Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, February 19, 2023

YEAR A 2023 absalom jones

Absalom Jones, Feb. 19, 2023
Isaiah 42:5–9
Psalm 126
John 15:12-15

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

Today—with the Bishop’s permission—we are honoring Absalom Jones at 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 separate history.  It is, rather, so that everyone can recognize the important contributions of people whom history has tended to skip over, oftentimes quite intentionally.  And the fact that most Episcopalians don’t know the name Absalom Jones kind of proves the point.

Abasalom Jones was the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, ordained in 1802.  He died on February 13th, which is why that is his feast day.  Now, there was another man, named Wright Walker—a member of St. Timothy’s Church—who died on February 18th, 1921.  If Wright Walker had a feast day—which he should—it would have been yesterday.  So we are honoring both of these important men today.

In honor of Absalom Jones, 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 Michael Curry is not our Bishop; the Right Rev. Mark Hollingsworth is our Bishop.  Presiding Bishop Curry has no authority over me, or this parish, because of the way the Episcopal Church is structured.  Since I just finished writing an article on Apostolic Succession for our diocesan Church Life magazine, allow me to take a moment to explain how this all 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 20 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 155 Sundays between Bishop’s visitations.  And, right 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 less actual authority than Bishop Hollingsworth.  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 asking, and I hope you will consider contributing, as Cristin and I will be.

As I did three years ago, I want to read you a couple of things about Absalom Jones and Wright Walker, 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.

Now, flash forward seventy years his death, 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. . . . He helped them to repair an  abandoned  church on Oak Street, and began holding regular Sunday afternoon services there.

After the 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. 

At first, the Vestry 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, [which is a few blocks north of here]. Grace Chapel was completed in February 1890. Approximately one­ third of the cost 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.  

On Ash Wednesday, 1890, the first service was held in the chapel, which was the first black Episcopal church in the Diocese of Ohio. 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. But after 1893 only a few communicants were added to the rolls, not enough to offset the inevitable losses in membership

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

As most of you know by now, it is my wish to be buried in the vacant plot right next to Wright Walker.  I have even lay down there on the ground to consider the view, and it is lovely.  But, not anytime soon, God willing.  Wright Walker was an exemplary man, and a pillar of this church and community.

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.  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 north and then to Massillon.  Although he himself did not attend Tuskegee, he saw its value.

In the March 1931 edition of the 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, which we still use every Sunday.  The ones on the south side (soprano and alto) are dedicated in memory of  the  Rev. John Swan, our first rector, and those on the north side (tenor and bass) are in honor of the Rev. Edward Kemp, for his work among the black community of Massillon.  I encourage you to note the plaques on the front of them sometime.

The Tuskegee Journal also writes, The influence of the Jarvis 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.

Ouch!  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.”  Significant is an understatement.

These two remarkable men, Absalom Jones and Wright Walker, are a testament to love, in the face of . . . what is not love.  And that same struggle continues, even as advances are made.  As our closing hymn today asks, “Yet, with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our parents sighed?”  It is a determination to meet resistance with love.  Because God is in love.  God is always in love.

In today’s gospel reading:  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  From Absalom Jones and the Episcopal Church, to Wright Walker and 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.  Again, from that same hymn: “Thou who hast by thy might led us into the light; keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.


1 comment:

  1. We are grateful to Fr. George for this history lesson. These stories are some of the neglected episodes of American history that we need to recover in order to overcome our divisions and encourage diversity. Absolom Jones and Wright Walker need to become well-known to us and celebrated as saintsa in our calendar.