“Beloved” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on February 24th, 2018 at the Celebration of the Life of Letitia Byrd. (Readings: Isaiah 58:6-12, Psalm 23, II Corinthians 5:20-6:10, Luke 4:1-21)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”…(the time of the Jubilee)
In Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus choose this text from Isaiah to proclaim what his work was to be all about, which includes the complete overturning of the status quo that is so harmful to the poor. Luke tells us this happened shortly after Jesus’ baptism during which the heavens were torn open and Jesus heard a voice from heaven saying, “you are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
I want to talk today about how the experience of truly knowing ourselves as Beloved, impels us to want to work so that others might also know their belovedness, for that’s what I see in the life of our beloved sister Letitia Byrd. Because we live in a country that seems to suffer from a terrible case of historical amnesia and because, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” I would also like to talk about Letitia’s life in relationship to some of the most significant events in our nation’s history.
As Letitia would say, she was raised in Bluefield “By God” West Virginia. She was named for her grandmother Letitia, who was born twenty years after the end of the Civil war, eight years after the end of reconstruction gave way to the new night of oppression and domination that we would come to know as Jim Crow.
Letitia was raised in the days of Jim Crow, a system of legal discrimination based on the idea that white people were superior to people of color. But Letitia grew up in a family and a community and a Methodist Church that left her with the mark of the Beloved. This meant that no matter what others said, Letitia grew up knowing her divine worth. Though this system of racial domination tried to demean her, knowing her belovedness gave Letitia a kind of inner protection and fortitude, the creative imagination and the will to overcome and a faith that the truth would ultimately prevail. You could see it in her beauty and the way she dressed and carried herself throughout her life.
So much of the positive movement we’ve seen in this country around racial justice has been built on the spiritual and cultural power of those raised to know themselves as Beloved and who are therefore determined to claim their worth and dignity, even if it appears to be against all odds. Letitia bore that mark and helped put it on many many others.
Letitia hated segregation. She hated having to go through the side entrance and sit in the upstairs balcony where people of color were to sit in the local movie theaters. When she was a young adult, she and others organized a campaign to integrate the movie theaters in Bluefield. Two of them were successfully integrated while the third chose to shut down instead. (Much much later, Letitia’s son Kip would often want to sit in the balcony to watch movies, but Letitia never wanted them to.)
Part of bearing the mark of being Beloved is you believe that rather than having to conform to the world of things, like the roles and expectations of different societal structures and institutions, you believe it is they that should be transformed to honor people, you and everyone else they are meant to serve. That’s the philosophy of Personalism that had such a profound impact on the Civil Rights Movement through the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. When you look at Letitia’s life you can see how she was constantly challenging structures and institutions and seeking to transform them both for herself and others.
After graduating from Bluefield State College, with degrees both in music education and business administration, Letitia went to work as the first paid staff person for her sorority Delta Sigma Theta and set up their national office in Washington DC. Through the leadership of women like Letitia, the Deltas have become a powerhouse of support for the leadership of many many many African American women.
After getting married and having her son Kip, Letitia came back to West Virginia to care for her father who was needing to have heart surgery. Letitia was utterly heart broken when he died on the operating table. Several months later she moved to Ann Arbor to join her brother Claude and his wife Elginne who were living here. Later Letitia’s brother Pete and his wife and then Letitia’s mother and grandmother all moved to Ann Arbor. Letitia’s family, including all her nieces and nephews and great and great great nieces and nephews and all the friends that were graced through becoming part of their extended family—meant the world to her. I also know how grateful she was to Kip and all of them for how they sustained her after her beloved David’s death and then how they cared for her as her health began to worsen.
When Letitia first came to Ann Arbor she worked for the University of Michigan hospital in accounting and then became the executive secretary of the dean of the School of Medicine. During this time, she also went back to school. After getting her teaching certificate Letitia first taught in the Ann Arbor schools, later went into counseling and became head of counseling at Huron High School, before she finally ended up high up in the administration of the whole school system.
The fact that Ann Arbor had a black community meant that it was considered a more liberal city than the many cities and towns in Michigan, like Dearborn and East Lansing, that didn’t allow people of color to live within them and had laws that prohibited them from being within their borders after sundown.
None the less, Ann Arbor was still a segregated city through the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Though at the time Letitia moved here, Ann Arbor didn’t have legal segregation we had de-facto segregation. Red lining meant people of color were only allowed to live in a very restricted part of the city. Our school system stayed overwhelmingly segregated until this red lining ended, but even after that there were those who didn’t think there were any African American teachers qualified to teach upper level courses or to be principals of schools. Letitia was part of a generation that kept chipping away at these barriers. Told she should go teach in Inkster she refused and ended up becoming the first African American Junior High teacher in Ann Arbor.
Letitia fought these battles against racism and discrimination but stayed grounded in a place of love. One of my favorite stories was the day in the late 1960’s, or early 1970s, when Letitia came out of her office at lunch hour and found that a large group of white students and a large group of black students had gathered on either side of the drive at Huron High to fight each other. Just at the point where it seemed they were ready to attack each other Letitia waded into their midst telling them they needed to leave and go to class. To her surprise—they did. As she said “I don’t know how I did it, but I wasn’t going to let my students hurt each other.”
