Rev. Dr. Cannon was the first African American woman ordained to the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). She dedicated her professional life, most recently as the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Social Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, to personal and scholarly public witness on behalf of justice, both in the church and in the world in which the church works. She was by all accounts a gifted and beloved teacher, a passionate and moving speaker, a valued colleague and a cherished friend.
I didn’t know Rev. Dr. Cannon personally. I met her once, in a lopsided way: I attended her lecture, “Untethering Grace from Dogmatic Anchor: A Womanist Critique of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” the inaugural Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture hosted by the Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and after the lecture she signed copies of her book, Black Womanist Ethics, including one for me that says “Sister Heather, Stay faithful as a doer of justice, morning by morning.” [Mostly a call to repentance, that.]
Over the years, however, I have known people who did know her personally, and who have been profoundly influenced by her work and her example. My teachers. Every one of the subsequent Katie Geneva Cannon lecturers. A classmate here, a colleague there. They all testified to her importance, in their understanding of the world’s possibilities and challenges, and in their conception of their work. The framed cover of a magazine showing hands kneading bread, alongside the photo of a young Katie Geneva Cannon holding communion elements, hung in the Women’s Center probably from opening day – still does, I imagine – an image unimaginable as anything other than fiction just a handful of decades ago.
And then there is this personal knowledge: One fall, not too long ago, I taught a class, “Christian Tradition,” in the Fall semester. The date of the annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture fell squarely in the middle of the class schedule, there was a workshop with the lecturer the next day, free to students, with lunch afterwards, and all of it would be just down the street, so to speak, making it a field trip opportunity too good to forego. Most of the students opted out of the free lunch, but one in particular did not – a quiet, bright freshman, a woman of color. So that afternoon, she sat at table with the lecturer, a respected New Testament scholar, a woman of color, who in the course of the general conversation asked her about her studies and her plans and everyone sat there together eating lunch in a world where a quiet, bright freshman, a woman of color, was of course pursuing whatever it was she was called to be, because that is what bright young people do in this world, which is not just a possible world, but an actual world.
But it is an actual world, indispensably, thanks to the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon having answered her call so affirmatively and so well. It cannot be easy to be “the first,” and must be even harder to excel at it. And it matters, for good.
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” as the Book of Common Worship says, and “may light perpetual shine on her.”