Companions on the Way

 

 

“Lift every voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listning skies,

Let  it resound

Loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song full of the faith

that the dark past has taught us

Sing a song full of the hope

That the present has brought us

Facing the rising sun

Of our new day begun

Let us march on

Till victory is won

 

“Stony the road we trod

Bitter the chastning rod

Felt in the days

When hope unborn had died

Yet with a steady beat

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place

For which our fathers sighed

We have come over a way

That with tears has been watered

We come treading our path

With the blood of the slaughtered

Out from the gloomy past

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam

Of our bright star is cast”

 

Theirs was not any easy path.  The church that ordained them sought to create a separate church for African Americans.  The church that ordained them even created a new position—Suffragan Bishop—so that African-Americans would fall under a bishop but not one that could vote in General Convention!  Henry Beard Delany and Edward Thomas Demby devoted their lives to serving God’s people and God’s church.  They were committed to keeping African Americans in the church proper and not in some side chapel of the larger white Episcopal Church.

 

Today we remember that the first African American baptized in what was to be the Episcopal Church came arrived on these shores in bondage in 1619.Today we remember that the church that emerged at the time our country was formed was one that accepted slavery; one that did not divide when the country divided over slavery; one that partnered with the culture of segregation and Jim Crow for over seventy years; one that for years preached not the Gospel of  God’s unbounded love but  through word and deed a darker text of control and exclusion.

 

And yet throughout the history of African Americans and the Episcopal Church there have been strong voices of people who have spoken “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests (our) hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2: 4)

*People like the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African-American ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and one who served those in deep need not         only the people of  his church but people throughout Philadelphia

*People like the Rt. Rev. James Theodore Holly, the first African-American             ordained to the Episcopate and the first Black Bishop to attend Lambeth

*People like the countless men and women of black congregations throughout our country who could say with our psalmist,

“I keep your precepts and decrees,

for all my ways are before you”

and who cared for those in need, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own             children”(1 Thessalonians 2: 7b)

 

People like Henry Beard Delany, born into slavery three years before the Civil War broke out and ordained a bishop in 1918, and Edward Thomas Demby, born in the early days of Reconstruction shortly before Jim Crow swept over the country and the Church, and ordained the first African American to serve as a bishop in the United States.  Both Delany and Demby kept their eyes focused on that white gleam of the bright star of God’s welcome table where all people—black and white, slave and free, male and female—are welcome and one in Christ.

 

Theirs was not any easy path.  The church that ordained them sought to create a separate church for African Americans.  The church that ordained them even created a new position—Suffragan Bishop—so that African-Americans would fall under a bishop but not one that could vote in General Convention!  Henry Beard Delany and Edward Thomas Demby devoted their lives to serving God’s people and God’s church.  They were committed to keeping African Americans in the church proper and not in some side chapel of the larger white Episcopal Church.

 

A current running deep in Black Church tradition is the notion “I am because we are” and its corollary “We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us”.  Henry Beard Delany and Edward Thomas Demby were the men of God they were because of those who gathered at the table with them and those who went before them.

 

Thirty-eight African-American men and women have been ordained bishop in the Episcopal Church—poets, musicians, theologians, preachers; people known for their passion for justice or their reconciling spirit or their commitment to human economic rights or their warm pastoral presence.  Thirty-eight African-Americans “have come to that place for which their fathers sighed”.

 

What got them there?  The same thing that carries us on our journey of faith—the grace of God and the knowledge that our food is to do the will—the reconciling work of love—of the one who has created us—every one of us—in her image.

 

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