Sanctuary Ministry: Tales of Arrival

Sanctuary Ministry: Tales of Arrival

An evening devoted to the personal stories of immigrants and refugees. We believe that their stories will help us become more aware of what it truly means to welcome the stranger.

Messy Truths

Messy Truths

On February 19th, 2012, ten years ago, almost to the day, I stepped into the pulpit of Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as its rector for the first time.

The moment was fraught with the tensions and troubles of race. Calvary is one among the District’s few remaining historically Black congregations. Throughout their hundred year plus history, they’d always had a Black rector, a history they were justifiably proud of. I was their first white pastor, and only the second white clergyperson to serve there in any capacity.

Calvary is a congregation with deep roots in its neighborhood, a neighborhood that struggled to rebuild in the wake of the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and the governmental under-resourcing that followed. In 2012, the H Street Corridor was just beginning to see an infusion of new capital that would transform it completely. Much of that money has gone toward accommodating newly arrived white residents and white-owned businesses, fueling a demographic shift that has moved the neighborhood from majority Black in 2021, to what is either now, or very soon to be, majority white.

Exactly one week later, on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman would lynch Trayvon Martin. Outrage over that crime would galvanize a new push in this nation’s four hundred year long struggle for Black liberation.

That was the subtext of our first Sunday together, but while the contrasts and contradictions were particularly vivid in that moment, the reality is that the history and ongoing legacy of white supremacy impacts every last relationship in this nation, especially (but not only) those that take place across lines of race.

We aren’t always good at acknowledging that reality. But we must face its truth, as Jesus taught: “Know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Calvary has tried to tell that truth. Sometimes in uncomfortable conversations. Always in our shared labor to make a change.

Following Michael Brown’s murder in 2014, Calvary convened a discussion between police and community leaders about Police-Communuty relations. The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, our associate pastor at the time, launched The Center for the Study of Faith and Justice at Calvary to continue these conversations.

We formed a partnership with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to push for reform. We hosted Kojo Nmandi, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas and the community historian Dr. Jocelyn Imani to offer educational and evocational opportunities for racial justice discipleship formation. We partnered with the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) to push for affordable housing, and with Sanctuary DMV and ICE Out of DC to push for immigrant safety and rights in the city. Our leaders helped launch “Survive And Thrive,” an initiative of the Union of Black Episcopalians to cooperatively strengthen and revitalize the historically and predominantly Black congregations of the Diocese. A racial justice reading group we convened grew and transformed into The Reparations Task Force of the Diocese, which is now working to help the Diocese toward reckoning with and making restitution on the benefit it has derived from white supremacy. We’ve marched and written letters. Throughout it all, we’ve continued our ministries of feeding, mentoring and support to the neighborhood we love.

None of these efforts is new. They are of one cloth with Calvary’s rich century-old tapestry of witness: against white supremacy, and for the Gospel.

And all of that history is complicated, troubling and messy. White supremacy hasn’t left any of us with clean pictures. We get things wrong. We get complacent. We show our rough and growing edges.

Speaking personally, I continue to stumble over the tracks of white supremacy in my own thinking. And still, the threads of God’s liberating grace are visible throughout my journey.

These are the messy truths each of our congregations must learn to tell. Not so that we can understand the story of white supremacy, but so that we can find a way forward to free ourselves from it. As the man said: “Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The Rev. Peter Jarrett-Schell, rector, Calvary Episcopal Church and author of Seeing My Skin: A Story of Wrestling with Whiteness

Creation of Task Force of Black Ministries by EDOW 127th Convention

Creation of Task Force of Black Ministries by EDOW 127th Convention

On January 29 the Convention of the Diocese of Washington approved a resolution establishing a Task Force on Black Ministries. Task force members will be appointed by the Diocesan Council from congregations that are historically Black or have a predominately Black membership and will also include a representative from the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE).

The Task Force on Black Ministries is charged with the priorities of looking at past injustices and recommending strategies and the resources needed to make Black parishes viable in the diocese. The sponsors of this resolution thought it was critical to enhance the vitality of Black parishes. According to an article in the Philadelphia Tribune, 75 percent of Black priests come from Black parishes. Black parish vitality is critical to ensure the representation of Black clergy in the diocese. The Task Force on Black Ministries will examine practices and models in evangelism, worship, and mission that would be more conducive to Black parish revitalization from the Black church perspective.

