The Rev. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first African-American woman ordained in the Presbyterian church, spoke during the annual Witherspoon Society luncheon on Sunday, June 27, at the 216th Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.
Cannon spoke about “The Power of Ontological Blackness in the Presbyterian Tradition” and gave strength to the members of Witherspoon Society; the society hopes to "respond to God’s call to do justice and to work with hope for healing and wholeness in a world increasingly broken.” About 250 men and women from the PC(USA) joined the luncheon.
Cannon addressed various issues concerning the African American historic struggle for justice and civil rights as well as the current struggles in the PC(USA). She also shared her personal experiences.
"I wanted to inspire the Witherspoon Society, encourage them not to quit," said Cannon, who is serving as the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School of Christian Education (Union-PSCE)in Richmond, "Quitting is not an option."
One of the most outrageous experiences Cannon went through was at a hotel when she attended a conference of women of color, shortly after she was ordained in 1974. She said a hotel attendant "looked at my clerical collar, slammed me into a wall, and said, 'How dare you defy Jesus Christ?'"
Recalling the horrible incident, she said, "We need to read and write, even when the lights are out. Study the life lessons handed to black Americans ... body slam after body slam. And walk to freedom, taking a bunch of folks with us."
"We (African-Americans) know our hope is in the struggle," she added.
Catherine Stegall, an African-American from Milwaukee, WI, said Cannon had "put words and ideas to feelings that I have," and "helped me affirm my commitment to the Presbyterian Church."
"She raised the energy for commitment," said Barbara Smith, of Lathrop
The luncheon honored the annual Andrew Murray and Whole Gospel Congregation awards recipients.
The Whole Gospel Church Award was given to Richmond's All Souls Presbyterian Church, for its role in the Civil Rights movement and its continued commitment to the "whole gospel."
The Rev. Douglas F. Ottati, a professor at Union-PSCE and an author, received the society's annual Andrew Murray Award, which honors an individual whose Christian service and witness reflects the society's commitment to justice and peace.