Dr. Maya Angelou’s home church celebrates her life
(pictured above: Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson, speaks. Sitting behind him are (from left) Sheila Alick, Mayor Pro Temp Vivian Burke, Mayor Allen Joines, Rev. Paul Lowe, Dr. Serenus Churn and Dr. Lillie Travis.)
Dr. Maya Angelou’s life, legacy and contributions were celebrated last Thursday evening during a public memorial service at Mt. Zion Baptist, the church she attended for many years.
The acclaimed poet, author, playwright, professor and activist passed away the day before the impromptu memorial was held. The St. Louis native – known for books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and poems like “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” – was 86.
Angelou had called Winston-Salem home for more than 30 years. She put down roots here after accepting the lifetime appointment of Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Despite her international fame, Angelou was an unassuming free spirit who endeared herself to locals by doing her own shopping at local stores and signing on to promote several area causes and nonprofits. She also never let her fame keep her from the pews at Mt. Zion, an East Winston Church that has long lived up to its moniker – “The Joy of the Whole Earth.”
“This was her church home,” her grandson Colin Johnson told attendees during the memorial. “Because her heart sang here, our hearts sang here. And there’s no better place to do this tonight.”
Church Clerk H.L. Shaw said though Angelou occasionally took to the pulpit to awe congregants with her poetry, she usually kept things low key by sitting among the others in the pews.
“With all her claim to fame, we simply saw her as another member in the pews and she liked it that way,” he said. “With all of her resources, she wanted her many gifts to the church to remain anonymous and, for the most part, she was able to keep it that way.”
Pastor Dr. Serenus Churn himself decided to “blow her cover” on one bit of her generosity.
“In our sanctuary, our organ was coughing and wheezing,” he said. “I was chatting with Dr. Angelou about it and she said, ‘Pick out what you want.’”
The church did just that. The organ still sits in the sanctuary and was played during the memorial service.
The service drew many local dignitaries, including Mayor Allen Joines.
“Our city is mourning,” he said. “It’s mourning the loss of that strong voice that spoke of social justice, spoke of equality, spoke of domestic violence prevention, spoke of the importance of black theater,” he said. “But the good news is that voice lives on in her poems, in her plays, and in her books and in her songs.”
Mayor Pro Temp Vivian Burke recalled the multitude of causes Angelou championed, including voter registration, the United Negro College Fund and National Black Theatre Festival, which she helped founder Larry Leon Hamlin make a reality in 1989.
“The great lady did so much for all us, not only for our city – the state, the country and the world,” Burke said. “It makes all of us very proud to have a little piece of her.”
Wake Forest Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Barbee Oakes reflected on Angelou as a professor and the personal connection she had with her students. Oakes shared a Facebook post from one of Angelou’s former students. He has a unique first name that many people pronounce incorrectly. He recalled that on the first day of class, Angelou took time to learn how to pronounce his name correctly by having him say it phonetically. After that, she proceeded to pronounce his name perfectly for the rest of the semester.
Oakes considered Angelou her “spiritual mother” and often turned to her for advice. Oakes leaned on her during one particularly challenging work situation.
“As I shared some of my hopes and fears with Dr. Angelou, I asked her, ‘What if I fall?’ And Dr. Angelou paused for a moment and said,‘Oh my darling, what if you fly?’” Oakes recalled.
While Angelou has traveled and lived all over the country and all over the world, her grandson said there was no doubt where her heart was.
“Winston is her home,” he said “She has owned houses in many cities and many countries, and this is the place she chose and stayed.”
Wake Forest University will host a private memorial service for Dr. Angelou on Saturday, June 7 at 10 a.m. It will be livestreamed for the public at go.wfu.edu/angeloumemorial. In lieu of bringing flowers or other memorials to campus, the family has requested that donations be made to the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity (http://www.wakehealth.edu/MACHE/) at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.