Feast Day for St. Harriet
This sermon was first delivered at the Bethany Theological Seminary Preaching Series on Race in September 2019 in Richmond, IN. The following version has been shortened and adapted for Reflections. Quotations attributed to Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913) are italicized and placed in bold.
Around this time of year, in late September 1849,
The woman we now know as Harriet Tubman
Set off into the dark
On her first trek towards freedom.
She left at night. Towards an unseen land and an unknowable future.
And like so many other fugitives whose names are unknown to us but cherished by God,
Harriet offers a testimony as firm as our spiritual ancestors in Hebrews 11
About what it means to live by faith.
In the Episcopal Church, Harriet shares a feast day in July with Sojourner Truth,
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Bloomer.
But I wish today were her feast day. I wish pilgrims commemorated
The 100-plus-mile journey with two weeks of night walking from
Maryland’s Eastern Shore, up through the Delmarva Peninsula, and over into Philadelphia,
Crossing the same rivers and maybe brushing up against some of the same trees that felt
Harriet brush by on her first escape.
Moving out into the dark meant moving into the hidden will of God
But, American vanity being what it is, I worry that such a pilgrimage would
Devolve into t-shirts and car decals and selfies at the Pennsylvania border …
The temptation and the pressure of the American success narrative is to portray
Harriet Tubman as a woman who was
Fearless, invincible, and self-assured in the American sense of these terms.
Yet she was none of those things.
She was not fearless in the narrow sense.
Too much had happened to her and to the people she loved.
And she was not invincible.
Because she had the “deep scars on her spirit” 
That came from being hated, as well as a physical disability –
Headaches and fainting spells
Stemming from being hit in the head with a two-pound counter weight.
It’s true Harriet was confident –
This confidence was rooted more in God than in herself.
She spoke of asking of Him or consulting Him
In a casual, intimate way,
The way you and I might talk to one another.
One time she bid on a piece of land at auction and won
Despite not having the money.
And when asked how she’d pay she said,
I’m gonna talk about it with Jesus tonight.
One of her Quaker friends, Thomas Garrett said,
“I never met anyone
of any color
who had more confidence
in the voice of God.”
Harriet Tubman was one of those people who packed the achievements of 20 lives into one. Risking her own life, she made more than a dozen trips on the Underground Railroad and liberated more than 70 people – actually close to 1,000 if we count the additional 750-plus people she liberated at the Combahee River (near Charleston, SC) during the Civil War. Eventually she became known as the “Moses” for bringing so many out of “Egypt.” But on this night in September, she was more like Abraham who set out into the unseen and found God there.
When “Minty,” as she was known in 1849,
Set out that late September evening,
She was not seeking to become anyone’s hero.
She couldn’t have known what even the next hour would hold.
But lack of control did not mean lack of clarity:
I had reasoned this out in my mind, she said.
There was one of two things I had a right to,
Liberty or death;
If I could not have one,
I would have the other.
She left at night.
Without a map.
Without the ability to read road signs.
Without expertise in mid-Atlantic geography.
On the clear nights
She had the moon and the North Star.
And when it was cloudy,
She could trust the mossy side of trees to guide her
Or squat down next to a stream and feel the current.
She thought they all flowed South,
And she was mostly right –
Right in her belief that
Nature could be trusted.
Her best ally was the darkness.
Under that blanket she could walk
10 miles a night, maybe more.
Not racing, because she needed her stamina.
And not standing still because she had to
But carefully, because there was a whole
Life world around her
That she could not see …
Giant spider webs,
Racoons and hooting owls,
Delicate insects wisping by on nightly errands of their own …
And slavecatchers stalking the night for Black flesh.
She’d had dreams about these.
Before she learned to listen to God in nature, she
Listened for God in dreams.
First, there were the dreams of a woman screaming.
Maybe it was her own screaming,
Or her Mother’s or her two older Sisters who were sold South.
Her Mother never stopped mourning for them.
God could’ve been screaming in her dreams at what was happening to them.
We don’t know if the screaming dreams intensified during
Those times that John Broadus (the slaveowner) considered selling members
Of her family.
All we know is that the
Dream was recurrent
And that it announced
An unspeakable, irreparable
“Rachel screaming for her children who are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)
Then there were the
Galloping dreams of
Horse hoofs coming closer and closer
These she says little about
Beyond the sense of threat.
It makes sense that she’d feel
Hunted by a force she could not see.
Horror was and remains part of Black experience in the Americas.
Most mysterious were the
Years before she tried to escape
Of flying over fields and towns,
And rivers and mountains,
Looking down upon them
Like a bird,
And reaching at last
A great fence or sometimes a river
which she would try to fly over.
But, she said, It appeared like I wouldn’t
Have the strength,
And just as I was
There would be ladies
All dressed in white over there.
And they would put out
And pull me across.
She’d make it, but not in
Her own power;
She’d have to be carried.
Now I don’t know,
But I like to believe
The ladies dressed in white
Who put out their arms and pull
Harriet across are
The Ancestors who
Lived by faith in a hostile land,
Those whom our scripture says
“Died in faith without having received the promises,
But from a distance they saw and greeted them.
God is not ashamed to be called their God;
Indeed, He has prepared a city for them …” (Heb 11:13, 16)
Though dead, the saints are very much alive
And still bearing ardent witness.
Through these flying dreams, they give Harriet the confidence to
Step out by faith.
Harriet was one of those Christians who believed in direct revelation.
She was not embarrassed to talk about dreams or visions
Or signs from another shore.
