We remember our dear friend, Peggy Cleveland
Delivered at memorial service at Sharon Church in Charlotte, NC on 2/9/2014
by Anne Crane
I first met Aunt Peggy when I was eight years old, which was nearly sixty years ago. She came through Richmond, VA, to meet my family after visiting Tom Cleveland, my mother’s brother, who was studying in Brussels before going to work with the Presbyterian Church in the Belgian Congo. He and Peggy had met while they were studying at Austin Seminary in Texas, and she was then working in Columbia, MO. Sometime after he arrived in Belgium, Tom had called Peggy on the phone and proposed to her. I don’t know whether she accepted his proposal on the phone or not, but certainly by the time she returned from her visit with him in Belgium, it was clear that Peggy would be joining our family. What I remember most about that initial meeting is that I was immediately drawn to Peggy because she was able to connect with me in a way that made me feel important. Since that time in 1954, Peggy has been for me not only a family member, but also a dear friend, and my life has been enriched immeasurably by knowing her.
Peggy was well known for her keen intellect and her analytic mind. Indeed, some (myself included) may have felt intimidated by this at times. But she also had a genuine warmth, and she cared deeply for people. There was nothing phony or self-serving about her. Peggy was “real”. And though she may have seemed serious and cerebral at times, she had a wonderful sense of humor and a hearty laugh that could be disarming. (This was nourished, I’m sure, by Tom Cleveland, whose wicked sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes were legendary.) She was also a skilled gardener and an excellent cook. She loved to fish and to be outdoors.
In thinking about the autobiography she had wanted to write but was barely able to begin because of the stroke that partially paralyzed her, Peggy chose the metaphor of a river to frame her story. As she wrote in the forward to the work, this metaphor suggested the flow of her life and the surge of power that came into the stream of her life from deep and long-lasting friendships. “As a river is made by small streams flowing into a larger one,” she wrote, “so, it seems to me, has the river of my life been enlarged by the friendships that have brought riches of insight, companionship in struggle, encouragement in despair, joy in triumph, and challenge when I was tempted to stray from the channel – the faith I had been given as a child.”
Indeed, as Peggy’s life journey carried her from the Rocky River of North Carolina to the Colorado River of Texas, from the banks of the Missouri to the savannas that form the watershed of the mighty Congo, from the Potomac to Hat Creek, where she used to fish in Northern California, and finally back to the Piedmont watershed here at home, she formed friendships all over the world that were deep and long-lasting.
During the years she and Tom were at The Bridge in Washington, I spent as much time as possible with them. Their home became my second home during my late teens and early twenties, and I experienced the many joys and challenges they faced on a daily basis as they interacted with people from around the world. This interaction was characterized by listening and by honest, engaging conversation. There was nothing superficial about it. Peggy later wrote that she had been profoundly changed by the years at The Bridge, becoming what she she called “a citizen of the world who must bear responsibility for being an American.” The Bridge played a crucial role for many international students, diplomats and civil servants who were trying to make sense of a country and a world torn apart by racism and war. But those times were also marked by a lot of fun and laughter. I have many fond memories of evenings with friends, telling funny stories and laughing at the antics of Tom and Peggy’s dog Siegfried the dachshund, who was as much a part of the team at The Bridge as were “his people”.
Another aspect of rivers that Peggy found appealing was the fact that in many rivers as much water flows underground as over the surface. She wrote, “their underground unseen power symbolizes for me the unseen spiritual and psychological force that accompanies the visible, historical, factual record of my life. …These underground forces,” she continued, “sometimes worked more powerfully on my consciousness t …for reasons that I did not always understand – nor felt safe to share.”
One of the “underground” forces that Peggy acknowledged struggling with early in her time in the Congo was an attitude of racial superiority that she did not realize she had but that was ingrained from birth, as it was for many Americans. Through the experience of living in close proximity with her Congolese neighbors, of listening, observing and interacting on a daily basis, she wrote, “God gave me a chance to recognize this deeply rooted prejudice and begin to reorder my attitudes and values.” Indeed, Peggy spent the rest of her life examining her attitudes about white privilege and what it means to be a Christian in a world where the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow wider by the day. She spent a significant part of her life swimming against the current of what was considered acceptable, especially in the Presbyterian Church US (the former Southern Presbyterian Church). My own roots are in this church, so I have travelled this journey with her. Peggy challenged the church to deal with the racial attitudes that defined the way we responded to people of color and to be engaged in political action to change discriminatory and oppressive policies both in the US and in Africa. (I’m sure her spirit was in Raleigh with all the people who gathered there yesterday.) The March on Washington in August 1963 was one memorable experiences I shared with her and Tom and a number of other Southern Presbyterians after some of our church leaders had publicly condemned the march. Last August on the 50th anniversary of the march, Peggy and I were reminiscing about that day. As we were leaving the Mall with thousands of fellow marchers, carrying our big “Presbyterians US” sign, Dr. King and some of the other leaders were driving by on their way to meet with President Kennedy. Their car stopped next to us, and Dr. King leaned out to greet us and shake hands with some. Peggy remembered shaking his hand.
In the early 1970’s Peggy began to uncover another underground force that had been deeply ingrained. This came about after she was elected to serve on the General Council of the Presbyterian Church, US, which was beginning to grapple with the pleas from gay men and lesbians for full acceptance in the church. She later wrote that, “Like the racial prejudice which I inherited from my birth, I learned somewhere along the way that to be homosexual was the worst form of humanity.” Gradually, by listening, reading and participating in discussions about sexuality and gender differences, Peggy began to understand and acknowledge that she was “one of those people whom I had so much scorned.” She experienced this new self-awareness as tremendously liberating and healing, in fact, a gift of God.
Peggy was 48 years old when she came to this new understanding of her own sexuality, and she and Tom began a new life which led them to California. Though they ended their marriage, Tom and Peggy maintained a truly amazing friendship until his death in 1998. In California Peggy became deeply involved in the women’s movement and in the movement for sustainable agriculture. The work she did there had an impact on many, but there is not time in this setting to go into the details. Unlike many of her fellow travelers in this part of her life’s journey, Peggy never gave up on the church she loved, though she paid dearly for coming out and for publicly challenging homophobic attitudes and practices. It is good that she lived long enough to see the real progress that has been made in recent years, as lesbian and gay people have gained more acceptance in this country.
I am especially grateful that Peggy was able to be a part of my own wedding ceremony ten years ago in Massachusetts, when Sarah, my partner of 25 years, and I were finally able to marry legally. Peggy preached a sermon that day that was based on the text in Acts relating the Pentecost event. In closing, I would like to quote the opening lines of Peggy’s sermon, because I think it expresses so well her understanding of what it means to live faithfully.
“Memory and hope are tied together in the Biblical record. They are so linked because people of faith have hope when we remember what God has done in the past. That memory emboldens God’s people to believe that it is God’s presence among us that empowers us to live boldly and freely.”
Peggy Harris Cleveland was a person of faith who was deeply committed to doing justice and giving mercy. She was gracious and compassionate, even as her health deteriorated and limited her physical movements. Even when her river grew turbulent as the water rushed through narrow chasms and over rocky places, she lived boldly, spoke honestly and did not give up hope. Peggy lived a life that made a difference in the world. It was a life worth emulating.