In addition to all her work with the schools, Letitia ended up working with so many different community groups and organizations. Some like the SOS Crises Center, Peace Neighborhood Center, Dawn Farms, and the University Musical society, are well known, but there were many many others that were far less well known. Always these involvements became opportunities to shine light on others and share in their lives and learn from them.
As a result of all her work, if you were with Letitia you found that wherever she went people were always stopping her and were invariably so happy to see her. On the day of my last visit with her at the University hospital the woman at the front desk who gave me Letitia’s room number told me she was a former student and how much Letitia had meant to her. Then when Joetta and I were upstairs visiting with Letitia a med tech came in to do something. He too had been a former student and was clearly delighted to see both of them. Those kinds of connections meant so much to Letitia.
Most of the time, Letitia seemed to be a perpetual flow of positive energy. Everywhere she went she was always looking for how she could make connections between people to help facilitate getting things done. She made you feel appreciated and her positive energy was infectious. If you were going to see her, you knew the odds were good that she might ask you to do something. You might even have told yourself you were to busy to do anything more, but in the light of her enthusiasm you found yourself walking away feeling happy about whatever you agreed to do.
But if Letitia ran into roadblocks, she was also willing to be a little less gracious. I remember being in meetings with Pittsfield township officials. The meetings would begin with some official explaining why what Letitia was requesting couldn’t happen for this or that reason. Letitia would say “I don’t understand.” They would explain again. She’d say “I still don’t understand.” At first, I couldn’t understand how Letitia couldn’t understand. Then I learned to watch as these exasperated officials would eventually figure out some way to do what Letitia wanted them to do. Like the widow knocking on the unjust judge’s door in the middle of the night—it was an amazingly effective strategy.
When you look at the scope of all the things she did, all the places she traveled, all the people she knew and all the different ways she engaged them, Letitia’s life looks like some kind of shooting star. I don’t think any of us will ever know the scope of all the things she was involved in. That determination to be out there in world was partly about Letitia’s awareness of herself as Beloved, but it also seems to have been connected to her having been so ill as a child. As a child, Letitia had terrible ear infections. Because these were the days before anti-biotics, she had to have two dangerous ear operations. Letitia never forgot how she had to lie in bed for months. Particularly vivid was her memory of being in bed looking out at her bedroom window at her brothers Pete and Claude in the backyard playing in the playhouse her father had built for her and which she hadn’t yet ever had a chance to play in. That experience may also help to explain why Letitia was so unwilling ever to be confined either physically or by other peoples’ expectations.
As Ella Fitzgerald sang, Letitia liked to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative.” She didn’t like conflicts. This means that if you weren’t paying attention you might have missed some of the ways Letitia managed to avoid going along with the expectations of others when they didn’t suit her.
Letitia lived in a time when wives were expected to care for their husbands by cooking for them, but Letitia almost never cooked. Thankfully her mother was a great cook so Letitia would often simply go down to her mother’s to get a plate of food for David so he would have something to eat. Thankfully, David was just as independent minded as Letitia and really valued all the things Letitia was doing in the broader community.
I also think it’s important to note both the joy Letitia found in this church, but also the sacrifices she made to be part of a predominantly white church. In a place like Ann Arbor, Sunday morning can feel like one of the few times during the week when people of color can connect with each other, but Letitia made that sacrifice because she believed “We need to be everywhere.”
While clearly embracing and being rooted in her African American identity, Letitia was committed to drawing on the best of all world cultures, music, literary, philosophy, art. You can see this in her relationship to music. Music was at the heart of Letitia’s spirituality and one of the key ways she continued to experience herself as Beloved. She was one of the founding members of the “Our Own Thing Chorale” and loved how their music and message helped people hear the way of the Beloved. She loved being part of the choir here at First Methodist. She also loved all kinds of other music—particularly classical music and opera. She saw how it deepened, strengthened, and fed people in ways that is only now becoming more evident as, for example, we come to understand more about the ways music seems to help young people to be more successful in school.
In 2nd Corinthians today, we hear Paul describe the life of those carrying on the ministry of justice, love and reconciliation. For Paul, this work is not about waiting for Jesus to return, it is about now. “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”
Paul describes the hardships of this life including beatings, jailing’s, hunger, and sleepless nights, but we also hear that in the midst of all these difficulties there is the sweetness of kindness, genuine love, patience, and truthful speech. It was for him and the people working with him an experience of simultaneously “having nothing yet possessing everything.”
That’s the spirit of resurrection, that’s the spirit of the Beloved, the spirit of those who know they are of infinite worth and are determined that others come to know their infinite worth. That is the Spirit I encountered in Letitia and her work. Her life and work sing of what we can each be doing, here and now.
For almost fifty years, we have been living in another post-reconstruction era. Much of the progress of the Civil Rights era has been slowly eroded as the caste system has re-asserted itself. We are living in a time when we are needing, once again, for a generation to rise up to, in Isaiah words, “rebuild the ancient ruins” that we see in so many urban and rural places in our county and around the world. Once again, we need people willing to dedicate their lives to raising up “the foundations of many generations,” which forty years of growing economic inequality have helped to undermine. Once again, we need people willing to be known as “repairers of the breach” and “the restorers of streets to live in.”
May we leave here today not only giving thanks to God for the light and love we have known through Letitia Byrd, but also asking for a double dose of her spirit, that we might join in her work of helping to tear down the caste system in our county and of working for the day when all know their belovedness. For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepared a way for us.