Continuing my personal reflections on African American History Month, I have become who I am through the helping hearts and hands of so many. Yet another…
September 1975. The beginning of my second seminary year. I remember a classmate, the late Wayland Edward Melton, who one day would be dean of Philadelphia Cathedral in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, returning from summer break with a breathlessly exuberant report about Verna Dozier. “This itty-bitty Black woman biblical scholar” had conducted a late summer retreat for clergy and ordination candidates. “She was brilliant”, he enthused, his face abeam with wonder, “and she is a lay person who schooled the clergy about the Bible!”
I carried that memory until the moment I met Verna in 1992. She was the guest instructor on the Book of Genesis at a week-long teaching series at the former College of Preachers of the Washington National Cathedral. I especially recall her lecture on the Creation story. At the close, a member of the audience asked, “Dr. Dozier, scripture tells us that shortly after God completed his work of creation, he commanded of the woman, saying,” reading from his pocket Bible, he lowered his voice for emphasis, “‘your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ As I read it, Dr. Dozier, this is a part of God’s plan. What do you, particularly as a woman, say?” The standing room only crowd fell silent, both in response to the inquirer’s impertinence and with bated breath awaiting Verna’s reply. She bowed her head, sitting still, her hands clasped on her lap. After several moments, she looked up, turned her head to face her questioner, saying, her voice soft and low, rich with resonance, “Yes, that is a part of the story, but it was a condition of life after the Fall.” Another hush fell over the gathered throng, our voices stilled by the implication of her answer, plain to hear for all who would receive it, that the subordination of women was the result of human disobedience and defiance of God’s plan, thus not an aspect of the genius of creation. After another several moments, Verna said, her voice rising in conviction, “And it is our work, the people of God, with God’s help, to correct it!”
Later, Verna, who in the mid-1950s was the first African American member of St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector (1998-2015), became a treasured mentor. Always sensible. Ever sagacious. Verna was one of very few in my experience in whom common sense and uncommon intellect dwelled in daily harmony. In this, she was equally adept in offering the encouragement of candid praise and the correction of principled critique.
Verna’s lessons of God’s love and justice live in me. Whenever I need a refresher, I reach to my bookshelf to retrieve, read, and reflect anew on her writings, particularly the autographed, dogged-eared copy of her seminal work, annotated with sundry self-inscribed marginal notes, The Dream of God: A Call To Return (1991). In these pages, Verna speaks with the timbre of her favorite biblical figure, the prophet Amos, who declared, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Decrying how the Christian church has abandoned God’s dream to follow (and not merely to worship) Jesus, she advocates for the reclamation of this truest of callings. Through these pages, I always hear Verna’s voice, saying, “Paul, do not tell me what you believe. Show me the difference it makes, the difference you make that you believe.”