“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” the Rev. James Thomas recited from the Bible, recounting when one of Jesus’ soon-to-be disciples questioned his humble beginnings.
Thomas stood Tuesday in the pulpit of the packed sanctuary of Bethpage United Presbyterian Church for a celebration of the life of the Rev. Katie Cannon, the first black woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Cannon died on Aug. 8 from Leukemia. She was 68.
Today, he continued, people wonder, “Can anything good come out of Kannapolis? More importantly, can anything good come out of Fisher Town?”
The pews erupted with laughter.
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“The overwhelming answer is yes,” he said.
Born and raised in the poor Kannapolis neighborhood of Fisher Town, Cannon was one of seven children, raised in the time of segregation.
“It was against the law to go to the library,” Cannon told the Observer in 2005. “I couldn’t play on that swing. By 4 or 5, I was wondering, ‘What did we do as black people that was so bad? A good God would not do this.’”
Though her parents didn’t have college degrees, the importance of education was instilled in Cannon and her six siblings.
Her older sister Sara Elizabeth Cannon-Fleming recounted at the service that their father was offended when asked if his kids would finish high school. She said that he responded, “My children are going to finish college — and go further.”
From the age of 12, Cannon worked cleaning houses alongside her aunt.
“The only ticket I had was to study, to be a bookworm,” she later said.
After Cannon graduated from Barber-Scotia College in Concord, she earned a master of divinity degree from the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Georgia.
She later was the first African-American to become a Doctor of Philosophy at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
And in 1974 Cannon became the first black woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church.
Cannon drew from her experiences as a black woman in her teaching and writing, most recently as the Annie Scales Rogers professor of Christian ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.
“She came out of a community that had been fractured by issues of race and then tried in her writing to envision ways in which she could participate in the healing of those fractures,” said the Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, president of the seminary.
The Rev. Dr. Amantha Barbee, a Charlotte native and pastor at Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church, met Cannon as a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
“When you’re an African-American woman going into the Presbyterian Church, and you sit with the first African-American woman who was ordained in the Church, there is an instant power in that,” Barbee said.
Cannon wrote multiple books on “womanist theology.” Womanism, a term credited to “The Color Purple” author Alice Walker, involves looking at the world through the lens of women of color.
Earlier this year, Cannon established the Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary. The center’s inaugural womanist conference convened in April and featured 14 black women scholars, including Walker.
In June, Cannon received the Excellence in Theological Education Award at the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. The award is the “highest honor in the PC (USA) for those who teach, lead and support theological education,” the denomination’s website says.
But Cannon-Fleming said that her sister’s accolades and accomplishments never changed her. In Fisher Town, she was known simply as Kate.
Cannon-Fleming said that she spoke with her every morning between 7 and 7:30 a.m.
When Cannon was diagnosed with acute leukemia, her older sister continued to call her daily, even on the day she died.
“I could tell she was weak,” Cannon-Fleming said. “She said that she was tired and she was ready to go home. At that time, I didn’t know what home she was talking about.”