Laura Ullrich and David Brown: Why pastors should understand economics

In their long friendship, economist Laura Ullrich and pastor David Brown have talked a lot.

“We like to meet for coffee and talk about deep things that other people may not find as exciting as we do,” Ullrich said.

Ullrich, who is the senior regional economist for North and South Carolina for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, met Brown when she moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and he was the pastor of the church she attended.

Brown worked as a pastor for two decades before becoming a consultant and coach as well as a registered representative with New York Life. He also is the founding pastor of a community of disciples in Rock Hill called The Welcome Table.

So when Brown began teaching in the D.Min. program at Duke Divinity School, he invited Ullrich to come to his strategy class to talk about economics.

Ullrich talked about trends and data; Brown put the information in context as a pastor.

Following that model, Ullrich and Brown share their thoughts on economics, ministry and Christian life in this interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Why do you think pastors should understand economics?

Laura Ullrich

Laura Ullrich: I would argue that economics can explain just about anything, because it explains how people and firms and organizations — which could also be a church — make decisions in the presence of scarcity. Scarcity of resources, scarcity of time.

How are people making their decisions [about] where they attend church, whether they attend church, how often they attend church? When they’re making decisions about how to allocate their time, that’s economics.

Another issue is the racial wealth gap. I personally think this is an important topic for everybody to understand — that some of the structural foundations of the economy since the founding of the United States prevent some families from growing the same kind of wealth that other families have.

Pastor David Brown

David Brown: I would add to that, I think that theology can be a lens through which a lot of how we experience things can be understood.

The sort of economics that Laura deals in from day to day is built on that idea of scarce resources. From a Christian point of view, we worship and follow a Jesus who was inaugurated in a kingdom where the bottom line was abundance.

It’s not an economy, perhaps, that we will experience on this planet. But our calling as Christians is to move our lived experience in this world toward that ideal.

That interplay between the scarcity that we actually experience in our economy versus this vision of what human flourishing might be — I think that’s the tension in which we live as followers of Jesus.

F&L: How can pastors or congregants or Christian individuals use this information?

DB: I would say that for those of us who are Christians, and Christian leaders, it’s a spiritual crisis as well. How do we respond faithfully to the volatility that’s going on around us?

What do we actually learn from in times of volatility? Can we sense new directions of God’s spirit that are moving us into new ways of being through disruptions? Are disruptions actually a learning opportunity for us?

Moving into the future, all leaders are going to have to intentionally increase their capacity to deal with change, uncertainty, volatility.

I think the other way to come at it is through the best of our tradition and heritage and history. How can we not be paying attention to economics and the situation in which our neighbors are living?

I think Jesus talks more about money than just about anything. The law and the prophets really talk about how we order society to lead toward human flourishing.

Our goal, our telos, our end goal in Christian leadership, what sets us apart from other types of firms or businesses or other types of leaders, is that we’re framed by the beginning and the ending of the biblical story.

We’re framed by the goodness of God’s creation in the beginning, and we’re framed by the re-creation we believe is in process and will come to completion one day.

F&L: What would you like people to understand about economics?

LU: I think that leaders of churches have a responsibility to try to make people aware of what the world looks like outside the walls of their particular churches, because even on the same street, it can be very different. And data can help with that.

A big part of my job is educating people about what’s actually going on. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision. If you live in a community with people, including in your church life, that look very much like you, have income levels that are about where yours are, you really can be in a place where you do not realize what the data actually show.

Has the wage gap between men and women or Black individuals and white individuals narrowed? Yes. But what are the data around what’s actually going on in terms of wealth?

The most recent data show that Black families are 20 times more likely to have zero or negative wealth than they are to have a million dollars in assets. That comes from the Institute for Policy Studies.

So a church that relies on white membership might have a pretty constant stream of money from people leaving money to them in their wills and things like that. They’re also getting regular large gifts from people as they start giving away assets as they get older.

A church with predominantly Black membership may struggle from a financial point of view in a way that’s likely different from a white church simply because of that statistic.

On the behavioral economics side, there are things that leaders within churches can do to encourage tithing or increase tithing. There are ways that they can practically impact the financial viability of their churches by thinking through how people make decisions.

