Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Transfiguring Lives: Black Episcopal Luminaries

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes II Kings 2:1-12; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Black History Month invites us to pay attention to our own African-American heritage as a nation and as a church, to celebrate the strides that have been made towards achieving a more perfect racial union, and to acknowledge the distance we have yet to go.

While the cost of progress has been paid by countless brave, patient, and divinely impatient men, women, and children whose names and stories we may never know, many heroes stand tall, including some who played unique roles in the history of the Episcopal Church.

One is Absalom Jones, who was born a slave in Delaware in 1746. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia, where he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave and used his savings to purchase her freedom, later purchasing his own.

He worshiped at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, serving as a lay minister to its black members. With his friend Richard Allen, Jones was such a good evangelist that black membership grew so large that the alarmed vestry decided to segregate their black members into an upstairs gallery, a shameful step they took without warning. As ushers attempted to move them, the black members rightly and righteously walked out in a body.

Within a few years, African-American Christians in Philadelphia built the African Church where no one would be made to sit in the balcony, dedicating that church in 1794. They applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and were admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, later that year. Diocesan Bishop William White ordained Absalom Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest in 1802, the first black priest in our church.

Eleven years after Jones’s death, James Theodore Augustus Holly was born a free African American in Washington, D.C. Raised a Roman Catholic, he later became an Episcopalian and was ordained a deacon in Detroit in 1855, and a priest in Connecticut, the following year. Appointed Rector of St. Luke’s in New Haven, he founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church among Colored People, and became a friend of Frederick Douglass. The two men would work together closely.

In 1861, Holly left New Haven to lead a group of African Americans settling in Haiti. Within the first year there, his wife, his mother, and two of his children died; but Holly stayed on, with two small sons, no less able (it was said of him) to speak of God’s love to anyone who needed to hear it.

In1874, James Holly was consecrated the first Bishop of Haiti, the first black man to be raised to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church. Four years later, he attended the Lambeth Conference, an international gathering of all bishops in the Anglican Communion, the first black man to do so, and preached at Westminster Abbey on the Feast of St. James, his namesake.

Serving the people of Haiti until his death in 1911, Holly doubled the size of his diocese and established medical clinics in areas that had never had them. For the last fourteen years of his life he also had charge of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. Holly is credited with laying a firm foundation for what is now the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church, Haiti, with its 84,000 members, a numerical strength no stateside diocese comes anywhere near matching.

Absalom Jones and James Holly give us two key stories to tell, from the 18th and 19th centuries, stories deemed so important in our church’s history that these men are considered saints, each given a day in the year when the church remembers them—February 13th for Jones, March 13th for Holly.

I want to tell you the stories of three more African American leaders in our church, from the 20th century, stories too recent to land them in our book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, but perhaps in time they’ll be there, with Jones and Holly.

Have you heard the name Verna Dozier? Like over 99% of the church’s members, she was a lay person. Her entire life was spent in Washington, D.C. From her agnostic father she inherited a questioning mind, and from her Baptist mother a deep faith. In time, she stopped attending the Baptist church with her mother and went with her father to hear the theologians speak at the chapel services at Howard University. She would say that, still later, "When I discovered the Episcopal Church, it was as if I had been waiting for that all my life."

For 32 years Verna taught English to junior and senior high students in public schools. On retirement, she began to lead Bible study groups for her parish. When parishioners congratulated her for beginning her ministry, she insisted that she was continuing her ministry of educating people for life. Countering the impression that a lay person’s ministry must be churchy, Dozier insisted that ministry is for all the baptized, and that most of it happens in the world. To her mind, “what happens on Monday is more important than what happens on Sunday, and if what happens on Sunday has no impact on Monday, then Sunday’s activities are a waste of time.”

The several books that Verna Dozier wrote in the 1980’s equipped the church for lay-led Bible study. We take that for granted now, but one of Dozier’s great accomplishments was to encourage the church’s people to gather in groups to lay their hands and their minds on the Bible, and not to treat it idolatrously, absolutizing selective biblical perspectives as if they were eternally binding laws, but to approach the text with three questions.

First, what does the passage say, what do its words mean, what are the key concepts? Second, why did the early Christian community preserve this passage? What issues were they dealing with, and how did these words help them make sense of their lives? Third, what does the passage mean to you and to the church today? Verna taught the church a method of Bible study that literally brought the good book home to people.

Here are samples of her own words. “We wax dewy-eyed over love in the New Testament, but we ignore justice in the Old so we don’t know what we are talking about when we talk about love. Love is justice in action.”

