One of the reasons that the church waits until after a person has been dead for a while (usually 10-20 years) before adding an individual to the calendar of the Saints is to begin to better understand the long-term impact of their legacy. Many who lead extraordinary lives are hidden for the view of the Church for many years. Other, whose lives seem immediately praiseworthy change or even fade in retrospect. In any case, the value that we place on the witness of the Saints that we remember each week is on their timeless quality. We pray that each generation may draw something from their story.
Similarly, as I write me reflections each week, I seek to highlight the timeless and the eternal even as I can’t help but bring something of a contemporary perspective. Working on one saint per week as I do, it will take me a long time to get back around to providing new thoughts on folks. I want folks to be able to look back on these reflections in the coming years and still find them relevant to their lives.
It is difficult, though, to keep the timely and contemporary out of a reflection on Anna Cooper and Elizabeth Wright, educators and leaders in the late 19th century movements to provide African-American children and young adults with safe, high-quality education. In a time filled with so much in-school violence and violence in the broader community directed toward those of school age, we are bound to try and interpret the happenings of our days through the lens of the lives of these luminaries.
Though neither Cooper nor Wright were killed in the course of their work, their witness cannot be separated from or understood apart from the context of systematic violence and the oppression of former slaves and people of color at the turn of the 20th century. The impact of these women’s faithful action is multiplied by the bravery that they exhibited in doing their work under conditions of such danger.It is hard enough to convince an underprivileged and under-served caste of people of the value of education when you cannot even ensure their safety in obtaining it. This is, in part, why violence is such an effective tool of suppression. Risking ones life is a big deal, particularly when the potential pay-off is years or even generations down the road.
Thus, the bravery of Cooper and Wright and those who supported them and ultimately enrolled in their schools seems to me to be among their primary virtues. Risking immediate bodily harm for the promise of a better life in the future is high-stakes. It is also a potent icon for the way of Jesus.
While contemporary violence against school-aged people may not be of exactly the same character as that of the late 19th century, it runs the risk of being equally oppressive. The case for education is already difficult to make, particularly among the underprivileged and under-served. It may very well be the case that we are no longer even offering a high-quality experience in many quarters. But to further complicate these arguments by admitting that we can no-longer absolutely guarantee the safety of those who participate is both a tragedy and a travesty.
Let us give thanks, today that God continues to raise up faithful, brave servants who are willing to risk immediate bodily harm for the long-term benefits of education – both teachers and students. Then, let us pray that God will also use the witness of Cooper and Wright and the faithful witnesses that followed them to inspire the rest of us to the kinds of brave actions that might end this tragedy.