What engages people at a deeper level than they might be giving otherwise?

So I think there’s a practical side of it, too, just from actually funding your organization. I’m sure it’s something pastors don’t feel as comfortable talking about, but it’s a very important part of running a church.

DB: I think No. 1 is the ability to look up from trying to preserve our institution and to see what God is up to in the world around us. And to believe that the Spirit is already at work, that God is already on a mission in the world outside the institutions of our churches.

Listening, asking questions, really assuming that we have something we can learn from our neighbors who are similar to us in some ways and different from us in other ways.

Take an asset-based approach to our neighborhoods, and to our ministry alongside our neighbors. Instead of focusing on problems we might solve — especially white, resourced churches — really look at what assets are in the neighborhoods around us. How can we invest out of our resources in those assets?

And when we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.

F&L: Does a policy focus make sense, or do you see other ways to effect change?

LU: Churches and all organizations have to be careful with policy, because you don’t want it to be overly political.

But there are certain policies that really aren’t political in nature. There are some policies where it’s pretty clear that if there were relatively small changes, it could have a big impact.

An example was the GI Bill. When the GI Bill was passed, years ago, on paper it looked like it was this amazing opportunity for all veterans.

But then when you actually dug in, there was a major push in the South, specifically, in Congress and the Senate, to get the GI Bill to be locally administered versus federally administered. And the impact of that ended up being pretty significant discrimination at the local level.

And so the reality was the GI Bill could help you buy a house as a veteran, but those opportunities were not equal across race and gender. Redlining was in place with banks, so you couldn’t get a mortgage in a lot of the predominantly minority neighborhoods. And in the South, many of the white neighborhoods had covenants that said minorities couldn’t live there.

So the practical application of this local policy, the fact that it was locally administered, resulted in some pretty significant discrimination.

So that’s an example of a policy where decisions that were made led to generational outcome differences. At the time, if people had been more aware of how these decisions were made, maybe something could have been different, right?

DB: There’s a good bit of variance across denominations in this area. There may be specific ways in which denominational structures either encourage or discourage that.

You can hardly read Scripture and not be called to act for, not just the common good, but the flourishing of all people. So I think our faith requires us to be political but not partisan.

I think there are two things that are helpful here. One of them is oriented toward the past; one of them is oriented toward the future.

Oriented toward the past, I think that particularly white Christians and churches who have been a part of the power system in the United States can acknowledge and repent. And repentance isn’t just something you say; it’s something you do.

And then the forward-looking piece: I’m teaching strategy, where the rubber hits the road for ministry. There’s this interplay between theology and economics and Christian practice.

One of the ways we define strategy in the class is “what we are doing in the present.” Everyone has a strategy; how well thought out, how intentional it is, is the question.

I think that to be more intentional about that would be to say, “Who is it that we are as churches? What are we called to do? What is God’s intention for us? And how are we living into that?”

I think that’s more than just, “How do we keep the lights on in the church building or pay down the mortgage or increase our budget?”

F&L: What is your advice for folks struggling with whether there is going to be a recession?

LU: There are a lot of people that were literally taught in school that the definition of recession is two quarters of negative GDP growth. That’s not true. There’s no true definition of a recession. However, because so many people believe that definition, that changes how they make decisions, right?

I think people are right to feel unsettled right now. We have the highest inflation we’ve had in 40-plus years. The last time inflation was this high, David and I were in preschool.

And for a large percentage of the population, this is truly causing them stress. It is difficult for them to maintain their lifestyle right now compared with how it was six months or a year ago. So the discomfort is understandable and real.

On the more positive side, for most of us, the only recessions we remember well are the COVID recession, which was a bizarre situation, and then the Great Recession, which is called the Great Recession because it was so significant.

A lot of people who are working today don’t remember the recession in 2001, or in 1992, 1993. They were recessions but were not as significant. So when a lot of people hear “recession,” they think of something more extreme than it might be in the end.

As of right now, employment remains very strong. We are adding an impressive number of jobs in the U.S. each month. Until that pattern changes, it is less likely that we will officially be in a recession.

