Maya Angelou stood six feet tall, but her literary and cultural stature were immeasurable. The novelist, actress and educator died yesterday at the age of 86, leaving an indelible impression that will be felt and debated for generations.
Her story was truly remarkable. Born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was seven years old. She testified against the man, who was later beaten to death by a mob. She says, “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years.”
She moved to San Francisco, where she studied dance and drama before dropping out of school at age 14 to become the city’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later returned to high school, graduating at the age of 17 and giving birth a few weeks later. As a single mother, she waited tables to support her son before touring Europe in the mid-1950s in the operatic production of “Porgy and Bess.”
Angelou never went to college, but learned six languages and received more than 30 honorary doctoral degrees. She taught American studies at Wake Forest University, worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance civil rights, and published best-selling works of fiction and poetry. In 2010, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
What about her faith? She once explained: “I have studied everything. I spent some time with Zen Buddhism and Judaism and I spent some time with Islam. I am a religious person. It is my spirit, but I found that I really want to be a Christian. That is what my spirit seems to be built on. I just know that I find the teachings of Christ so accessible. I really believe that Christ made a sacrifice and for those reasons I want to be a Christian. But what kind, I don’t know. I don’t know what time of day I am at.”
She accepted all faith traditions: “I will see human beings and I believe—whether they believe it or not—I believe that they were made by God and I’m not in a position to put them down because they look different from me. They speak other languages than I speak, and because they call God a different name, if they call God at all, I’m not qualified to put people down. My role is to live the best life, stand on a good foot. Try to be kind, fair, generous, try to be courageous. That’s it.”
Maya Angelou’s message of non-judgmental tolerance obviously resonated with our pluralistic, relativistic culture. But what would God say about her faith? Being kind, fair, generous and courageous are obviously priorities his word encourages. All people are indeed “made by God,” as she claimed. But the Bible plainly says of Jesus, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Insisting on the only chemotherapy that can cure your cancer may seem narrow and intolerant, but it’s actually the most loving thing your oncologist can do. The great challenge for Christians today is to be as gracious as Maya Angelou and as truthful as the apostles. May the Spirit help us be both, to the glory of God.