Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, February 16, 2020

YEAR A 2020 absalom jones

Absalom Jones, Feb. 16, 2020
Isaiah 11:1-5
Psalm 137:1-6
Galatians 5:1-5
John 15:12-15

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today—with the Bishop’s permission—we are taking the unusual step of honoring Absalom Jones in both our services.  As you know, February is Black History month.  The purpose of Black History month is not so that Black Americans can celebrate their own history.  It is, rather, so that everyone can recognize the important contributions of people whom history has tended to skip over.  And the fact that most Episcopalians don’t know the name Absalom Jones kind of proves the point.

But let’s go back to that phrase I just used, “with the Bishop’s permission.”  The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has asked that clergy solicit contributions to two schools this month—you’ll see a flyer in your bulletin explaining this.  But he is not our Bishop; the Right Rev. Mark Hollingsworth is our Bishop.  Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has no authority over me, or this parish, because of the way the Episcopal Church is structured.  Allow me to provide a brief refresher on how all this works.

The organizing unit of the Episcopal Church is the Diocese—not the congregation, and not the national church.  The people of each Diocese periodically choose someone to lead us as Bishop; and fourteen years ago, we chose a priest from Massachusetts and ordained him our Bishop.  Technically, Mark Hollingsworth is your priest—which is why he always presides at the Eucharist when he visits us.  But since he can’t be here every week, St. Timothy’s Church calls a Rector to fill in as priest the other 101 Sundays between Bishop’s visitations.  For now, that’s me.

The Presiding Bishop is chosen by the national church to lead the House of Bishops when they meet.  You know, to preside at their meetings.  Bishop Curry is the face and figurehead of the Episcopal Church, but he has no more authority than Bishop Hollingsworth.  In fact, he has less, since he doesn’t even have a Diocese anymore.  The point is, the Presiding Bishop is no Pope, you see?  Essentially, he asked Bishop Hollingsworth to ask me to ask you for your support of these two Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in honor of Absalom Jones, and so I am.

And then, I thought it would be fitting to use the readings for Absalom Jones’ feast day, which was three days ago.  But since I have no authority to just do that on my own, I asked Bishop Hollingsworth, and he said yes.  So there you have the story of how we got here today, honoring Absalom Jones, rather than observing the 6th Sunday after Epiphany.

This morning, I want to read you a couple of things, and then offer just a closing thought.
From Lesser Feasts and Fasts: Absalom Jones was born on November 6, 1746, as a house slave in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings. Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the blacks indignantly walked out as a body.

In 1787, black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17th, 1794. The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1. that they be received as an organized body; 2. that they have control over their local affairs; 3. that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.

In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802. Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas Church, Philadelphia, grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the church as God’s instrument. Jones died on February 13th, 1818, in Philadelphia.

Flash forward to seventy years later, and we find this, from St. Timothy’s Parish History:  In January, 1888, [St. Timothy’s Rector] Mr. Kemp began a ministry among the black people of Massillon. The records do not indicate whether he ini­tiated the ministry, or whether they asked  him  for help. Which­ever was the case, he helped them to repair an  abandoned  church on Oak Street, and on March 18 began holding regular Sunday afternoon  services there.

After the black congregation had been using the church for about a year, they learned that it belonged to the AME Zion Con­ference.  They  surrendered  the building  to its owners·, and  began meeting in the Sunday School room at St. Timothy's until new quarters could be found. St. Timothy's vestry, having  voted  to adopt the "Colored Church" as a mission, now shouldered the responsibility of providing a building for it. 

At first they discussed the possibility of  building a chapel on  the  church grounds. Then A. J. Ricks, the Senior Warden, offered to donate a lot on Wellman Avenue, and  his offer was accepted. Mr. Kemp broke ground for the new Grace  Chapel on October 3, 1889, and it was completed the following February at a cost of $2,260.63. Approximately one­ third of this amount was raised by the  blacks,  an­other third  by  the  members of  St.  Timothy's, and  the rest was given by citizens of Massillon and outside friends.   A  simple frame building, it was finished inside with rough plaster and natural wood. Bright carpeting and cathedral glass lent color. A choir gallery containing a chapel organ was located at the right of the chancel, balanced by a small robing room on the left side. The chapel seated two hundred. Beneath it, in the basement, was a Sunday  School room.