F&L: David, what do you think church leaders should do in this period of uncertainty?

DB: Pastors and other church leaders have to intentionally cultivate a sense of hopeful realism.

As pastors, part of our calling is to be companions and shepherds of our congregations as we move through life together. You can’t do that with either a Pollyannaish sense of optimism or a sense of cynicism.

The place that I would start is with a core belief statement, that the God that we believe in is a God who has guided God’s people through all sorts of times of uncertainty and challenge. God invites us to be active participants in that story of ongoing redemption. God’s grace and love will sustain us no matter what.

Even in the midst of all that’s going on, and the real actual pain and uncertainty, God is still present in the lives of God’s people. And so we can find reasons for hope.

When we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.

In 2022, one of the most radical acts we can champion is reading together. I know it sounds simple, maybe even boring, but in times like these, we need to read.

We find ourselves in the middle of politically charged arguments about pandemic precautions, reentry into schools and churches, classroom book bans, critical race theory, looming elections, Supreme Court nominations — all filtered through endless Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, Twitter chats, Facebook and Instagram feeds, TikTok dances, hybrid conferences, and a wary sense of heightened tension about almost everything else.

We remain in a season of change and unrest. Now more than ever, we need shared exposure to our history, our present and our unknown future. When we read together, we dream together. And we are in desperate need of collective dreaming.

Historically, literacy has been a privilege. Those who are able to read can speak as equal conversation partners with others who have access to written resources.

When we think about the Protestant Reformation of 1517, let it not be lost on us that it was launched by a written document. Martin Luther wrote and posted his 95 Theses to challenge the Catholic Church as it stood at that time. The Reformation was launched by a written document that was read and interpreted during the 1500s. As the Deseret News put it, “Probably the most important engine of rapid intellectual and spiritual transformation during the Reformation was printing and expanding literacy.”

For those who weren’t able to read, clergy would interpret the medieval art and stained glass among them to explain the biblical stories and teachings orally. While this might initially have been seen as an act of benevolence, it created an imbalanced power dynamic between the literate and the illiterate.

This class divide became painfully evident by the time enslaved Africans had been forced to live in North America under the brutality of slave owners who used their own reading and interpreting of the Bible to justify their horrendous acts of subjugating Black bodies. Howard University political science professor Clarence Lusane, quoted on History.com, has pointed to the increasing sense in the 19th century that “an educated enslaved person was a dangerous person.”

Dangerous, certainly, to the status quo. As historian Sarah Roth, the creator of The Nat Turner Project at Meredith College, noted in that same article, “Literacy promotes thought and raises consciousness. It helps you to get outside of your own cultural constraints and think about things from a totally different angle.”

We now find ourselves at another literacy-related crossroads. Church members and leaders may continue to be limited in what they read by barriers and boundaries beyond basic literacy — the social climates they find themselves in, the biased algorithms they scroll through, even their own misunderstanding of what kinds of literature Christians should be consuming.

We need look no farther than Florida, Texas, Tennessee and other states to recognize that the power of reading is such a change agent that some leaders have gone to the extreme lengths of banning books on or by Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Ruby Bridges and others in an effort to control the scope of the narrative to which children are exposed.

This is why reading groups at our churches are a radical act. We must reclaim the work of exposing our people to liberative texts, engaging our people on their thoughts and ideas, and encouraging our people to push the envelope.

At the start of this year, my faith community, The Double Love Experience Church, launched a book club suggested by one of our members, Brian Lindsey. The group chose to read “All About Love,” by bell hooks. We never anticipated what would result from creating a space for people to read together: the depth of the conversations, the camaraderie that emerged, the questions that were raised, the new people in our community that were attracted.

In March, we read poems written by Black women in honor of Women’s HERstory Month. What we didn’t expect was that our members would also read short stories from writers such as Deesha Philyaw, J. California Cooper and Audre Lorde. I quickly realized that there is a deep hunger among my congregants to read both fictional and nonfictional accounts of lives similar to their own.

And therein lies the revolutionary, radical power of reading groups within Black faith communities. Discovering their own identity and shared experiences in the company of their church family creates another way for people to bring their full and real selves to church. It’s another way to support authenticity within a congregational setting.

