Friday, February 01, 2008

Episcopalians and Race

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 2008

Episcopalians and Race

A little more than a century ago in his groundbreaking book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois famously declared “…the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” DuBois was undoubtedly correct in his prediction about the last century. Certainly there was much remarkable and lasting progress made in guaranteeing civil rights for all Americans. However, just in case we somehow thought that the issue of race had been settled before the turn of the millennium, the current presidential campaign has again exposed the racial strains and scars that continue to stress and blot American society. As an American institution, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Episcopal Church has a decidedly uneven record when it comes to race. For me, three key figures highlight this ambiguous legacy.

Absalom Jones (1746-1818) was the first black man to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. He was born into slavery but managed to teach himself to read and later enrolled in a night school for blacks run by Quakers in Philadelphia. He eventually purchased first his wife’s freedom and then his own. After his emancipation Jones and Richard Allen became leaders of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church where they dramatically increased black membership, stirring up the racism of white members. When the church leadership tried to segregate the blacks into an upstairs gallery, Jones and Allen led their people out of the church. Jones and Allen became leaders of the Free African Society which built a church that in 1794 was admitted by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802.

I had never heard of Alexander Crummell (1819-98) before I began my studies at General Seminary. In the seminary chapel each morning the sacristans begin to prepare for the day’s worship by lighting a candle beside an icon of Crummell that hangs in a prominent spot in the chapel. The icon and the daily candle-lighting ritual serve as a powerful reminder of – and atonement for - a shameful episode in the seminary’s history. Crummell had been educated at an interracial school in New Hampshire and discerned a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. His application in 1839 to General Seminary was denied because of his race. Crummell was persistent, though, and after private study was ordained in the Diocese of Massachusetts. After ordination, Crummell went on to study at Cambridge and then went as a missionary to Liberia, where he became one of the leading figures in that African republic. He eventually returned to the United States where he led the fight against segregation in the Church by forming the organization that later evolved into the Union of Black Episcopalians.

Like every other American institution, the Episcopal Church was tossed and turned by the political and social turmoil of the 1960s. Many in the Church were galvanized by the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels (1939-65), a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological (now Divinity) School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Daniels and other seminarians answered the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Unlike the other seminarians who stayed down South for a few days before returning home, Daniels stayed for months, eventually being arrested after picketing whites-only stores in Ft. Deposit, Alabama. After a brutal week in jail, Daniels and the other protestors were released. On the day of the release, while waiting for a ride back to town Daniels and some of the others approached a store to buy a cold drink. They were met by a shotgun-wielding white man who threatened them and took aim at a seventeen-year old black woman, Ruby Sales. Daniels pulled Sales aside and was killed instantly by the shot intended for her, becoming a martyr for the cause of civil rights for all of God’s people.

In a society still burdened with racism, it is important for us to reflect on, and learn from, the lives of these remarkable Episcopalians. In a world distorted by sin, we are called to live out the promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbor as our self, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. As a small step toward living out those promises, I invite you to join Mother Lauren and me at Trinity + St. Philip’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 10th at 3:00PM for the annual service commemorating the life of Absalom Jones. It is a wonderful event, and our presence can be a sign of our commitment to justice and peace for all.