The life and legacy of The Reverend Absalom Jones is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, his faith, and his commitment to the causes of freedom, justice and self-determination.
From the website of The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas
On February 13, The Episcopal Church commemorates the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, the first African American to be ordained in The Episcopal Church.
On January 29, Diocesan Convention passed a resolution that directs our collective energies toward the revitalization and empowerment of Black churches and Black parishioners in the Diocese of Washington.
I am persuaded that these two events are related. The church Absalom Jones founded in Philadelphia is one of the most vibrant Black Episcopal Churches in the country. I pray that Absalom Jones’ spirit, faith, and commitment will guide our work.
For those who don’t know his story, Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Delaware on November 6, 1746. While enslaved, he learned to read. When the family that enslaved him moved to Philadelphia, he was able to work evenings and keep his earnings for himself. In 1770 he married Mary Thomas, an enslaved woman, and he purchased her freedom so that she and their children might be free. 14 years later, he obtained his own freedom through manumission.
With his friend Richard Allen, Absalom Jones organized the Free African Society. Both Jones and Allen were also preachers at St. George’s Methodist Church, a mixed-race congregation. As the Black membership grew, White elders responded by segregating worship, requiring that blacks sit in the balcony.
One Sunday morning, as Absalom Jones was praying in a front pew, an usher attempted to forcibly remove him. Jones resisted removal, finished his prayers, and walked out of the church. All the Black members followed and together they formed a new congregation. Richard Allen chose to establish an independent Black church, what would become a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Jones remained as leader of what became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest.
Absalom Jones’ ministry was one of compassion, political advocacy and institution building. He was a compelling preacher and community organizer. He helped establish two schools. He and Richard Allen, at the request of Philadelphia’s mayor, rallied Black residents to care for the sick and dying during a yellow fever epidemic. He and others petitioned the U.S. Congress to end the African slave trade. The present day congregation of St. Thomas’, Philadelphia celebrates his feast day each year with great pride, as do many Episcopal churches and dioceses around the country.
The history of Black congregations in The Episcopal Church, including the Diocese of Washington, is complicated, marked by racism and Black self-determination. Many were established right after the Civil War, some with support of White congregations, others on their own. More were planted in the years of Jim Crow and strict housing segregation, when Black people were not allowed to live in most neighborhoods and the more affluent parts of small towns.
When housing laws changed, many of the founding families of Black congregations moved to communities with greater educational and economic opportunity. Resulting White flight re-established segregated worship as formerly White congregations became predominantly Black. That trend accelerated with new arrivals from the African diaspora who found in our Episcopal churches the Anglican Church they were part of at home. Most of our historic Black churches are now in neighborhoods whose populations have shifted again, and as with most Episcopal churches, the membership of all predominantly Black congregations is aging.
Of course many Black Episcopalians now freely choose to worship in predominantly White congregations and vice-versa. The multicultural, multi-racial reality of our Diocese makes it one of the more interesting and complex places to do this important work of racial reckoning and congregational revitalization. Across the Diocese we are all striving to come to terms with our complicity in systemic racism and racial inequities. Martin Luther King, Jr. once lamented that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. In many of our churches, that reality remains.
There were once 11 congregations in the Diocese of Washington founded by or on behalf of Black persons; 7 remain, all in Washington, DC with the exception of St. Philip’s in Prince George’s County. There are 15 additional congregations that were originally established for White Episcopalians that are now predominantly Black and multicultural.
Thus the resolution passed at Convention this January asks us to consider the lived experience and future possibilities for over 20 percent of EDOW’s congregations. There is great diversity among them, as well as gifted leaders and rich insights from which we will all benefit. They deserve our collective attention as part of the overall effort of congregational vitality. The Convention’s action will hold us accountable to this work.
The resolution calls for the creation of a task force, composed of members from Black congregations. The task force is commissioned to make recommendations to the Diocesan Council by September 2022 for the enhancement, revitalization, and empowerment of Black churches and Black parishioners.
The task force, once named, will build upon the good work of the Washington chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians. It will address the new realities facing all our congregations and dynamics unique to the Black church. There are resources from beyond the Diocese to draw upon, including the example of the church that Absalom Jones founded.
The Diocesan Council is now accepting applications for this important Task Force. Members will be from historically Black or predominantly Black congregations. Please consider if God may be calling you or someone you know to serve. This will be exciting, challenging work in a Spirit-led moment not to be missed.