With so many attacks on people’s personhood and self-agency, how powerful would it be for the church to be seen as a safe space again? What might it look like for children who have had texts banned from their classrooms to be taught those books in Sunday school? What might it look like for adults whose days are stretched thin to have Bible studies with their pastors breaking down in one hour the texts they’ve not had time to read?

Over the past two years, my church has offered Bible studies around books such as: “for colored girls who’ve considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” by Ntozake Shange, “The Fire Next Time,” by James Baldwin, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” by Kiese Laymon,Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson, “Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength,” by Chanequa Walker-Barnes, “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church,” by Barbara Holmes, “The Black Christ,” by Kelly Brown Douglas, and more.

We paired biblical texts with each book and taught from a theological perspective, allowing the content of the book to be our guide for cultural ethnography and real-time examples of issues that our people currently face. Every time we’ve dug into one of these books, our members have been radically affected by the intersectionality of this work and the liberative gospel of Jesus Christ.

So be radical. Read together. Expand your canon. Create safe space. Engage your people. Enrich your people. Encourage your people. In the process, you’ll engage, enrich and encourage yourself too.

Each time we dive into these texts, we construct a different kind of world for our members to dive into. Churches have done well to read faith-based books, but in this season, I’m calling on Black churches to imagine reading books on our culture and from our writers. I believe there is something revolutionary and reconstructive in this kind of work, because one cannot read without also interpreting.

So read, beloveds. Be radical. We need you.

When we read together, we dream together. And we are in desperate need of collective dreaming.

Our children can ask tough questions.

One of the tough questions that Kelly Brown Douglas faced from her son, a Black man, was whether Black lives would ever matter.

It was in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic and public killings of Black men were all over the news. The question was crucial, but the answers weren’t so simple and pushed Douglas to examine what she really believed about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“I get it that Christ is Black,” he said to Douglas. “But what difference is that making to us right now? Black people are still getting killed.”

book cover image of "Resurrection Hope"

It’s answering this question that drives Douglas’ book “Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter.” In the book, she articulates how she, and this nation, can get stuck on the crucifixion, where death becomes the end of the story. Instead, she argues, Christians should turn to meet Christ in Galilee, finding him and joining him in the work of making a new life.

Douglas spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and what we can learn from our children’s questions. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What led you to write this book?

Kelly Brown Douglas: All of my books begin with a journey of “faith seeking understanding,” to quote Anselm. That’s what I think theology is; that’s what it has been for me.

And so my writings always begin with these issues and questions of faith as I try to understand the justice of God amid the realities of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and ongoing systemic, cultural sin.

headshot of Kelly Brown Douglas

In this instance, those questions of my own faith were exacerbated because I was also facing the questions of my son, as a mother. My son and I often find ourselves in various conversations as he navigates what it means to be Black and male in a culture and a society so thoroughly saturated with white supremacist, anti-Black realities.

And my son kept asking me a question in 2020 that I could not turn away from: “Will Black lives ever really matter?”

That question cut to the core for me, what it meant for me to be a mother and my concern for my son and his future and the future of his kids. And it also cut to the core of my faith, because that question — “Will Black lives ever really matter?” — was really the question, “Can we really trust in the promise of God for a more just future?”

If Black lives are never going to matter, then that promise of God is a false promise, so we cannot trust him. And so the many different ways in which he asked that question, and sometimes directly, is what pushed me into this journey through this book.

My son grew up in the church and grew up with the notion of the Black Christ. But he was asking a question of theodicy.

In the midst of the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, what did it matter that Christ identified with us? And what I realized is that I was stuck on the cross and this Christ that was Black was dying with us. But Black death was being sanctified and became necessary.

His question took me there. What does the Black Christ really mean?

F&L: What does resurrection hope look like, then?

KBD: It took me a while to get there. This book was a journey through despair, to faith, through doubt, back to faith, through crucifixion, to resurrection. It affirmed and made me really believe that faith and doubt go together.

