Beloved St. John’s community,

In this past Sunday’s reading from the book of Hebrews, following Jesus is compared to running a race—with a “great cloud of witnesses,” our spiritual ancestors in faith, cheering like spectators at a marathon they themselves have already finished. As a runner myself, I know how much it means to have mentors and cheerleaders when you are doing the hard work of putting one foot in front of the other—whether it’s an official race or just an everyday run you could have decided to skip (see my sermon from Sunday for more about these parallels). One of our own spiritual ancestors is the saint from today, Artemisia Bowden. Ms. Bowden was an African American woman born to former slaves who in 1902 was called by the Bishop of West Texas, James Johnston, to take over running St. Philips School in San Antonio. Under her leadership of 52 years, this school grew, expanded, and eventually became St. Philips Community College.

There are many remarkable things about Ms. Bowden’s leadership. First, at a time when education to black people and especially black girls was severely undervalued and under resourced, she taught girls not only how to sew and cook, but also reading, writing, algebra, history, and botany. Although the Episcopal Church recruited her to run this school, there is some evidence that it did not provide parallel financial support to this school as compared to other schools—so much so that during the Depression, when it withdrew financial support of the school, Ms. Bowden generously used half of her own inheritance money to keep it going.1 She insisted that girls, and black girls, deserved a full education and continued to lead to make this possible.

Some of what gave Ms. Bowden the stamina to keep going despite tremendous odds was her faith—her capacity to look forward:

Although she worked as a black, female educator in the South during a time of racial segregation and discriminatory attitudes towards women in general, Bowden chose to focus on the positive instead of the negative: ‘I always anticipate success in any undertaking, never failure. A person who has courage must be full of faith.’ [15] Bowden refused to let her race and gender determine her potential, even though she faced obstacles due to both.2

As I said in Sunday’s sermon, faith is not so much about what people have traditionally called beliefs as it is about a profound trust that the Creator made this world for goodness, that even your worst enemy was not made for hatred and violence, and neither were you. Because of this inherent sacredness, we can trust that no matter how sick this world can be, sickness is not its core, and that a world where all can flourish is possible and worth fighting for.

As you consider your own faith and also the areas where you have felt discouraged, consider looking both back and forward. Find someone whose example deeply inspires and encourages you. Then look forward, fixing your eyes on Jesus whose incandescent love still heals and inspires. If we trust that with God’s help, the world can move in the direction of wholeness for all—even if it’s not in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime—we can be encouraged to make the sacrifices that are within our abilities, in our corner of the world.

If you’d like, consider every day making space to “look back and look ahead.” Looking back, you can spend time in scripture and in the stories of those who inspire you. Looking ahead you can pray, dare to trust that God’s will and purpose is for wholeness for all life, and then ask God’s Spirit to show you what action you can take today to step forward toward that future.

In Christ’s love,