Elderword- Mama Lila Cabbil

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Photo by Valerie Jean

Excerpted from the Elderword page of Geez magazine, summer 2019…

For the present volume, let me say something about Mama Lila who did know how to elder. Lila Mae Cabbil crossed over to the ancestors in February. She went into the hospital with a case of the flu. It turned to pneumonia, went septic, and she was gone. Since she spoke more than she wrote, I now wish we’d done more recording and even oral history.

She was called Mama Lila, not only in family and church, but in movement circles as well. “Mama” is an affectionate honorific title with origins in African cultures. In the U.S. it was common in African-centered schools where students were encouraged to call their teachers Mama or Baba as surrogate parents in the extended kinship of a learning village. In Detroit, it had been bestowed upon Lila and she embraced it fully and with grace.

The other title she bore was Water Warrior. Justice movements in Detroit are led largely by women of color, and she was co-founder in 2004 of the Peoples Water Board Coalition. Once some Canadian Mennonites brought a truckload of water across the bridge to our distribution station at St. Peters Episcopal. They were led by Maude Barlow who had championed “water as a human right” with the United Nations and was instrumental in bringing UN special rapporteurs to declare the crisis in Detroit a violation of that right. So, a momentous moment. Lila actually intervened and disrupted the delivery ceremonies. She, rightly to be sure, regarded cases of bottled water to be the epitome of commodification and she cried out. The moment was awkward, one only an elder with authority could have pulled off. Mama Lila wore the vocation well and made her point.

Going back decades, Lila Cabbil was a friend and associate of Detroiter Rosa Parks, heading for a number of years the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. She was an anti-racism trainer and in connection with the urban agriculture movement led Uprooting Racism.

I knew her best on the faith outreach committee of the Water Board. She was not only convinced that the gospel called churches into public action for justice, but was also best connected among us to indigenous elders in the region, the Water Protectors. In both, she pressed that movement struggle was spiritual struggle. Among her COGIC congregation she was known for powerful prayer and brought that full-heartedly to “political engagement.” Not allowed, as a woman, in her church’s pulpit, she nonetheless street preached, and effectively pastored among us. Thanks be to God.

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