Her God was God of the temporal and the eternal;
Able to hold the things we understand
And the things we will never understand.
God was the only one who was utterly trustworthy in the dark.
To walk for hours in the dark,
Sometimes through thick forest,
Is to be drawn not only out of place
But out of time,
And to be swallowed in the
Enormity that is God.
A Buddhist teacher I know
Says we find the strength
To face the thing we cannot face
When we can imagine
Something large enough to hold it.
Harriet finds that “Something Larger” in God.
Moving out into the dark meant
Moving into the hidden will of God
Where there is no grid
Just the ocean of divine un-knowing
And Hebrews suggests every saint
Sails into it.
In the dark it becomes clear that
Only God is God.
What if God’s gift to us in a Saint like Harriet is to lead us away from
Preoccupation with assured outcomes into a way of being that is
Freer, nimbler, and more joyous?
Shouldn’t our practice of Christianity give us that?
What if God’s gift to us in a Saint like Harriet is a pathway out of the
Life-stealing clutches of control?
I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself outside
Walking alone in the dark
And heard the wind rustle the leaves …
Or looked up into a black sky
And suddenly felt tiny?
There’s a quiet beauty and a touch of fear
When you tap into the fact that we are all finite.
And finitude, as my friend Sue Dunlap says,
Involves more than bodily mortality and fragility.
We have emotional limits
Limited power to predict the future
Limited powers to cure or hold what’s precious
Painfully limited power to protect those we love.
In the daylight these ever-present limits
Recede into the background
But in the dark …
They are thrown into full view.
The illusions of control are pierced.
White supremacy feeds our fantasies of control.
And pressures us to spend
Enormous amounts of energy
Trying to look like we are in control and
Pretend we have the answers.
And the performance of that fiction
Does violence to the soul.
I also see this pattern of clinging to control in contemporary conversations about race
When there’s a rush to resolution
And a refusal to go deep.
This is a problem because one of the areas race operates is in the realm of memory.
Some of the most important work of excavation happens
When submerged memories thaw and flood into consciousness
And there’s enough trust in the room to share that memory.
When this happens, what we need is to
Wobble and sway in the new depth of what’s been shared.
But sometimes the desire to be in control
Clamps down the energy
And there’s a rush to move on, talk about something else …
What we need is to
Develop sea legs so that we can
Tolerate more depth
And more uncertainty without shutting down.
Or, what we need is to move like Saint Harriet
Into the night
And find God there.
And maybe we won’t find God as Father or King or a
Shepherd keeping the sheep in control,
But as the Dark Mystery who envelops us;
As the Endless Depth,
As the Inner Music,
The Night Companion,
The Unfolding Way …
That’s who God was for Harriet.
What if God is using Harriet to expand our understandings of divine presence?
Because that’s what it’ll take to live by faith.
One of the church’s failures when it comes to race
– particularly the white mainline church –
Is its unwillingness to go into the dark.
The church is content with learning good racial etiquette
Rather than pressing forward and
Dismantling systems in ways that will
Require fundamental change.
Beautiful Christian words like “reconciliation” and “hope”
Have been infected by white supremacy.
I mean, the idol of control has corrupted the
Church’s use of these terms.
I don’t want to bristle when I hear the word reconciliation
But I often do.
Because “reconciliation” so often means
“Get over it.”
And leaves people of color with the burden of
Pretending the past doesn’t inform our present-day interactions
As much as it does.
Reconciliation has been reduced to just one more
Layer of American racism,
A tool to manage the unmanageable.
And the continued emphasis on reconciliation
Keeps the church from moving out into the dark
Where something newer and freer can happen,
Where a divine vision can emerge.
The church’s language around hope suffers, too.
I see this when white Christians
Look at the wreckage of American racism and
Prevail on people of color to give them hope
Yet often, what’s desired is not hope but anesthesia.
The sun has to set on hope-as-optimism before
Living by faith becomes possible.
What if today, around this 170th anniversary of Harriet’s first venture into the dark,
What we are to be reminded of is that faith is not an abstract concept.
It is a lived reality that is most clearly perceived in messy lives –
People making the most of impossible situations.
Abraham setting off to an unseen land;
Noah building an ark for a flood he couldn’t imagine;
Enoch being taken who knows where;
Sarah conceiving past her time.
Faith is clearing a path through thick brush.
Faith is a Black woman walking in the darkness and finding she is not alone …
Such feats give us a window into who Jesus is and,
More, they summon the best from those of us who seek to live by faith.
And what more can I say? For time will not let me tell you about
How God soothed Harriet’s heartbreak when her first husband remarried;
Or how God helped her rig a box, a board, and a mule together into a horse and buggy to
Help her elderly parents escape;
Or how God helped her at almost 80 years old to create a
Black nursing home in New York;
Or how God gave her an apple orchard to provide jobs for family and friends;
And time will not let me tell you about how God sustained her in a decade-long struggle
To get her veterans benefits and
How she couldn’t pay her bills but survived.
Her life story is a lesson in how to move in cold, dark spaces; how to hold on to your
Tenderness while navigating tough terrain;
How to climb softly and deliberately despite your fear; how to clear new territory and
Enter it – claiming the fullness of the freedom God bestows on us.
For the gift of Harriet Tubman and
For her witness of living by faith and moving into the darkness,
Let us thank the Lord. Amen.
Donyelle C. McCray is Assistant Professor of Homiletics at YDS. She is the author of The Censored Pulpit: Julian of Norwich as Preacher (Fortress Academic, 2019).