Sermon: Rosemarie Freeney Harding: Mothering, Movement, and Mysticism + Children’s Story

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series on the Christian mystics called “A Voice to Call Us Home.”

“In the beginning there was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. The Word was present to God from the beginning. Through the Word all things come into being, and apart from the Word nothing came into being. In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light—a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken.

Then came one named Rosemarie, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through her testimony everyone might believe in our oneness. She herself wasn’t the Light; she only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.” – John 1:1-8 (adapted)

Rosemarie Freeney Harding was a witness to the Light. In her memoir, Remnants, co-authored with her daughter Rachel Elizabeth Harding, she writes of her encounter with the Light. 

“I can’t say exactly where the Light entered, where it started from. Suddenly, it was just there with me. A white light, bright enough that it should have hurt to look. But it didn’t hurt. In fact, as the Light grew and enveloped everything in the room, I felt the most astonishing sense of protection, of peace. It surrounded me and I was in it, so joyfully. I don’t know how long I was engulfed by this Light, this space. But when I came out of my room, my family was looking at me oddly, like there was something different about me they couldn’t quite name.” 

It was an afternoon when I was about twenty-one. I had been in my room, just resting. “Baby, you alright?” they asked me when I stepped out of the room. They said my face looked different, more peaceful. I smiled, and told them I was fine. Because I was. Whatever came to me, that afternoon in my room, left me with a great sense of comfort. 

The Light became a kind of touchstone in my life. It was so much love. Like an infinite compassion. At the same time it was something very precious and intimate. It awed me really. And when I walked out of the room, everything looked different. Clear. Even later, outside the house, in my classes and at my job, everything looked sharper. It was like a heightened sense of presence. Almost a shine. 

I do believe that whole experience put me on a path. And the Light stayed with me for a long time. It gave me a sense of security and deep internal connectedness to God. All these journeys I’ve been on, these spiritual practices and traditions – from the Mennonites to the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and the Dalai Lama – the meditation, the prayers; I’ve been trying to sustain what the Light gave me. What it awakened and showed me. I guess that’s what the definition of “spirituality” is for me: whatever sustains us like the Light sustained me for years.

Born in Chicago soon after her family migrated from the South, Rosemarie grew up with a keen sense of connection to Spirit. Her earliest memories were of a tight-knit and economically thriving Black community in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. Many of her relatives lived within walking distance and everyone was always checking in on each other. Her parents owned a small store and her father worked for the railroad along with other odd jobs. Her mother was a master storyteller and debater, and often family and friends came to her for advice and encouragement. Neither of her parents had much use for organized religion. Their religion, Rosemarie said, was in the way they treated people.

The mysticism in her family traced back to her great grandmother Mariah, who was known as Grandma Rye. She survived slavery and healed with plants, herbs and constant prayer. Rosemaire and her family did not know their ancestry further back than Grandma Rye, but attribute her spirituality to the traditions kept alive from the African continent. 

Rosemarie writes, “Grandma Rye and those old Africans put something in the ground. When they got here, they stepped off of those boats, chained up and weary. They looked around at this new land and they could see the heartbreak and suffering that were waiting for them and their generations. They saw these traumas waiting for us here. And they knew we were going to need something strong. Some medicine. Some spirit medicine to carry us through these storms.

“So they made things. I can’t tell you exactly what it was. Some of that they kept secret. But they made things out of what they came with–their spit, the water from their eyes, the hair on their heads, stones they hid under their tongues the whole journey long. And blood. They gave us their blood. Those old Africans blew on the ground, put their breath on this soil. Set their hands on this land and gave it some holiness to hold for us for when we would soon need to dig it up.” 

This streak of unspoken mysticism, as Rosemarie called it, is connected to healing and justice. Grandma Rye carried and passed on wisdom about life cycles and the recognition of healing properties in the earth. This was (and is) carried in bodies and practice even more so than in words.  

“The mystic line is also connected to laughter,” she writes, “and the unnerving creative power that rested just under my mother’s tongue in the telling of her ghost stories. Some people thought Mama Freeney was a witch. Some were even just a little bit afraid of her, because she could conjure presences so convincingly in her stories that people listening would turn around to look behind them and half-expect to actually see the invisible woman my mother was just then inviting into the room.”

In her late teens, when Rosemarie joined Bethel Mennonite Church, following the footsteps of her older sister Alma, she found resonances with her parent’s worldview. When she was a girl, her older brother Bud had been shot and killed at a local pool hall. Her parents never pressed charges against the perpetrator although they suffered tremendously. When Rosemarie asked her parents later in life why they had not gone to the police, they said, “Killing a person is enough punishment. How is that man going to live a human life with that burden on his heart?”

After graduating from high school, Rosemarie enrolled at Goshen College, a Mennonite college in Indiana, where she studied sociology. She received a bachelor’s degree from Goshen and moved back to Chicago to become a social worker. Soon after she was introduced to Vincent Harding, who was a pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church at the time. 

It was the early 60s and both of them felt called to join the movement for justice in the South, and shortly after getting married they moved to Atlanta to begin Mennonite House. They were supported by the Mennonite church in creating this interracial MVS unit, which was the first interracial residence in Atlanta and the first interracial voluntary service unit. It was also the first MVS unit led by Black people.

Rosemarie reflected, “some white women at Mennonite House had to ask themselves, ‘What does it mean for Rose to travel around the South as a Mennonite representative? She is Black and I am white and yet my role is staying home and doing the dishes and cooking. I’ve never imagined myself washing dishes while a Black person takes leadership roles.” 

