By Elizabeth Cunningham
My father was an activist and an Episcopal priest, like his father before him. The memorial plaque for my grandfather at the church where he served is emblazoned with a passage from Matthew 25: “I was naked and ye clothed me, hungry and ye gave me to eat…inasmuch as ye have done it onto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it onto me.” My grandfather served in an urban parish throughout the Depression and literally fed and clothed the hungry and displaced every day.
My mother did not want to raise children in the city. From 1954 my father served in a small town church until he left in 1966 to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity in the War on Poverty. Even before then, his parish ministry was activist. He organized a team ministry in the diocese. He joined the fire department and was the first Episcopal priest to attend Roman Catholic funerals and wakes.
He was also a Civil Rights activist. He integrated the once all-white congregation. He answered Martin Luther King’s challenge to his fellow clergymen in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” joining the march from Selma to Birmingham. When he returned, he preached a sermon, which I read at his memorial service. He wrote of a canteen passing from black to white lips and spoke of that canteen as “taking on the meaning of the chalice.”
When the Office of Economic Opportunity folded, my father did not return to fulltime parish ministry. He did supply work, taught school, but his activism continued. In his retirement, he formed an interfaith coalition whose (successful) mission was to build low-income senior housing.
His personal life was more complicated. My parents’ marriage was unhappy. My father drank heavily. He could be verbally and physically abusive to his children. Does that make him a hypocrite? My answer is no. His gifts as an activist and a priest were real. My mother always told me that I was like him—even though he very clearly disliked what he saw in me. I have tried and failed to be like him, as an activist, my whole life.
From an early age, I wanted to be a writer. My father discouraged me, telling me I knew nothing, that I ought to be a social worker and perhaps when I was forty I would have something to say. When I persisted, he shamed me (as I later learned his father shamed him for the same ambition). He tore apart anything I was foolish enough to show him. When I wrote my first novel, he declared I would never be published. I don’t think he read any of my books till near death. He left a bookmark in a page where a fictional daughter confronts a father with her stubborn, angry love.
I have been to my share of demonstrations; I’ve volunteered in prisons. I’ve taken direct action training. But I’ve never felt like myself holding a placard or chanting slogans. I have never put in the time or effort to be an organizer. Then came Standing Rock. I saw a video of a Lakota elder making an appeal to clergy to come and stand in solidarity. Now ordained myself, I immediately thought of my father answering King’s “letter from a Birmingham jail.” I went. I helped sort donations of clothes and food, but I never made it to the frontlines, though the witness of the ongoing movement for indigenous sovereignty has had a lasting impact on my awareness.
I often think of my father, who died in 2003 just before the US invasion of Iraq. How incensed he would have been by the resurgence of unabashed racism and xenophobia unleashed by Trump’s presidency. If he’d lived, he would be turning 100 years old. If he could, he would be marching in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He would no doubt be working on voting rights. I do what I can to support all these causes, but I am coming to accept that I will never believe I do enough.
There is one thing I do every day: pray. Out loud. It takes a while, because I try to remember by name everyone I can. One meaning, for me, of prayer is remembrance. I pray to, with, and for the spirit that lives in all things. I pray for all our relations, all life, as well as rivers, seas, soil, air. I pray for all who have lost home and habitat. All who suffer in mind, body, or spirit, all who respond to that suffering. I pray for all who mourn, rage, or live in fear. I pray for all people in positions of power that their eyes, ears, minds and hearts may open to justice and compassion, I pray for us to be and to choose leaders who are honest and humble. I pray for all activists—and I pray for all contemplatives.
I am skeptical of my prayers, of prayer itself, having once heard that no one should pray unless prepared to be the answer to a prayer. Some images have come to me about the meaning of prayer—that it is like the roots of trees that are all connected underground. Trees can send help to other trees, even very far away, through the mycelium that connects the roots. The other image is a waterfall, falling continuously, hollowing out of rock a place for a clear, deep pool.
I don’t know what my father would have thought of my prayer practice or if I would have told him about it. When I was writing a novel, long after my father’s death, that featured a character based on him, I discovered a prayer for the newly bereaved that my father had typed on onionskin paper and slipped into his prayer book. I offer it in remembrance of him:
“Dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who didst weep outside the tomb of thy friend, comfort those who mourn. Be with us in this place of dust and grief where the glass is still dark and we cannot see clearly….”
Elizabeth Cunningham’s most recent novel is the numinous thriller, All the Perils of This Night. She has published four collections of poems and eight other novels, including The Maeve Chronicles, an award-winning series featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute. She lives in the valley of the Mahicantuck, the river that flows two ways.