“The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’, but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’”

“The church missed its high calling to be the new thing in the world when it decided to worship Jesus instead of following him… Worship is setting Jesus on a pedestal, distancing him, enshrining (enshrouding) him in liturgies, stained glass windows, biblical translations, medallions, pilgrimages to places where he walked—the whole nine yards. Following him is doing what he did, weeping over a situation that was so far removed from the dream of God and spending his life to make it different. Following is discipleship.”

Horace Clarence Boyer grew up in a family that took discipleship seriously. That was in Winter Park, Florida, in the 1930’s and 40’s. His family’s church was in the Holiness/Pentecostal tradition, and Gospel music was always in the air. Horace and his brother, James, formed the Gospel-singing Boyer Brothers and toured the nation, making recordings for national labels.

After serving in the Army in the late 50’s, Horace earned his master’s and doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and began teaching at colleges in the south before joining the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Massachusetts in 1973. Before he retired in 1999, Boyer directed the Voice of New Africa House Workshop Choir, a fifty-voice choir drawn from the five colleges. As a solo vocalist, he toured internationally, and as a lecturer he visited many campuses, including a stint as the Cesar Chavez-Rosa Parks-Martin Luther King Professor at the University of Michigan. From 1985 to 1987, he was named Curator of Musical Instruments at the Smithsonian Institution, distinguished scholar-at-large of the United Negro College Fund, and director of the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers.

In the last decade of his life, Horace visited us here several times, performing with and without his brother James in Gospel concerts under the auspices of the Williams Jazz Festival, and on occasional blissful Sundays leading us in worship. It was returning home from his last visit here that he and his wife Gloria hit a patch of ice up in Windsor and the serious injuries Horace sustained that night sadly silenced his rich singing voice.

Internationally recognized historian of Gospel music, Boyer injected this vibrant musical tradition into the Episcopal Church, helping thaw God’s frozen people and showing us that in addition to sitting, kneeling, and standing, Episcopalians can sway and clap and dance to the glory of God.

I will never forget the Sunday several of us took the Boyers to lunch. Water Street Grill was full of people that day, and we must have been ten or twelve at tables right in the middle. Horace decided to show us how black choirs traditionally process. Up he got, swinging his arms from side to side in rhythm to a tune he hummed, and out he went around those tables in a sort of dance step that must have made choir fun.

One of us (I think I’ll claim the credit) asked him how he found his way to the Episcopal Church. “It was Johann Sebastian Bach,” he answered. Walking to lawn mowing jobs as a boy, Horace would pass an Episcopal Church in Winter Park, doors open as the organist practiced, and out into this young boy’s soul flowed Bach. This was the 1940’s, and Horace would not have been welcome to enter that (or any other white) church, but he would walk real slowly by to catch music he had never heard before. On his own in the Army, not many years later, he took instruction in the Episcopal Church, the Christian tradition that gave him Bach and to which he gave back Gospel.

Barbara C. Harris was a cradle Episcopalian born in Philadelphia in 1930. By the 1960’s, she was chief public relations executive at the Sun Oil Company, and a devoted member of the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, the center of the black protest movement in that city, drawing Barbara into voter registration campaigns and the Selma march with Martin Luther King, Jr. The Advocate was also where the famous “Philadelphia 11” were ordained, our church’s first female priests, in a decidedly renegade defiance of a decision to ban women’s ordination until a wider consensus could be won. They won it, and Barbara was the crucifer at that service. By 1980, she was a priest herself.

Parish rector, prison chaplain, industrial consultant on public policy issues, respected voice of progressive Christianity, Harris became the first woman to be made a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1988, when the Diocese of Massachusetts elected her Bishop Suffragan. Even though the Lambeth Conference had, earlier that year, resolved that the ordination of women as bishops was the prerogative of each national province of the Anglican Communion, Barbara’s consecration sent some conservative priests out of communion with the church, and those voices were heard in protest at most ordinations of women, as was witnessed here when Susan Crampton was made a priest in the 1980’s.

You’ll see from Barbara Harris’s photo that she has a commanding presence. Typical of the stories told about her was the evening she arrived to serve at a Boston meals program, straight from a state event, wearing her full length mink coat and flashing bright red fingernails. The guests that night loved being served by not just a bishop, but a hot bishop.

From all these heroic figures in our church’s past, we have inherited something of their spirit. God has shone in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ whom they proclaimed. And his is the transfiguring light that shines through their stories.

(Absalom Jones’s and James Holly’s biographical sketches in "Lesser Feasts and Fasts", Church Publishing, 2006, were used in preparing this sermon. Verna Dozier’s biographical sketch in "Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality", edited by Richard H. Schmidt and published by Eerdmans, 2002, was also used.)