Hope: Pauli and Paul on Juneteenth

Pauli Murray; icon by Barbara Clowney,


Barbara Ballenger/St Martin in the Fields,  Philadelphia

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .

Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.1

In her long poem Dark Testament of which this movement or stanza is perhaps the most well-known and certainly most excerpted, our Yale "saint" Pauli Murray reflects on the history of African Americans, and of other Americans, in a narrative through which the theme of hope is woven.

That narrative is nevertheless unflinching in its attention to suffering and struggle. A kind of Juneteenth Psalm, it recounts a history that is confronting and shameful for its perpetrators, but in which hope persists in and out of the experience of black people, despite all that has taken place.

Theologians have often urged us to attend to the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is empirical and, at least under circumstances of privilege, easy; signs of things going well encourage us to think that present and future are happy and good. There is a well-known set of images associated with this outlook: the light of dawn, the shoots of new plants, birdsong.

Murray seems to work with and subvert these images, almost as a set: not a new shoot, but "a crushed stalk between clenched fingers," and not a chirping bird but "a bird's wing broken by a stone." These are what constitute hope, even though they are far from optimistic.

In a spirit often echoing through African-American experience and theology, Murray grounds hope not in the attractive signs of growth, but in the difficult and the obscure, when growth is invisible and can only be hoped for. As has often been said, African American people have "made a way out of no way."

What if this is exactly what hope means?

Here as we gather in the evening, the onset of darkness is not the easiest time at which to grasp optimism; the obscurity of night also tends to be seen as the opposite of what we find encouraging or cheery.

Just yesterday, many of us heard Paul in the Epistle to the Romans ponder this same question of hope and its relationship, not to the light-filled and cheery, but to the struggle: “suffering,” he says, “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” And, Paul says, “hope does not fail us…” Here is where optimism wants to interrupt and say “does not fail us because things are going to be fine.” Yet this is not what the apostle says; rather, hope does not fail us, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Earlier today in welcoming you I pondered more prosaically why we have come together, to seek encouragement and inspiration in challenging times for the Church. Our sister Pauli and brother Paul both have words for us that go deeper than whether the numbers are looking good, or whether success in the empirical sense seems to be showing itself. We are seeking hope, but like them we do not want to confuse it with optimism.

The crushed stalk, the broken wing, the suffering that leads to endurance and character, and the darkness itself, are not the enemies of hope but the places where it may be found. May that “God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

From a homily at Compline for the Leader's Way program of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Marquand Chapel, June 19 2023.
1 From Dark Testament and Other Poems, by Pauli Murray (Liveright, 2018)


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