RIP Katie Cannon


I was saddened to hear about the death of Katie Cannon. It was a surprise to me this morning because I hadn’t heard yesterday when it happened. And my emotional reaction was stronger than I would have anticipated.

I wasn’t born a Presbyterian. I became one, intentionally, as an adult. When I started seminary I didn’t know the history of women’s ordination in the PCUSA. Then I learned of Katie Cannon. Learning that she was the first African-American woman ordained in the PCUSA was a good-to-know factoid. However, noting that it didn’t happen until 1974 was eye-opening. Recent history.

In 2015, I was asked to participate in a women’s panel discussion that would discuss the contributions of women in the church while also focusing on the 50th anniversary of Selma. So it made sense to me to talk about the Rev Dr Katie Cannon. Here's an excerpt.

“So it seemed like a logical conclusion for me, in order to give proper reverence to the occasion of Selma and the subsequent occasions of equal weight, [Black Lives Matter and why it began] to not give a general overview of “women in PCUSA” but to speak particularly from my contextual viewpoint. This particular lens is framed by the prevailing social issues that undoubtedly affect women of color, specifically African-American women or maybe better stated, women of African descent, which respects my blended Japanese heritage; these women who are living within the American context and social structure that consistently discounts Black people. That is to say, there is a continuing effort in this country to disenfranchise African-Americans which by definition goes beyond the voting booth and extends into and/or includes the social barriers of privilege.

I thought a look at the challenges that Katie Cannon faced would be a helpful way to understand what might affect women’s experiences today particularly those of ordained women as the predominantly white church struggles to remain relevant in a society that is becoming more multicultural/multiethnic.

Her ordination date situates her story in close proximity to a major civil rights movement and is an example of a life leading to ordination and her subsequent role as academic mentor/seminary professor shaping the minds of future church leadership who are mostly white.

In Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book, I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1994 & Penguin Books Publishing 1995) I read Rev. Dr. Cannon’s account of her life circumstances during those years before she was ordained or had become tenured seminary faculty and I was struck by what I will call three revelatory responses related to non-membership in the dominant culture and survival. They are:

  1. the contextual response (outside looking in),

  2. what it means to navigate the white world (surviving on the inside), and

  3. why it’s necessary to support racial ethnic identity (inside looking out).”

Thank you Rev Dr Katie Cannon for your life of service and for the impact that you’ve had on me.