he went to the fields, the mines and the pubs and preached inviting all into a radical fellowship of equality and a crusade to eliminate poverty, social stratification, and other forms of inequality to the glory of God. And out of this moral authority, the Methodist church was born.

Mary McLeod Bethune proceeded in this tradition with this authority. And yet that same Methodist church, our Methodist church, still struggled with, still struggles with to this day, the centering of those with status and power. In 1844, the church with the founder who preached abolition of slavery had become conformed to the way of America and could not find the moral authority to maintain the abolitionist struggle with singleness of purpose. The church split into north and south. Sixty years later, when talks of reunification began, Mary McLeod Bethune vehemently argued for one unified church. Had we listened to her voice of moral authority we would be a stronger, more faithful church today. Instead the central jurisdiction that segregated African American Methodists from white Methodists was created when northern and southern Methodist reunified into the Methodist Episcopal Church.

But Mary McLeod Bethune, true to her gift and way of authority, led the Committee on Woman’s Work of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was determined that organized women in the Methodist Church would be unified across jurisdictional lines. Black women organized for mission would take their rightful place in a single, national Methodist women’s movement.[2]

Until days before her death, Mary McLeod Bethune was serving and organizing for the vision of a world God gave to us, where the equal worth of all was honored, and a preferential option for the poor until that world was realized. Her last will and testament is an ongoing gift and a symbol of her way of authority. She wrote, “Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams – full equality for [Black persons] in our time – is realized. Yet, I face that reality without fear or regrets. I am resigned to death as all humans must be at the proper time. Death neither alarms nor frightens one who has had a long career of fruitful toil. The knowledge that my work has been helpful to many fills me with joy and great satisfaction.”

She went on to say that her worldly possessions were few, but she had deeded her house “to the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation for research, interracial activity and the sponsorship of wider educational opportunities.” She wrote, “So, as my life draws to a close, I will pass … on to [African Americans] everywhere in the hope that an old woman's philosophy may give them inspiration. Here, then is my legacy:

I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you finally, a responsibility to our young people.”

She closed with this, “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love.” May we as co-laborers toward the kin-dom of God inherit her way of authority and continue pursuing the world she knew was possible. Amen.

[1] Gustavo Gutierez, A Theology of Liberation, p. 165 [2]



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