Elders & Empires: Community Care in a Time of Crisis

What is Pauli Murray calling us to do in this time of crisis?

by Rev. Racquel Gill

In 2015, as a recent seminary graduate, I was blessed to serve as a Pastor in Residence at the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. St. Paul is a church that seeks to live out its Christian values from an Afrocentric lens and is commonly known for its commemoration of the MAAFA. The term MAAFA is a Kiswahili term meaning, “The Great Disaster.” During the season of MAAFA, the congregation performs ritual and ceremonies acknowledging the impact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and honoring ancestors who have transitioned from the earthly realm. The entire MAAFA Suite is amazing, offering theatrical performances, an on-site museum, lectures, and spirited preaching. 

What always most captivates my attention at the MAAFA suite is the first ceremony of the series known as the “Village Elders Night.” During this night, the entire congregation gathers and honors in word and deed all members of our proverbial village who are aged 70 and older. The belief behind the ritual is that before we continue with the commemoration and lead the community in acts of remembrance, we must first acknowledge our elders and seek their permission to move forward as we look back. In a culture of American individualism, this sacred time reinforces to our community the belief held by many African and indigenous communities, that we cannot journey into the future without first honoring and protecting those who have gone before us. 

I have thought about this sacred moment a lot this month as our world faces and responds to the COVID-19, commonly known as the Coronavirus pandemic. As we battle a health crisis where adults 65 and older are at higher risk for severe illness, and 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been from those who are 65 and older, it is startling to think of what it would mean to live in a world where old age is not only a blessing but a risk. As we think about the life of Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, I’m often struck by the value of elders in Pauli’s life and ultimately the kind of elder Pauli herself would become. As a child with a complex parental history, we see in Pauli’s autobiography “Songs in a Weary Throat,” that Grandfather Fitzgerald, Grandmother Cornelia, and Aunt Pauline were people who gave life a sense of meaning and purpose for a young precocious child with many questions. Pauli recalled the early days of the relationship of Grandfather Fitzgerald and Grandmother Cornelia as they sought to provide for a family while facing the harsh reality of the Jim Crow South. 

As Pauli navigated various career transitions, concerns were always layered with the desire to care for an aging aunt who had done so much to take care of Pauli during her own middle age and senior years. As we recognize the barriers that Pauli overcame as female in a male-dominated world, black in a racist society, and one who didn’t adhere to the terms of a heteronormative culture, I am also amazed by someone who attained theological education and pursued ordination into the priesthood in their sixties. The reality is that if we lived in a world where we thought our seniors and elders were disposable, it would be a world where we would never witness the likes of Pauli Murray break down barriers and make history as the first African American woman to be ordained as a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church at age 67. It is clear from the testament of our ancestor Pauli’s life that elders matter as cornerstones and viable contributors within any community. 

As we who are healthy and younger are now charged with doing what we can to protect the most vulnerable, it is good time to turn to the wisdom of black, brown, and indigenous communities in our global society. Often these cultures model for us the indispensability of elders and the value of communalism. This lesson is currently relevant as an elected official from the lone star state of Texas expressed that seniors should be willing to be “sacrificed if necessary so our children don’t lose our whole country to an economic collapse.” When we turn to cultures that value community over individualism, we realize that to willingly sacrifice any demographic for the sake of saving an economy might restore the market but it will leave our communities, our nation, and our world morally bankrupt. Elders will always do for us what empires cannot. Elders hold our sacred memory. Elders are the transmitters of heritage, history, and meaning-making from one generation to the next. Elders are sages, healers, and griots. 

In the spirit of Dr. Murray, may we honor the elders in our lives and in our world who have proven to be not merely gatekeepers of the past, but leaders of the present. May we see their lives as sacred and worthy of preserving not only because of the groundwork they have laid but because of the amazing things they have yet to do in our midst. May we see them as people who have not only shaped the world as we know it, but who are constantly evolving and being shaped by the world as they discover it anew.  As we do what we can to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of this virus, may we also interrogate the ways our nation has allowed capitalism to rob us of concern for the collective good. As we seek to learn and glean from indigenous communities, may we realize that the dream of a better tomorrow should never require the sacrifice of human life today. 

Rev. Racquel Gill currently serves as Assistant Chaplain for Multicultural Communities at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC. 

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