Even though I can come out and say at the end of this book that there’s resurrection hope, that doesn’t mean that it’s a once-and-for-all journey, and that I won’t have to walk through this journey again.

Faith is not a one-time journey. Hope is something that, I think, takes work.

And so what does that look like, on two levels? First, it means understanding what got us to this place and the depth of the reality that we live in, where Black lives have come not to matter.

We keep repeating this crucifying reality; we keep repeating Good Friday over and over and over again. I had to ask myself, “Does God allow us to die?”

One of the things that was happening in the nation because of George Floyd’s death, everyone was coming to this sort of new awakening of racial injustice. It required Black death to get us there, but we’d already had a number of crucifixions. We already went through Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Philando Castile; Rekia Boyd and Atatiana Jefferson.

How many Black deaths does it require just to get us to recognize that there’s racial injustice, and how many more Black deaths are going to happen before we create a racially just society?

I was stuck on Good Friday, but this nation is stuck on Good Friday, too, when it comes to Black lives.

So I said, “Maybe if that’s where we are, then this isn’t the faith for me.” But then I heard the scripture of the resurrected Jesus telling the disciples to meet him at Galilee; I literally remember hearing that in my head. And I went in search of Galilee.

The only Galilee that I could think of at that point was the Black Lives Matter protests down in D.C. And to be in those protests, among those protestors, I knew then that it is in this movement for a more just future that we really see the movement of the resurrected Christ. You really see God, and you feel the presence of God. Because I felt, I felt the presence of God, and my hope was reawakened.

And that’s the resurrection hope. Hope is a signal of transcendence, but hope is always an active thing, as the resurrection is an active thing. It required people to move and to go back to Galilee and to recommit themselves to the ministry of Jesus.

In that protest, these people believed, really believed, that a future where Black lives could matter would indeed become a reality, because if they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t be down there fighting for it. And that to me is hope, what hope looks like. And that is what resurrection hope looks like, because it calls you to life so that we can partner together in creating new life.

F&L: Looking toward Easter, how do you think our Easter hopes should be influenced by the events of the world?

KBD: If we’re going to talk about the resurrection, the Easter resurrection, we cannot talk about that apart from the crucifixions that are happening in our society and in our world.

We have to ask ourselves, “Where would the resurrected Jesus be calling us to?” Where’s Galilee for us, and what does that mean for us in terms of the ways in which we have to partner with God to move toward new life?

When we talk about Easter Sunday, we can’t just talk about it and say, “I believe the Lord is risen.” What does that look like practically, in reality, in history? We only know what that looks like when we have an appreciation for the crucifying reality, from which God has freed us or is trying to free us.

F&L: You talk about the silence of the white church in the book — what should Easter look like for them?

KBD: It should look like the courage to claim their voices and to really claim their faith.

We hear the voices of the white church when it’s George Floyd. We didn’t hear that much around many others who have died. Why don’t we hear those voices when it’s not a big thing on TV? Black people are being killed every day; where are those white clergy voices now?

I think that the white church has to reclaim its faith and what it really means to have faith in a resurrected Jesus.

I think of the white church like the religious leaders and disciples after Jesus’ death cowering behind closed doors in fear.

Who are the enemies that they’re scared of? Are they afraid of losing some kind of privilege? Easter for the white church should mean being called out from behind those closed doors.

The Rev. Pauli Murray may be among the 20th century’s most influential voices for justice, yet one whose name isn’t familiar to many Americans. Murray’s work, spanning issues like gender, race and workers’ rights, influenced contemporary and future leaders, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In addition, history records Murray as the first Black woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, although Murray would now be considered gender nonconforming.

“We owe so much to her courage, to her willingness to speak out when society was not prepared to listen,” Ginsburg said of Murray in 2017.

Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen began work on their recently released documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray” after encountering Murray’s story through their earlier film “RBG.”

Betsy and Julie
Betsy West and Julie Cohen

They spoke in September with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne. The following is an edited transcript.

Pauli Murray documentary poster

Faith & Leadership: What led you to make this movie?

