Mtr Kate contributes to our series on inspirational Black people:
Barbara was born in Philadelphia in 1930 to Walter and Beatrice. She was very musical and also developed an interest in writing and even had a weekly column in a local newspaper. She went on to study journalism, and later she studied pastoral counselling. Her theological studies brought her to Sheffield University to their Urban theology unit.
Barbara’s first career was in Public Relations. Her life’s passion was advocating for those she described as “the least, the lost, and the left out”. As a civil rights activist she took many risks but held the view that “Everyone is in danger”.
Barbara argued for gay rights and spoke out against racism and sexism within the Episcopal church. She was ordained deacon in 1979 and then priest in 1980, then in 1989, she was elected as the first woman bishop in the Episcopal church, causing some controversy because she had not been to seminary, and she was divorced and a woman. Despite the advice given she refused to wear a bullet proof vest at her ordination.
Bp Barbara speaking of her work as bishop said, “I certainly don’t want to be one of the boys. I want to offer my peculiar gifts as a black woman … a sensitivity and an awareness that comes out of more than a passing acquaintance with oppression.” She served 13 years as a bishop, retiring in 2003. Bp Barbara died in a hospice on 13th March 2020.
As a priest and a woman, I admire Bp Barbara. Her personal experiences of oppression did not crush her, but were used to help inform and enrich her ministry. She was willing to be unpopular and to put herself at risk standing up for what is right, resisting the status quo. Her empathy with the most vulnerable was the core of her life and ministry, and her immense courage in the face of opposition is truly inspirational.
Everliving God, in every generation you cause fresh winds to renew, refresh, and refine your people and in your Word summon us to live courageously as Easter people in an often Good Friday world. Defend us in our own day to make no peace with oppression; that boldly following the example of your servant Barbara Clementine Harris, chosen bishop in your church, we may strive not for ease or fame but gladly toil and walk with you all along our pilgrim journey; through Jesus our Saviour. Amen