​This task force will open opportunities for Black parishes throughout the diocese to collaborate and strategize together about how best to live out mission and ministry in the 21st century of the Jesus Movement. The task force will report its recommendations to the Diocese of Washington in September of 2022.

Task Force on Black Ministries Application (submission deadline is 5:00 p.m., Friday, February 25.)

The Rev. Antonio Baxter
Deacon, Church of the Atonement, DC

What Would Absalom Jones Say to Us Now

What Would Absalom Jones Say to Us Now

Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
John 15:12-15

What better time to be at St. Luke’s, the first independent Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, then on the day we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, the first Black person to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church? Thank you for the honor of preaching this morning.

It is a double honor for me to be here at St. Luke’s on the day when we can announce the good news that the Rev. Kim Turner Baker has accepted the call as your next rector! It will be both a homecoming for the Rev. Baker, and a time of new beginnings for you all. I’m very happy to welcome her back to the Diocese of Washington and will do all in my power to support her and all at St. Luke’s as you draw from your heritage, seek the will of God for your lives in this day, and look to the future with hope.

With the arrival of your next priest and rector, this is a threshold movement for St. Luke’s. Indeed, it is for all of us, as we begin to emerge from yet another acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagine a less restrictive future. In this threshold time, how might we strive to be faithful to Jesus and his spirit now?

Thus today is a good day to pause and consider what our spiritual ancestors would say to us now, if they could. What would those who lived through their own times of trial want you and me to hear as we face the trials and challenges before us? I will turn our full attention to Absalom Jones in a moment, but first let me ask if a particular person comes to mind for you, perhaps a family member, or teacher, or someone you admired from a distance whose insights you cherish. What would that person say to you beyond this life by way of encouragement or exhortation today?

If you think about it, much of what we have in Scripture are a beloved leader’s parting words. The entire book of Deuteronomy, for example, was written as Moses’ last words to the Israelties, when he realized that he would not be the one to lead them into the Promised Land. It’s filled with wisdom, good counsel, specific instructions, and ends with this word of encouragement:

‘Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’
Deuteronomy 31: 6-7

In the Gospel of John, there are three chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse,” Jesus’ final words of blessing and encouragement to his disciples from his last supper with them. The passage we just heard and is printed in your bulletin are among Jesus’ parting words.

Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
John 15:12-15

Parting words, you see, are also beginning words. They are gifts given us to take from the past into our future.

So on this day when we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, I wonder what he would say if he were able to speak to us directly. What would he tell us about perserverance and of faith? What would he want to encourage in us, and how would he exhort us to live?

Last Thursday evening, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union, facilitated a discussion among three Episcopal bishops to ponder that precise question.

Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown of Vermont began by acknowledging how grateful she was that Absalom Jones lived. His life and witness was an encouragement to her and a reminder of how far we have come in this nation and how far we have yet to go.

I feel the same way. I’m so glad to know about him, grateful for this week when I immersed myself in his life and writings. He was a gifted preacher, evangelist, community organizer, abolitionist, institution builder. And while Absalom Jones wasn’t one to call undue attention to himself, I have no doubt that he would want us to remember the courageous witness of his people.

He would want us to know, for example, how the Black community of Philadelphia came to the aid of the general population during a horrific Yellow Fever outbreak in 1793. The epidemic lasted for 3 months and killed 5,000 people (10 percent of the city population). Over 20,000 fled the city and countless thousands suffered illness. Practically every White person of means left the city if they could. The call went out to Black residents of the city, asking for their help in caring for the sick and grieving and in burying the dead–under the false assertion that Black people were less susceptible to the illness (as its cause was as yet unknown). Many answered the call, risking their own lives to assist others.

We might never have known how heroic their efforts were but for later accusations by a White leader that Black residents had stolen from those they helped. Absalom Jones responded with a strong defense, giving a detailed account of what actually happened.

Hear his words:

Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of color to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our color were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy an occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.

We set out to see where we could be useful. The first we visited was a man in Emsley’s Alley, who was dying, and his wife lay dead at the time in the house, there were none to assist but two poor helpless children. We administered what relief we could, and applied to the overseers of the poor to have the woman buried. We visited upwards of twenty families that day–they were scenes of woe indeed! The Lord was pleased to strengthen us, and remove all fear from us, and disposed our hearts to be as useful as possible….