Mennonite House offered the opportunity for transformation to everyone who walked through its doors. There were Black people who came to heal after being brutalized by the police, carrying hatred for white people. And the white people in the house would help nurse them back to health while wrestling with their whiteness and racism. And over days and weeks they would come to see each other in new ways, and in some cases they would come to see each other as family. 

As I’ve reflected on Rosemarie’s mysticism, it is clear that what she experienced internally, what flowed through her family line, she expressed externally in her movement work. 

In keeping with our definition of mysticism in this series she was constantly inviting herself and others to re-bind themselves to God or Spirit, to re-bind themselves to Creation, to re-bind themselves to each other, to literally re-member who we are as one human family.

Mysticism is the experience of oneness with all things. Oneness with the Divine, humanity, and creation. Rosemarie Freeney Harding was constantly seeking this oneness and creating spaces for others to join her in that quest. Mennonite House was one example. Later in life she developed and co-led many retreats and multi-day workshops that focused on ritual, singing, storytelling, healing foods, and gratitude. 

She took two pilgrammes to India to study with Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama. In their teachings and practices she heard echoes of her mother’s wisdom and her father’s loving kindness. She felt resonances with her movement work in the South and the practices of her colleagues, both Black and white, deeply committed to nonviolence and forgiveness. 

She had visions of Pachamamas. If you are not familiar with this term, it refers to the Earth Mother honored by the Indigenous people living in the Andes mountains. These Pachamamas she saw are both women and spirits, living all over the world and all connected to each other. She writes, they are all African because we are all African, we have all descended from the first mother in Africa. These Pachamams are of every race and every shade of skin and texture of hair. They have bodies of every size. They are the protective spirits of the earth. 

“They form a circle of grace that has been here since the beginning of the world, since the beginning of people. They have promised to take care of each other’s children, all over the world. So you cannot tell who will love you by race, who will shelter you just by nation. They are all our mothers and we are all their children.”

There are so many more stories I wish I had time to tell, about angels accompanying her on multiple occasions, about the witness of Koinonia Farm, about her solidarity work in El Salvador, about the surveillance of her and Vincent by the FBI, about her chronic pain and stormy marriage, about her eloquence as a teacher, and her philosophy that we are all connected and none of us is better than anybody else and none of us is worse, not even a Klan member. I strongly encourage you to read Remnants and drink in her mystical wisdom.   

Then came one named Rosemarie, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through her testimony everyone might believe in our oneness. She herself wasn’t the Light; she only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.

May the mysticism of Rosemarie Freeney Harding inspire us to recognize our oneness. May her story inspire us to seek the Light that radiates love, compassion and comfort. May this Light strengthen our hearts and deepen our gratitude for all those who have loved and cared for us. 

“The fundamental condition of the universe is care and love,” writes Rosemarie. “Everything here is taking care of us… This is like the Pachamamas. They bless and protect us because that is who they are in the universe. Because they love us.”

May we reciprocate this love. May we return this care in our work for healing and justice in this time and in this place. May our mothering of each other remind us of who we are and rebind us together to the everlasting source of love. Amen. 

Children’s Story by Danny Gerard

Rosmarie Freeney Harding Children’s Story

In 1930, Rosmarie Freeney Harding was born in the great city of Chicago. She was the youngest of nine siblings, and she grew up in a thriving neighborhood surrounded by friends and family. For most of the year, Rosmarie attended school or played in the street with her friends like any other girl. But one summer, when a heat wave made the city unbearably hot, Rosmarie’s family went to visit the countryside.

Away from the city, Rosmarie enjoyed the cool shade of the trees and the calming sounds of the birds. She wanted to run off and play with her siblings in the fresh air. But before she could run away, her mother asked if she wanted to go fishing. Rosmarie had never been fishing before, so she agreed to help.

The path down to the creek was long and dusty. As they walked together, Rosmarie’s mother told her that fishing was an important tradition in their family. Her mother had learned to fish from her Grandma, and her Grandma had learned to fish from her Great-grandma Rye. Rosmarie listened as her mother explained that the key to fishing was silence and stillness. The quieter they could be, the faster the fish would come.

After an hour passed, Rosmarie began to wonder if the fish were hungry at all. She saw flies and mosquitos buzzing all around the creek, and the sounds of cicadas filled the air. She asked her mother if maybe all the fish already had enough bugs to eat. Her mother gently reminded her that the fish could hear her questions too, and that human voices ruined their appetite. So Rosmarie kept waiting, even though she was very bored. Just when she was starting to wish that she had stayed behind with her siblings, something happened. The silence and the stillness that she had been forcing herself into for so long suddenly felt natural and easy. She thought about how the bugs fed the fish, and the fish fed people, and the people threw away the fish bones which would feed the bugs again. She and her mother were part of this forest, and they were all a part of God’s beautiful system. And in God’s system, there would always be enough. It was only human fear and greed which made people think otherwise. Then, in the deep stillness, there was a tug on the line. Rosmarie and her mother had caught a fish!

When Rosmarie grew up, she took what she learned from her family and nature out into the world. She worked with her husband, her church, her friends, and many other brave people to protest against racist laws that prevented Black people from attending most schools, living in most neighborhoods, or working certain jobs. She always knew that it was fear and greed that caused white people to treat Black people like second class citizens, even though America was a wealthy country with more than enough for everyone. She dedicated her life to working alongside others to end these racist laws while spreading her important message about the abundance of nature and the abundance of God’s love.