Harriet Tubman, Pride, and Black Lives Matter: How Far We’ve Come, How Far We Have to Go

Fr. Bryan Massingale

Today’s post is from Father Bryan Massingale, a theology professor who holds the James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics at Fordham University, New York.  An openly gay priest, Fr. Massingale has written and preached extensively on racial justice, and also on LGBTQ topics.  In recent weeks, he has been the leading Catholic voice responding to the series of killings of African American citizens which has mobilized the Black Lives Matter movement.

The liturgical readings for today’s Feast of Corpus Christi can be found by clicking here.

They tell a story about Harriet Tubman, the famed Black fugitive slave, who became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and helped hundreds of the enslaved escape to freedom.

The story is of why she carried a gun on her missions.  Near the end of her life, someone asked how often she used it to defend herself from slave patrollers and bounty hunters.  She is said to have answered, with a gleam in her eye, that the gun wasn’t for the bounty hunters, but for the escapees.  She explained that the journey to freedom was long and challenging, full of hardship and danger, uncertainty and fear.  And it would happen that some wanted to give up and return to the familiar place they left.  But doing so would put everyone else in danger.  compromising the safety of those on the road to freedom.

Harriet Tubman

It was then that Harriet would pull out her gun, declaring, “You will live free or die!” and force the frightened to keep going.  Once they were on the road to freedom, she would not allow them to turn back.

In the first reading of today’s liturgy, we see the Israelites after their freedom from enslavement and rescue at the Red Sea.  But between Egypt (enslavement) and the Promised Land (fulfillment) was “the wilderness” – a place of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty.  Here they wandered anxiously, unsure of the when or where of their journey’s end,

Over and over, they grumbled and complained, “We want to go back.  It was easier in Egypt.  We knew what to expect.  Life was simpler.  We could die out here.”

Over and over, God kept them pushing them on.  Not with a gun.  But with food: manna – a mysterious daily bread.  Every day, he sent them a “just enough” portion for that day, just enough to keep them steadfast on the path to freedom, liberation, and fulfillment.  This daily “just enough” portion was their assurance that even in the wilderness, God was with them.  It was God’s way of saying that once you’re on the journey to freedom, there’s no turning back.

I think of these sacred stories as we celebrate Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, during this month of Pride.  It’s a time of celebration, rejoicing, and reflection on hard-won victories.  And there is so much to be thankful for.  Personally, I am of a generation who never imagined living in a time like this:

  • a time when our loving commitments are legally recognized and protected;
  • a time when we can serve openly and proudly in the military;
  • a time when our history can be taught and studied at colleges and universities;
  • a time when we can run for President being out and with our same-gender spouse at our side.

The times in which we live are truly astonishing.  We have much of which to be proud and for which to give thanks.

But in so many ways we are still a people in the wilderness, still on an uncertain and perilous journey:

  • We still are not legally protected from employment or housing discrimination in too many states.
  • We are still being dismissed from church employment despite years of exemplary witness and generous service.
  • Our love is still publicly denigrated by too many priests and bishops, who even use our love as a pretext for not ministering to us in our times of grief and loss.
  • Many priests, seminarians, and vowed religious still live closeted lives, fearing to be publicly known for how God made them to be.
  • So many young people are still closeted to their families, or homeless because of their parents’ rejection of their sexuality and gender identity.
  • For so many younger queer people, school still is a dangerous environment which stunts their intellectual development as they worry for their safety.
  • And even now, so many queer people still live with the fear of abuse and the terror of death, especially those of us who are Black, or persons of color, or trans women, or “all of the above.”

We are still in the wilderness; we have not yet arrived at liberation.  And, to be honest, like my Black forebears and our faith ancestors, at times we are tempted to go back to “Egypt”: to go back into the closet; to take refuge in the rewards and protections it offers; to mute our voices; to dim our “fabulousness” in order to be approved and accepted.  To belong and fit in.  To be like everybody else.

(I admit it.  Life was simpler before I was known as an out gay priest.  I didn’t have to put up with being disinvited for lectures.  Or being called a “n-word, f-word” priest by self-styled defenders of orthodoxy – who always seem to forget that the most important commandments are the ones about love.  There are times when “Egypt” looks really good).

Here is where you might expect me to make a pivot and speak of the Eucharist as our “manna,” as our strength for continuing the wilderness journey to liberation.  But this Pride month we are in a pandemic time, when the Eucharistic manna is not available for many, perhaps most, of us.

So, we need Paul’s insight from the second reading of today’s liturgy: WE are the body of Christ!  WE are called to be the “just enough” daily bread to support, care, and love each other on the road to freedom.  “We, many though we are, are one body,” Paul writes.  In our care and love for one another, we become life-giving manna – Christ’s presence, Christ’s embodiment – that keeps us steadfast on the journey to freedom.  We help one another to be witnesses of personal authenticity and agents of social justice.  We become signs of God present with us.

Let me make this personal.  The last two weeks have been very difficult as I coped with overwhelming emotions in response to the recent brutal lynchings of Black people who could have been me.  I had to deal with all of that while also being in the public spotlight and having to remain “professional” as I explained, yet again, why this should not be surprising in a nation committed to white privilege and advantage.

I came to a remote celebration of the eucharist last Sunday exhausted.  The sermon was delivered by a young, openly gay, Episcopal priest who ended his reflection with the words, “Black lives matter.”  My soul received this like “a balm in Gilead.”  This act of solidarity from a white gay man recognized that Black lives are gay lives, too.  And that Black gay lives are sacred.  His words were my manna, the “just enough” to sustain me on the wilderness trek to liberation, justice, and full flourishing for all.

We are called to be manna – the Bread of Life – for one another.  We help each other believe in the holiness of our bodies and the sacredness of our loving.  Thus we become the rainbow body of Christ, Corpus Christi, sustenance even in the wilderness.  This is how we celebrate Pride while still on the journey to freedom.

–Father Bryan Massingale, Fordham University, June 14, 2020


7 replies
  1. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    Wow. Thank you Father Massingale for such a well written piece. So many points you wrote have touched my heart, healing parts of it, empathizing with others, awakening more reflections to be looked at later for me. I will be reading and re-reading this piece again and again as the day and weeks and times we are living in continues on. Thank you again for being ‘you’, for your ministry, for your prayers, for your gifts. This piece and getting to know who you are through these posts has been a precious gift to me, unbeknownst to you. May God bless you and may you continue to live your truth.

  2. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    The tears of awe, love, and gratitude flow from Fr. Bryan’s reflection. I will remember him by name in daily prayer. Thank you so much for this reflection.

  3. Sister Jean Kenny, S.P.
    Sister Jean Kenny, S.P. says:

    Thank you for this heartfelt and pastoral reflection Father Massingale.
    On Corpus Christi Sunday here’s my one sentence homily from the late John L’Heureux. “Lord, make me your bread and then pass me around.” Amen

  4. noraleen
    noraleen says:

    What a banquet!
    Thank you for this life giving word. In my diocese ‘homosexual ministry ‘ is experienced by me as preaching of “Catholic Catechism” with me being intrinsically disordered because of my sexual orientation.
    Also, bless you for being ‘out’ and your excellent writing on church and racism.

  5. Barry J Langley OFM
    Barry J Langley OFM says:

    Bryan – beautiful again, so many thanks!!! I think back over 20 years ago to our time at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies. You have been my manna in these weeks – thank you for sharing yourself and your insights. Our community has been inspired and moved to commit to more growth and change.


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