We can with certainty assure the public that we have seen more humanity, more real sensibility from the poor blacks, than from the poor whites.

A poor afflicted dying man, stood at his chamber window, praying and beseeching every one that passed by, to help him to a drink of water; a number of white people passed, and instead of being moved by the poor man’s distress, they hurried as fast as they could out of the sound of his cries–until at length a gentleman, who seemed to be a foreigner came up, he could not pass by, but had not resolution enough to go into the house, he held eight dollars in his hand, and offered it to several as a reward for giving the poor man a drink of water, but was refused by everyone, until a poor black man came up, the gentleman offered the eight dollars to him, if he would relieve the poor man with a little water, “Master” replied the good natured fellow, “I will supply the gentleman with water, but surely I will not take your money for it” nor could he be prevailed upon to accept his bounty: he went in, supplied the poor object with water, and rendered him every service he could.

We do not recollect such acts of humanity from the poor white people, in all the round we have been engaged in. We could mention many other instances of the like nature, but think it needless. It is unpleasant for us to make these remarks, but justice to our color demands it.1

Yes, I am glad to know that such a man is part of our heritage as a church and ashamed of those of my race that treated him and others so poorly.

In last week’s discussion, Bishop Rob Wright spoke of Absalom Jones’ deep faith and personal agency. “He managed to stay focused on Jesus amid the failures of the church,” Wright said. “He was determined to grow something, to invite people into something positive.”

It’s not clear how and where Absalom Jones came to faith in Jesus, but his faith was strong and compelling. He felt what Jesus said to his disciples so long ago–that Jesus was his friend, his life companion, his guide and his strength. As you know, Jones and his good friend Richard Allen, were lay evangelists and preachers at St. George’s Methodist Church, a mixed-race congregation. As the Black membership grew as a result of their leadership, White elders responded by segregating worship, requiring that Black members sit in the balcony.

Absalom Jones never wrote or spoke of the wrenching experience of being forcibly removed from a front pew while praying, but his friend Richard Allen did. Richard Allen, as you know, chose to establish an independent church, what would become a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), while Jones established The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Bishop Wright underscored the fact that Absalom Jones did not harbor contempt for anyone. Nor did he behave as a victim. He was clear simply about who he was as a child of God. He had a certain confidence about him, and a sense of urgency. With the creation of the Free African Society, an organization of Black People for Black People, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, he helped instill that sense of agency and inner confidence in others.

Thus, a word that Absalom Jones would have for us today would surely be about our relationship to Jesus, an encouragement and exhortation to stay focused on him, and to ask us to take stock of what we are building and making possible for others. From where do we derive our sense of self and sense of agency? Absalom Jones would have us look to Jesus, and to claim our dignity and worth as beloved children of God and the ones Jesus calls friends.

Absalom Jones would want us to build again, to grow the church as a force for good in our communities. As your bishop, I feel a responsibility to honor the gifts and witness of the Black Episcopal Church. I dedicate the remaining years of my episcopate to the revitalization and renewal of all our congregations, with a particular focus on rising generations. I pray that St. Luke’s will once again become a vibrant expression of the Black Church, and not just St. Luke’s but all our historic and predominantly Black congregations. But as we all know, it’s going to require more from all of us than simply looking back on the past, or wishing for things to be different.

At our Diocean Convention on January 29, a resolution passed calling for a task force to study revitalization strategies for our Black congregations, with the leadership of that task force coming from those churches. We need St. Luke’s to be part of the conversation, which is, of course, not new, but now has the full attention of the diocesan leadership.

Absalom Jones invited others to join in building something positive and fruitful and life-transforming in Christ. From that core strength, the people of St. Thomas worked for the abolition of slavery, established schools, and care for their city, both Black and White.

What will we do, inspired by the same Spirit that inspired him?

Will you pray with me?

Lord, on the day we are privileged to remember and be uplifted by the life and witness of Absalom Jones, we ask for you to give us your grace and power to live the lives to which we are called. We don’t know what the future holds, and we aren’t always sure what we are to do. So please, Jesus, give us eyes to see you, ears to hear you, hearts to love you, to know you as our friend, and filled with that love, love one another and renew your church and heal your world.

Amen.

~~

1From A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, 1794

Absalom Jones and The Black Church Today

Absalom Jones and The Black Church Today

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.