The first service in the chapel, which was the first black Episcopal church in the Diocese of Ohio, was held on Ash Wednesday, February 19, 1890. On July 6 of that year Bishop W. A. Leonard dedicated the chapel and confirmed a class of six. [Our Rector] Mr. Kemp held services in the chapel regularly every Sunday afternoon after that, with  Mrs. Kemp playing  the organ.

From 1890 to 1893 the chapel's membership remained fairly steady, numbering just over twenty. But after 1893 only a few communicants were added to the rolls, not enough to offset the inevitable losses in membership. Mr.  Kemp's departure in 1897 was apparently the final blow to the chapel. On November 15,  1897, a committee from Grace Chapel met with St. Timothy's ves­try and tendered back all its furniture and effects. . . .

After Grace Chapel closed, several of its members transferred their affiliation to St. Timothy's. Among them were the Grant family and Wright Walker. Walker, a former slave who came to Massillon  with  the Jarvis  family, amassed  an estate  worth $41,000.00 [about $500,000 today] before his death [Feb. 18] in 1921. The bulk of his estate was left to Tuskegee Institute, but he did also leave a bequest to St. Timothy's. He is buried in the church lot in the Massillon cemetery.

Now, I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that it is my desire to be buried in the plot right next to Wright Walker.  I’ve even lay down there on the ground to consider the view.  But, not anytime soon, God willing.  Wright Walker was an exemplary man.  And you may be wondering, “What is this Tuskegee Institute to which he gave this small fortune?”  The Tuskegee Institute is another Historically Black College, located in Alabama.  In later years, the Tuskegee Airmen were all educated there.  Mr. Walker did not go to college, but he did once visit Tuskegee so that he could meet his hero, Booker T. Washington, one of the school’s founders.  Having been born a slave, Wright Walker did not even learn to read and write until he moved to New York City, before moving to Massillon.  Although he himself did not attend Tuskegee, he saw its value.

In the March 1931 edition of Tuskegee Journal, they devoted several pages to Wright Walker.  The main article about him in this issue is titled, “Born a Slave—Died a Prince.”  They say that his two hobbies were reading and going to church.  Going to church right here, in this very same building.  In fact, he paid for those choir pews in 1909, which we still use every Sunday.    The ones on the south side (soprano and alto) were dedicated in memory of  the  Rev. John Swan, our first rector, and those on the north side (tenor and bass) were in honor of the Rev. Edward Kemp "for his work among the black community" of Massillon.

The Tuskegee Journal also writes, The influence of the Jarvis family or the Burton family accounted for Mr. Walker’s becoming identified with the Episcopal Church.  This is the only way to account for his church affiliation, as the late Booker T. Washington often remarked that when you found a Negro other than Methodist or Baptist, you could be assured that some white man had tampered with his religion.

Be that as it may, they also write that “The congregation of St. Timothy’s appreciated him not only for his contribution and attendance to its services; but as one who exerted a great influence upon its members because of his pious and devoted life.”

At the time of this special edition, Wright Walker’s gift to the Tuskegee Institute was “the single biggest gift Tuskegee received from a Negro.”  They continue, “It is significant that a man who had been denied the privilege of an education could recognize the need, and deem that the best expression of his love for his race could come from leaving so large amount of his estate for the cause of education.”

In today’s gospel reading:  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  From Absalom Jones, to Wright Walker, to St. Timothy’s Church.  We have seen this love, and I know that generations to come will see this same love.  It is a very specific kind of love, the love that can only come from God, who is our Strength and our Redeemer.


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