Sermon for Absalom Jones 12 February 2017
Talking about race
Regrettably, the Evensong scheduled for February 12 celebrating the Feast of Absalom Jones was canceled due to a snow storm. Below is the text of the homily Richard had prepared to preach.
Absalom Jones, Priest 1818
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
In Harrodsburg, Kentucky…population 8,340…about an hour southwest of Lexington on the corner of Short and Chiles Streets stands St. Phillips Episcopal Church. It was built in 1860…and one of the first ministries it engaged in was tending the wounded during the battle of Perryville. A local legend has it that on the day following the battle in October 1862, one of the Confederate commanders, Leonidas Polk…who was both a Confederate General and an Episcopal Bishop, retreated with his troops to Harrodsburg (a pro-Confederate town in a Union controlled area) where he saw the church’s doors open. He entered and asked that the bell be tolled, and then he prayed for men on both sides, “friend and foe” alike. There is a large historical marker outside the church commemorating this event.
St. Phillips’ is also a neo-gothic building, like All Saints, but modeled more like a small country church, but the pulpit and altar are in the same relationship. When you stand in the pulpit at St. Phillips, you notice an odd architectural feature—running down the side of the building, is a small raised gallery, separated from the rest of the congregation and only one seat wide. It’s is raised and marked off by a railing. It’s part of the architecture, but nevertheless it stands out as odd. When I asked what it was for, there was some shifting and uncomfortable glances, and finally a muttered response… “that’s the former slave gallery…you know…where the slaves would have to sit.”
St. Phillips might have some uncommon stories and distinctive architecture, but it is not really unique in the Episcopal Church. It is full good, faithful people with hearts for the Gospel and for mission. They have an amazing feeding program that serves about 200 meals each month. They are an almost entirely white congregation, with a complex history…just like most of the rest of the Episcopal Church.
And it’s telling that the story about Bishop General Polk praying is commemorated by a historical marker out front of the church, and retold on the parish website, but the lingering reality—the palpable ghost—of a slave gallery, is only mentioned in embarrassed side conversations. In many ways it is a microcosm for how we (and by we I mean white people like me) continue to deal (and not deal) with race. Praising some of our good reconciliation work, while ignoring or diminishing the fact that we continue to just pick around the edges of the really hard work of actually confronting our own history, and dismantling the racist structures we continue to live with and in.
I feel this tension within myself as I stand here tonight. What do I, a white man, in a predominantly white congregation have to say about Absalom Jones? Maybe I should have invited one of my (few) African-American colleagues to preach? But then isn’t that just asking a person of color to preach about race, so I don’t have to? Speaking about race and racism is uncomfortable, and it’s something I as a white person don’t do nearly enough. Partly out of fear…I don’t want to appropriate Absalom Jones for my own purposes, not do I want to say or do anything racist. And yet…I know that there are times when…out of fear, or ignorance, or simply out of the white privilege that covers me like a protective cloak wherever I go…there are times when I speak and act in ways that are deeply hurtful to my siblings of color (or neglect to speak or act, which can be equally hurtful). And so I decided that I needed to preach tonight…about Absalom Jones and about race in America. I hope that by doing so, I can do justice to and walk humbly with God and this saint of the church.
Absalom Jones was born into slavery in 1746, in Delaware. At sixteen his family was sold off and separated. Absalom was taken by himself to Philadelphia where he was put to work in a shop, but was allowed to attend an all-black night school (previously he had taught himself how to read). He married an enslaved woman in 1770 and saved enough to buy freedom for both of them, by 1784. He served as a lay preacher for the black members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philly. He was a dynamic preacher, and an great evangelist, and the black membership grew.
One Sunday in November 1786, the vestry decided, without warning, to segregate the growing black congregation to an upstairs gallery. When Jones and others arrived at church, ushers attempted to move them from the main floor to the balcony. Insulted and indignant Jones and the others got up and walked out of the church as a body.
