Celebrating the true diversity of our white-washed saints

(Photo: Unsplash/Chris Lawton)

As a child I was fascinated by the lives of historical saints - holy people who were known for their closeness to God. To me, they were examples of faith who showed dedication by serving others with little thought for themselves.

For a young black girl with a vivid imagination, they were a source of inspiration: full of courage with an obvious passion for Christ. I wanted to be like those true witnesses, bold but humble, unwavering in their faith and secure in their Christian identity.

However, something bugged me when reading about them. Many appeared to be from Europe, and none of them looked like me. Representations of them in books or in the stained-glass windows of the churches I attended were predominantly white and male. In addition, I realised that their stories were often told with little or no reference to their origins, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

As I grew older, I learnt of saints like Augustine who came from different parts of the globe. Several I had never heard of before, but whose stories were just as inspiring as famous figures such as St Francis of Assisi.

What if, I speculated, their stories were more widely known?

I decided to write my new book, Every Tribe, after much discussion with colleagues, friends and parishioners about how it would be good to hear about different saintly lives, where they came from and what they stood for and how they lived with challenges told from the perspective of people who themselves came from diverse backgrounds.

What is different from the usual accounts of figures such as St George, the patron saint of England, is the inclusion of little-known facts such as his Palestinian immigrant origins and Turkish father.

Other chapters introduce us to lesser known saints such as St Alphonsa (Annakutty) who encouraged others to live a life of 'Holiness through lowliness' and who was the first Indian woman to be canonized.

Cerefino Gimin├ęz Malla (El Pele) is the only person of Gypsy origin to be honoured as a saint and faced a firing squad for refusing to renounce other believers and stop praying, while Pauli Murray is one of the first African American female priests in the Episcopal Church who worked tirelessly for civil rights.

They are not as familiar, but their stories are just as inspiring as the more well-known figures. 

The overriding message that I want readers to take away is that holiness comes in all forms and is not about the individual as such, but that God invites all humanity to participate. In truth, saints are not extraordinary people, but ordinary, everyday folks moved to show the extraordinary love of God to those around them.

With that in mind, the short biographies are accompanied by a personal reflection, prayers and meditations because I want the reader consider that holiness is a quality borne from a deep relationship with God.

Those who have written the chapters are drawn from diverse backgrounds: all testifying to the fact that it is this very difference that contributes to the wonderful body of Christ. And that great image of those from every tribe and nation worshipping God from Revelation 7:9 is what actually inspired the title of the book.

Together we reflect what it means to live for God and are used for His glory. At a time of increasing social fragmentation, alienation and rising suspicion towards one another, it is important for us to remember that we are all formed in the image of Christ.

Rev Dr Sharon Prentis is Intercultural Mission Enabler & Dean of Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic Affairs for the Church of England in Birmingham. Every Tribe is out from SPCK on 18 April 2019