Betsy West: The movie began when we learned about Pauli Murray from Ruth Bader Ginsburg when we were making our documentary “RBG.” We found out that as a lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had put Pauli Murray’s name on the cover of the first gender-equality brief that Ginsburg wrote before the Supreme Court — not because Pauli had actually been a co-author, but because Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to acknowledge Pauli Murray’s legal thinking about how to win gender equality for women, how to use the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to gain equality.

We knew that while we were making [“RBG”], but afterward, we thought, “Let’s find out more about this person.”

When we did the Google search and started seeing the incredible life that Pauli lived and the impact that Pauli had on our world, we were astounded that, first of all, we didn’t know about Pauli Murray, hadn’t been taught about Pauli Murray, and we began to think, “Well, could we make a documentary about Pauli?”

F&L: What were the challenges in presenting a fully formed three-dimensional person who wasn’t in most history books? You all were having to do your own research on a lot of this.

Julie Cohen: I think our idea going into this project was we wanted as much as possible to make the viewer feel that they’re hearing Pauli’s thoughts in Pauli’s own words. While it was challenging, because this is such a complex and multifaceted life, the task was made less formidable — and I would even say the task was made possible — by Pauli’s own work, because Pauli had not only put together material kind of spelling out this amazing life story but had made sure that it was preserved.

Every time that somebody came to do an oral history or a journalistic interview with Pauli, Pauli would just get a tape recorder and run tape also and save the tape. Many of these were ultimately stored at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, where Pauli’s archives are kept, and the letters and the papers and even the poetry, which helped tie together so many different ideas and emotions that were fundamental to what Pauli did and who Pauli was.

The material was there, and the challenge was just how best to put it together to an audience, some of whom know quite a bit about Pauli but many of whom are completely unfamiliar with this important historical figure.

F&L: What did you have to leave out?

BW: This is by no means the definitive biography of Pauli Murray. There were chapters in Pauli’s life that we had to leave out, because it just wasn’t possible to cover everything — including the fact that Pauli was [named] an Episcopal saint. We did, of course, talk about Pauli’s ordination and turn to spirituality, but there were just some aspects, some things that we cut out.

Pauli, in the early 1950s, had been commissioned to write what was supposed to be a pamphlet of laws involving racial discrimination or race-based laws. It wound up being a huge tome, which Thurgood Marshall referred to as sort of “the bible” of race-based laws, which he used for research.

Pauli was involved in a pretty well-known death penalty case, in which Eleanor Roosevelt was campaigning with her, to spare the life of someone wrongly accused. It’s sort of on and on. We couldn’t do everything. What we did do was to highlight those major areas in which Pauli was just so far ahead of the time.

F&L: The biographer Rosalind Rosenberg speaks about Pauli’s in-betweenness and how that drives so much of what we see of Pauli’s life and work. Could you speak to that?

JC: Rosalind Rosenberg made the very thoughtful point that the in-betweenness that Pauli felt from lived experience, both in between races and, in a sense, in between genders, was really fundamental to Pauli’s innovative legal and political thinking, and we agreed.

We very much agree with professor Rosenberg on that point, and because you’re raising that, I do think that the last question that you were asking about research that we did, our research very much follows on work that’s been done by authors and scholars including Rosalind Rosenberg, including Patricia Bell-Scott, who wrote “The Firebrand and the First Lady” and was our consulting producer on this film, and also including Brittney Cooper, who wrote a chapter about Pauli Murray and has been lecturing on Pauli for a long time at Rutgers University.

There’s been, in academic circles particularly, a fair amount of really eye-opening and fantastic research on Pauli Murray, and we were sort of following along with that and bringing the story into documentary form.

F&L: Throughout the movie, you all make the point that Pauli was ahead of Pauli’s time. Could you explain that?

BW: The reason that Pauli was ahead of the time, I think, is that Pauli was such an innovative and creative thinker, someone who didn’t just go along with the accepted wisdom but questioned things that people took for granted, like Plessy v. Ferguson, the idea of separate but equal, being the kind of legal basis on which you had to approach discrimination. Pauli said, “That’s ridiculous. Separate but equal is by definition just wrong. It can’t be equal if it’s separate.”