The next year he, along with Richard Allen, formed the Free African Society which cared for the sick during a yellow fever epidemic. From this emerged the African Church, which voted to separate from the Methodist church and align itself with the Episcopal church, with Jones as their leader. The African Church was received into the Episcopal Church on October 17, 1794 by Bishop William White. It became St. Thomas African Episcopal. In its first year, St. Thomas grew to over 500 members. The next year Bishop White ordained Jones a deacon, and in 1804 a priest. Making Absalom Jones the first priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church. He died Feb. 13, 1818. [HWHM, p 220]
170 years after the white members of St. George’s attempted to segregate the black members to the balcony, and 100 years after St. Phillips had built and begun to use their segregated black gallery, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11:00 on Sunday Morning.” It still is. Now there are a host of reasons for this, and we at All Saints do not intentionally practice segregation…the sign out front proclaims “All are welcome” and that is true.
But given the state of our world 230 since that Sunday in November when Christians attempted to segregate Jones and other blacks within their white community, we have to ask seriously, how far have we actually come? If we are to truly live into this commandment that Jesus issues tonight—and every night for the last two thousand years…the commandment that we are perpetually far too selective about enacting—that we love one another as he has loved us…that we love our neighbor as ourselves…if that we are to be true to that call, and that commandment, then we cannot simply be satisfied with honoring a handful of black people during the shortest month of the year and hoping that racial relations will simply get better.
As long as we continue to put historical markers up about reconciling generals, while at the same time only reluctantly looking at the reality of the impact of slavery…the reality of Jim Crow…of segregation…and dismissing or ignoring the ongoing reality of white privilege and white supremacy, then race relations will not get better and we will never fulfill Jesus’ commandment. This is our work to do.
In the recent documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (which I strongly encourage everyone to see), author James Baldwin says, “the history of Black people in America, IS the history of America. And it’s not a pretty picture.” The history of Absalom Jones, and Bishop White, and Bishop Polk, the history of slavery and emancipation, the history of Civil Rights and mass incarceration, the history of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the history of blacks and latina/os and Asians, and Native Americans is our history. And we must see it clearly and courageously. Of course we need to work with our siblings of color, but we cannot expect them to do our work for us. It’s our job to understand how white privilege and white supremacy works…It’s our job to do the work of repenting from the sin of racism. No one can do that for us.
I admit, it is frightening to look, with eyes wide open, at the past and the present of race. And I know many of you have begun and continue to do work around dismantling racism. I thank you for your courage, and encourage you to please continue. There are many opportunities for you to learn about and get involved in diversity and anti-racism work. Province One, the New England province of diocese in the Episcopal Church is hosting on online event on how to implement General Convention Resolution 182 which “urges the Church to enter into dialogue, listening exercises, strategic partnerships, and internal analysis to address systemic racial disparities and injustice in the Church and the wider culture.” That online event is Tuesday February 21 and there is information about it on the board in the cloister and on the table in back of the church. There is also an anti-racism training at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul the weekend of March 10 and 11th.
I am currently taking an online course through everyday feminism on Healing from Toxic Whiteness. It’s a ten week course that can be done at your own pace. If anyone is interested in joining me, please let me know. I’m sure there are many other opportunities that you may know about, and if you can recommend any, please share them with me.
There is no quick fix to repenting from the sin of racism. It’s hard, and scary, and it takes focused, intentional, and ongoing work…work done individually and communally. But because we strive to follow Christ, and Christ’s command to love one another, and because racism is a sin…we have no choice but to do this work…to repent and to keep repenting until all God’s children are free.
I’m grateful that you are here tonight. I’m grateful to Chris and the choir. I hope that celebrating the feast of Absalom Jones might give us white people the courage to continue this work that God has given us to do, and our world so desperately needs us to do. With that in mind, let us pray again the collect for Absalom Jones saying together:
Set us free, O heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of thy servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which thou hast given us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.