Parish History: The Stories That We Tell

by | Aug 24, 2023

Upon arriving at St. Paul’s, Waldorf in 2014, I quickly learned that the fastest way to stoke a fire was to ask about the former balcony. Like most parishes established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, St. Paul’s balcony was in fact a gallery for the enslaved. After slavery, Jim Crow segregation continued the dehumanizing pattern of relegating black parishioners to second-tier seating. The story of its demise in the 1950s is one for the ages–and one for which I don’t have space to recount. Suffice to say that it involved multiple congregational votes, an intrepid group of young parishioners arriving in the dark to tear it down against the will of parish leaders, and finally the loss of a small, but significant group of parishioners and pledges (and even the parish rectory).

However, to have heard some long-time parishioners retell it, the balcony had nothing to do with racism and everything to do with “church growth.” Its demise, they told me, had everything to do with its disrepair alone. To suggest otherwise, was to slander the memory and good will of beloved parishioners. Between the time of my arrival and now, oral histories and the contextualization of the balcony’s existence in the larger narrative of America’s history and Episcopal Church culture have helped the congregation to counter the narrative of “church growth.” We’ve uncovered a thread of holy resistance connecting the resistance of the 1950s to the resistance of the church’s Civil War-era rector, who did what was otherwise unthinkable in Maryland’s tobacco-producing region at the time: preach abolition (only after freeing those he himself had enslaved a few years prior) and pray for President Lincoln (an act of resistance that forced him to flee for his own safety). While some still balk at the mention of the “balcony,” our continued discussions are slowly rendering it from “that-which-we-won’t-name” to simply one of St. Paul’s many complicated yet ever-surprising, and–increasingly on occasion–inspiring chapters. To be sure, we still have much more work to do.

The stories that we all tell (or don’t tell about the past) determine how we live the Gospel in the present and future. Parish history projects aren’t an exercise in shaming or disremembering. They are an act of holy “re-membering” that which is so deeply a part of all of us. They situate us in God’s larger narrative of sin… and repair and redemption.

The Rev. Dr. Maria A. Kane serves as rector at St. Paul’s, Waldorf. She earned a Ph.D. in American history from the College of William & Mary.

The following is adapted from Leading Racial and Public History Projects: Lessons from Faith, Race, and the Lost Cause, a workshop led by Dr. Christopher Graham, The Rev. Maria A. Kane, Ph.D., and The Rev. Melanie Mullen at It’s All About Love: A Festival for the Jesus Movement.

    • An ode and exaltation of the past
    • Biographies of selected leaders
    • Timeline of special events or a summarization of records.
    • Must be willing to tell the truth even at the expense of cherished traditions and ideals
    • Looks at how beliefs were lived in daily life
    • Integrates social, cultural, economic, and political context
    • Addresses issues of power
    • Asks questions of what is being said and NOT being said
    • Interrogates leading voices and asks who and what is missing
    • Investigates how mission and vision statements were embodied in daily life