Ten years later, in Brown v. Board of Education, Pauli’s thinking was used, and Pauli was right. Similarly with the fight for women’s equality, for decades, women had been trying to get an equal rights amendment, and in the mid-1960s, Pauli was one of the first people to say, “Hey, wait a minute. We can fight about the Equal Rights Amendment, and that would be really great, but it’s going to be difficult to accomplish. How about our own Constitution? How about the 14th Amendment, the way we use the 14th Amendment to win legal equality for African Americans? Let’s see if we can’t use that for women.”

These were really radical ideas, and I think in the moment today, we could use some innovative, groundbreaking thinking about how to approach some of the retrenchment that’s going on in voting rights or reproductive rights or other areas where a Pauli Murray [way of] thinking could be very helpful.

F&L: Kelly Brown Douglas is among those who speak to ordination coming late in life for Pauli, but when you look at the totality of Pauli’s life, faith runs throughout it, both because of the family heritage and also in the causes Pauli took on. You chose to include video of Pauli preaching in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’m wondering how you perhaps saw faith reflected pre-ordination for Pauli Murray.

JC: Faith, the Episcopal Church and spirituality more generally were essential to who Pauli was throughout life. I think you can feel that when you look at Pauli’s poetry, and even in a sense Pauli’s form of activism and sort of always trying to keep in mind very Christian-informed beliefs as a guiding principle. Pauli said quite clearly in some interviews that Martin Luther King’s feelings about religion and spirituality very much informed Pauli’s thinking on those matters, particularly how it applied to racial reconciliation.

We were so thrilled that we were able to find and use the Chapel of the Cross piece, a bit of video that had been taken in the late 1970s after Pauli was ordained an Episcopal priest, because it feels like it really shows the opening and the joy that spirituality and religion gave to Pauli.

Pauli’s grandniece said in the film that the “new Pauli,” in the era when Pauli is an Episcopal priest, suddenly is a listener, not just a talker, and is really, through the church, mentoring people and finding just the expansiveness and joy that faith at its best can bring. Pauli’s life and Pauli’s kind of long path is a great example of that.

F&L: In this moment, there are activists committed to some of the same issues that Pauli championed who are feeling battered and worn down. From your deeper understanding now of Pauli’s life, what words would you offer or what examples might you point to that might resonate or be helpful to them?

BW: I don’t want to be presumptuous about the struggles that people are facing today, but I would say that when you look at Pauli Murray’s life and the challenges that Pauli faced — in social justice movements, personal challenges with being a nonbinary person, defeat that Pauli suffered for causes that Pauli truly believed in and yet kept on going — [you find] a kind of determination that from our perspective was astonishing.

In the Schlesinger Library but [not] in the Pauli Murray collection, we stumbled on the video that had not been digitized before of an interview that Pauli did after becoming a priest, when there was more interest in Pauli’s story because people were coming to do interviews.

We were so struck by the positivity and the poise that Pauli had in the face of everything, and ultimately in the face of suffering a fatal disease. That determination is really important. This is a person who just had so much determination to accomplish what they could in the time they were given on earth that I find it inspiring.

F&L: Is there anything I haven’t asked?

JC: In Pauli’s life and story, there’s so much to cover, and there are so many different ways that one could come at it. One thing we always like to talk about when we’re hitting the various elements of Pauli’s life, because we know this was so important to Pauli, is the writing.

Pauli’s family history, “Proud Shoes,” autobiography, “Song in a Weary Throat,” and a poetry collection, “Dark Testament,” among some other writings, are so deeply moving and so profoundly relevant today that I think we would send anyone that’s looking to dive deeper into Pauli’s story into Pauli’s own writings to have an understanding.

The poetry not only has actual and historical implications but is really evocative and very spiritual. I think people of faith would find a lot to connect with in a global and big way.

BW: I think highlighting the writing is important. For us, Pauli’s poetry became something that we returned to over and over in the course of putting the film together.

I don’t think that when we first set out we thought that we would be using a lot of poems, because there was so much else to talk about in Pauli’s life. But they’re so meaningful and really helped us frame the various aspects of Pauli’s life and give the audience a chance to contemplate and think about Pauli’s experience in a more poetic way.