Just over one year ago, on March 13, 2020, Bishop Barbara Harris died in hospice, and the Anglican Communion lost one of our great leaders and prophets.
Born in 1930 in Philadelphia, Harris grew up in a world and church such that the bishop who confirmed her wore white gloves so as not to touch her hair. He did this whenever he confirmed “blacks.”
The great-granddaughter of a slave, Harris marched with Martin Luther King Jr. She had a distinguished and trailblazing career in public relations that began with lots of travel in “colored only” train cars and culminated in her being head of PR at Sun Oil Refining Company.
Over her lifelong relationship with the church, she went from junior choir member to rector’s warden and lay preacher. She was ordained a priest at the age of 50. Ten years later, in February 1989, Harris was the first woman in the Anglican Communion to be consecrated as bishop. She served as suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts until her retirement in 2003.
While attending seminary in Massachusetts, I was blessed to be at several services where Bishop Harris presided. She was a fierce five-foot-tall presence. She carried the words, “the power behind you is greater than the obstacles in front of you” in her pocket. She never shied away from speaking against racism, sexism and homophobia. She was clear that we must be wary to never “temporize with injustice, nor make peace with oppression.”
The title of her memoir, Hallelujah, Anyhow, comes from a spiritual hymn of the same name.
When you’re feeling down and out,
Throw your hands up high and shout Hallelujah anyhow.
‘Cause I’m wrapped up, tied up,
tangled up in Jesus.
Singing Hallelujah anyhow.
In the memoir, Bishop Harris talks about how some things, such as systematic racism, would cause her to ask, “What’s the opposite of hallelujah?” As she rightly remarks, “The damnable thing about institutionalized racism is that well-meaning white folk don’t have to do anything overt to ensure its perpetuation.” But somehow, throughout her life, she managed both to speak truth to power and to Hallelujah, Anyhow.
This Easter, a second COVID Easter, I invite you to join me in shouting, boldly and joyfully, Hallelujah, Anyhow! At Easter, we enter the paschal triduum — the great liturgy that takes us from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday — knowing all too well the reality of suffering and death, of injustice and oppression, but also trusting that suffering and death never have the last word. The power behind us, which is the power and grace of God, is indeed greater than any of the obstacles that are ahead of us.
Bishop Harris would talk about being Easter people in a Good Friday world. “The thing about being Easter people,” she would say, “is that we are prisoners to hope.” Easter people are faithful and steadfast, like the women who stayed at the foot of the cross, who went to the empty tomb.
This Easter season, may we remember that the resurrection is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning of a new chapter, when we follow the risen Christ out into the world to share Christ’s love: to heal, to love, to serve.
He is risen. His is risen indeed. Even during a pandemic, we can Hallelujah, Anyhow.