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She Existed: How Maya Angelou Changed My Life

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"They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed."

From "When Great Trees Fall", Maya Angelou

Some years ago I met Maya Angelou when she came to Baylor University, the fine Texas university where I have taught for the past twenty-five years, to give a campus-wide lecture. During her stay she did two things that I have never forgotten.

First, at the banquet welcoming her to Baylor, she gently -- but vocally -- took us to task for the lack of diversity represented in the dining room. Although Baylor has since become a more racially-diverse school than even our huge public university neighbors, that night, as Ms. Angelou pointed out, the only black faces in the room -- besides hers -- were waiting tables.

As I looked around, I saw white faculty, white administrators and white students. It stung to recognize the truth of her observation, but I believe it has made a difference in Baylor ever since.

Second -- and I blush a little to relate this, as I do every time I tell it -- Ms. Angelou was invited to visit a class in the English Department, and after she had finished speaking and the students were filing out, I went up to thank her for coming.

I understand, now that people say such things to me, how patronizing I was to her, how what I intended as serious praise sounded like something far less. And knowing that I intended only compliment, I try to react with something like her grace and dignity when someone gives me a taste of my own medicine.

"Ms. Angelou," I told her, "I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am for what you've written and all you've done. I'm amazed at everything you've accomplished."

And then the shame begins. "And to think," I said, "you're a Christian."

I think what I meant by that was something like, "And how great that a Christian accomplished all these things." In those days, although I would have described myself as, at best, "culturally Christian," just as some Jewish people describe themselves as cultural Jews, I didn't much like Christians. Maya Angelou restored my hope a little, as Martin Luther King did, that maybe I could be some kind of Christian someday, but my general reaction to Christianity in those days was not exactly positive.

So I'm sure that what I intended as "Thanks for giving me hope in Christianity," actually sounded like, "I'm really kind of amazed that a Christian would care about any of these things, let alone do them so well."

Ms. Angelou was sitting at a desk when I went to speak to her, and she had taken my hand when I introduced myself. She still held it as she looked up at me. A gentle smile broke across her face, and she shook her head -- at my question, or at me, or both.

"Oh honey," she said in that deep rich resonant voice, "I am not a Christian. I am trying to be a Christian."

She squeezed my hand as punctuation and let it go.

Then she said her goodbyes, got up, walked out of the classroom and out of my life forever.

But, as I heard historian Thomas Cahill say at the Washington National Cathedral, "acts of generosity have untold consequences," and this act of generosity may have saved my life -- or, at least, begun that action.

While it would be years -- literally -- before I could get my head around what she had offered me that day at Baylor, after a long time, after a time of wandering in the wilderness and some thrashing in the dark places at the bottom of the sea, I realized that what she had presenting me was a new way of believing in God, a way of questioning that didn't demand all the answers, a way of pilgrimage that didn't depend on a single moment of faith. That way could be (and has been) satisfying and life-changing, a journey growing out of a decision, rather than a single decision isolated in time and space.

In her act of generosity, Maya Angelou changed my life. I know that she changed the lives of countless others. And she did it all with the grace and courage and humor that defines what it means to try to be Christian.

May light eternal shine upon her great soul.