Making saints, I

By Donald Schell

“Do I see Malcolm X up there dancing with Queen Elizabeth I?” the visitor asked, “And who’s the kid beside Elizabeth? Who made these people saints?”

Week by week, we’d often hear visitors ask about the icons on our church walls, and answering the questions for the years I was rector at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco, I found myself thinking about the glory and messiness of how the Christian church has managed to hang together and preach Good News for two thousand years.

Yes, I’d say, pointing up to her icon, that’s Elizabeth I dancing with Malcolm X to her right and Iqbal Masih to her left. We commemorate Elizabeth for her peace-making principle that people praying together would be the ground of our unity, not doctrinal uniformity. I usually began by talking about Elizabeth, because her vision helped shape the whole icon.

We remember Malcolm X, because on his trip to Mecca, God changed his heart and he renounced teaching hate of white people and became an orthodox Muslim, proclaiming and worshipping one God who embraced all humanity. Teaching God’s embrace of all humanity was what got him killed when he came back home.

And Iqbal Masih? He was a Pakistani Christian child sold into indentured servitude at age four. At ten he escaped from crippling work as a rug-knotter, and fearlessly told his story to the world, offering his voice and experience to support the Bonded Labor Liberation Front that was freeing thousands of child-slaves like him and teaching rug buyers around the world to ask who was making their hand-tied rugs, how the workers were being treated and whether they were being paid fairly. In 1995, when Iqbal Masih was twelve, he testified before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. That Easter he went home to his village to go to church, and that afternoon was shot dead, martyred in the street for helping other children find freedom.

Do the haloes mean you think they’re all saints?

Well, yes. But let me skip forward. Why tell the story now? Visitors to St. Gregory’s, San Francisco have been asking these questions since 1997, two years after Iqbal Masih’s martyrdom, when our iconographer, Mark Dukes, installed the first eight icons launching the just-completed project of surrounding the altar with ninety saints, following Christ’s lead, dancing the reconciliation of all. The New York Times did a brief photo story on the first eight saints, Sojourner Truth, Bartolome de las Casas, Miriam (Moses’ sister), Origen, Malcolm X, Elizabeth I, Iqbal Masih and Teresa of Avila. People outside church circles are interested in who the church holds up as our guides and examples, and when the list includes unexpected people, the interest grows.

Rick Fabian and I, St. Gregory’s founding rectors have moved on to new work. St. Gregory’s new rector, Paul Fromberg, made completing the great icon a priority and saw to it that the congregation raised the funds to pay for the saints who would complete the line. This month with the icon finally complete, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun magazine includes a picture story and an interview with the artist. Completion has me looking back at the project’s path and thinking about what some of those saints on the wall may teach us about communion in Christ.

The icon of Jesus leading the dance went up for Easter of 1996 several months ahead of the first eight saints. Actually, the original icon of Christ was a twelve-foot high charcoal draft on paper to hold Jesus’ place leading the dance until our iconographer felt ready to paint the finished icon of Christ. Mark said the multitude of saints would help him see something more of how to paint Christ, so while he was painting more saints in the line, he would be praying for his fullest vision of Christ leading the dance. Mark painted the canvas panels in his studio, and with a lift and scaffolding mounted them on the church walls to refine color touches to harmonize with the paintings already up, and to add the hand-polished work of the gold haloes. Over a dozen years new panels of saints joined the congregation’s dance six or eight at a time.

Our vision for the project came from St. Gregory of Nyssa, the great Christian universalist theologian who helped draft the final version of the Nicene Creed in 359-360 A.D. Writing elsewhere in a psalm commentary Gregory envisioned the beginning and the ending of all creation in Christ – a time of the whole rational creation dancing joyfully together, following the lead of Jesus the Word, a true Lord of the dance.

So what gave your congregation authority to make unofficial saints?

Actually, we believe God made them saints, and that God made and is making innumerably more saints, people named and unnamed, so many there’s no wall in the world big enough to hold their icon. But for our congregation’s work of selecting saints for the eighty-nine whose icons would dance with Christ, we began by brainstorming names, places, kinds of work, and grace-filled human stories from around the world and through history to begin our thinking about how human lives could show God at work. Then any willing St. Gregory’s member was invited into the long work of our saints discernment committee. Six lay volunteers and the two rectors took on the long task of sifting names, discussing reasons people had suggested specific saints, and trying to keep in mind the whole picture.

Why isn’t ______________ a saint?

The icon says nothing about who ‘isn’t’ a saint. The committee’s task was to choose eighty-nine saints (a number determined by the 2500 square feet of available wall space) whose dancing together would evoke, “All humanity in the light of God.” Immediately and painfully we realized that we could only focus on who we would include rather than what it meant to leave someone out. Each member of the committee had favorite candidates who didn’t make the list of eighty-nine. The work wasn’t an election process and it wasn’t choosing who to exclude. Meeting three times monthly for eighteen months, the committee kept asking, “What kind of witness is still missing?” “If we’re not looking for a perfect life, then what?” “Just what is a saint?” “What about _______?” With each provisional selection, we made notes of why we were thinking to include that one. We kept refining those notes, asked again, and when we found people, places and work missing, added names, reconsidered the whole list, altered some selections until we created our list for Mark to paint and wrote our list’s rationale for teaching, for visitors, and to make a record that would explain the icon when we were gone.

The committee’s work was an intentional process of local commemoration, formalizing the ancient church’s way of canonizing saints. We also deliberately acknowledged and borrowed from wider church processes of local commemoration, choosing, for example, names from a dozen recent new, unofficial saints that had been commissioned for niche statues at Westminster Abbey. To widen our own perspective on recent history, we phoned and talked with African American church leaders, with Hawaiian Episcopalians, and with church leaders in Africa and China.

When The Episcopal Church’s General Convention was considering whether to give Li Tim Oi, Anglicanism’s first woman priest, a saint’s day in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, our Episcopal Church’s way of canonizing a saint, the convention committee welcomed St. Gregory’s witness of Li Tim Oi’s icon on the wall (dancing in line between Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Heschel) along with other church’s stained glass windows of her as required evidence of local commemoration, a necessary first step in our church’s legal process for wider acknowledgment.

This year at Anaheim’s 2009 General Convention, we hope St. Gregory’s icon of Thurgood Marshall (dancing in the line between Cesar Chavez and Andrei Rublev) can support the petitions of Justice Marshall’s home parish (St. Augustine’s, Washington, D.C.) and diocese (Diocese of Washington) to add Thurgood Marshall to our church’s calendar.

Tomorrow: What do common law saints teach us about life in communion?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Past Posts