Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Odetta & Loretta: In Loving Memory on a Day of Joy


My life has been deeply affected and shaped by many, many people, but most deeply by several Black women. Most are living, but some are gone from this vale of tears. And all I can sense are standing up and cheering this day for our new President, who will lead in a new era in race relations, and help to define a love that we can share as human beings of all races that takes into account the past, and shapes a future of the Beloved Community that past generations, and even our own today, could only have hoped for.

One passed 7 weeks ago, on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008. Another in 2007, on the 24th of September. Both I wish could have lived to see this day, and are, I believe, watching from the place of their eternal reward.

One was one of the dearest people in my life, whom I never visited or telephoned enough, but who was always full of love for me and most everyone in her life. Another I did not know personally, and only met once in my life, but has given my soul a dimension of deep and loving experience as well.

One was famous and known throughout the world, traveling all over and affecting thousands and perhaps millions of lives. Another was known well to her friends and family, to her neighbors, to all whom her outgoing and dear personality endeared he; she was born, lived, and died in Harlem.

Both were women whose strength and souls were shaped by Jesus.

Both were women whose love was evident from most every word that I ever heard from them.

Both were women whose wisdom came through experiences I could never know or understand. But, in their own ways, each welcomed me into their lives in a way that I cannot repay but with gratitude and story.

One was Odetta Felious Holmes Gordon. One was Loretta Hernton. Odetta and Loretta.


Loretta Hernton was born in Harlem Hospital on March 2, 1936. She grew up in Harlem, and was a memeber of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in the Bronx, which she joined in 1947. She worked and lived in Harlem her whole life. And she died at the Jewish Home and Hospital, only 30 blocks from where she was born, on September 24, 2007, at the age of 71.

I met her when I was filling in as protestant worship service leader at the Fort Tryon Nursing Home for a period of months before entering seminary in 2002. After one service, she had asked me if I might share with her one of the hymns we had sung during the service. When I came by her room at the Home to bring the hymn, she was in the process of being discharged. Brother Evans and Brother Russell had come by from the Prayer Team of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in the Bronx, where Loretta had become a member in 1947. But had I come by an hour later, I would have missed her altogether, and my life would have been much poorer.

Loretta loved. That is the only way I can say it. Every time I visited her, she would ask after my mother, my father, my sister, and my grandma. She would tell me whom she had been in touch with of our mutual acquaintance, from her roommate at Ft. Tryon, to Brothers Evans and Russell, to her sweetheart whom she’d met at Ft. Tryon, to aged Mr. Davis, who was, I believe, registrar at City University of New York many years ago, and a man who had followed FDR’s funeral train as a young man, after having been discharged from a recently integrated army unit.


Odetta Felious Holmes was born on what would become my own birthday, December 31st, 1930. Although I’m a fan, I don’t know her life verbatim, and would commend you to the grand wisdom of the internet to learn about her. But this is what I know about her.

I know that she sang from an amazing heart that took in everything from segregation and true oppression, nearly to the heights of this inaugural day. This was to be part of the arc of her life.

I say that Odetta’s voice had the power to wound and heal simultaneously. The wounding was not one which she was inflicting, but one which she was uncovering. It was a moment of honesty that she could bring out through the sounds that her own body made, but were sung through years of silent tears.

Thanks by to God and Andy L., I got to see, hear, and meet Odetta once in my life, last April, when she came to sing with Pete Seeger and a group of wonderful 4th graders in Beacon, NY. It is an experience I will never forget, hearing her live and in person. Most moving were the songs “Something Inside So Strong” (“I know I can make it, but you’re doing me wrong, so wrong”), sung to challenge the society of apartheid in South Africa, and “Any Way You Can Make it, Baby” (“You gotta keep on movin' it on. If you can’t run, walk! If you can’t walk, crawl! If you can’t crawl, roll! Any old way you can make it baby, you gotta keep on movin it on.”).

I’m trying to think of the way to describe those places in Odetta’s voice that only she could make, those spaces in which you could meet her and generations of those who shaped her physical structure that could bring her to us, and those who for better or worse, made her who she was.

She had mansions in her body’s temple, and mansions in her soul. She had a place where you could enter and just sit and be.

She had spaces in her voice that would wrap you in velvet, and spaces that would wrap you in a bush of prickly cotton.

She could, in a breath, bring you into a space of discomfort that she has faced in her own life, and lay on the salve that God gave her and gave to us through her.

Odetta had long, thin fingers, and her frailty was stronger than my strength. She wished me all the best, and I will carry her benediction with me my whole life long.


Odetta and especially Loretta have been present in my silent tears since Barack Hussein Obama was elected and now has assumed the high office of President of the United States. They both came so close to seeing this day. Loretta would have been smiling and shouting, so happy in her bed, sending out a loud HALLELUIA! when he finally ascended to the high office of President of the United States.

They would be so proud, and I with them, holding the hands of their spirit and the spirits of those who have given their lives, both literally and metaphorically, to see this day arrive.
The words of the Sacred Harp tradition have also been nourishing to my soul, and I wish to let them join together the past and the present times in a song of joy:

Text by Charles Wesley:

O what are all my sufferings here,
If, Lord, Thou count me meet
With that enraptured host to appear,
And worship at Thy feet!
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again
In that eternal day.


May this land of America once again be ALL our home, and a home in the world for the homeless, placeless, nameless who burn with the passion of self-definition and other-regarding love.

May this home be from here into eternity, that for which all being has longed, a place of dignity, a place of prosperity for the hungry, and poverty for the rich.

May this home be one of grace for all, enmity toward none, and a home where even in our hardest times is one of perpetual HALLELUIA!


  1. A touching post, Chris. I think you've nicely described how many of us felt, or would have felt, when Barack Obama was elected and later sworn in as our 44th president.

    Just thought I'd let you know you have a regular reader. I found your blog a month or two ago when you posted over at Citizen Crain. I've enjoyed your posts and look forward to more. It's not every day you find a blog with gay Lutheran perspective. Cheers!

  2. Thanks much for your support and reading, strictscrutiny. I really appreciate it. And cheers to you as you kick off your blog as well--I had the same feeling as you about kicking one off, and I think it can be liberating to send some words out there into the cyber-beyond.

  3. You write beautifully about these amazing women. I enjoyed reading your blog in general since we share much in common - I'm a transplanted Minneapolitan church organist. I invite you to take a look at my new blog for our music ministry.