A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
The Roll Call was one of the most powerful moments.
"Wille Edwards, Jr.!" the voice shouted to the 400+ of us jammed packed Lowndes County Court House.
"Present!" a young person shouted from back of the room, holding high a huge picture of Willie Edwards, Jr., marked "Martyred in Montgomery, Alabama, January 23, 1957. The pilgrim carried the icon of Willie Edwards, Jr. solemnly through the thick crowd to stand with it beside a make-shift altar before the judge's bench.
"William Lewis Moore!" the teller shouted.
"Here!" responded a young person from another place in the crowd, holding high a life-sized icon of William Lewis Moore's face, "martyred in Attalla, Alabama, April 23, 1963 as a one-person demonstration again segregation."
One by one as each saint's name was called, a pilgrim answered, "Present!' or "Here!" through Roll Call of the Alabama Martyrs,
"We pray for all who have died," the celebrant led us, "that they may have a place in your eternal kingdom, especially Jonathan Myrick Daniels and the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and all others known only to God."
"Make no mistake, Christians!" preached Bishop Steven Charleston. "This is not an exercise in nostalgia. Am I speaking the truth?" "Amen! shouted hundreds of Episcopalians. "Are we ourselves not here today for the same reason that Jonathan Myrick Daniels was here forty years ago, to testify to the living God, to testify that love will always triumph over hatred and fear?" "Amen!" the pilgrims replied.
"Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he heard and answered a call from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to come to Selma, Alabama, to support the efforts to register black people to vote and to demonstrate against the deep ingrained segregation of black and white people. On August 14, 1964, Jonathan and seven black teenagers were arrested for this activity. They were jailed in Hayneville, Alabama. Six days later with no explanation and no transportation, they were released. On that unbelievably hot August day, as they tried to decide what to do, they stopped at a small cash store to buy a cold drink,. Before they could go in, the white deputy sheriff came to the door armed with a shotgun. Realizing what was about to happen, Jonathan threw himself between a young black teenager, Ruby Sales, and the deputy sheriff. He was killed instantly. Later, the deputy, in what passed then for a trial, was exonerated and set free" (from http://www.dioala.org/).
The senior warden of the nearest parish in 1964 was foreman of the jury that acquitted the murderer.
We began our pilgrimage and procession with prayers and hymns at the square in front of the court house. From there we walked to the jail a short distance away, led in our singing by Dr. Horace Boyer, who compiled Lift Every Voice and Sing. Narrators told each part of the story as we stood where it happened. We made offerings and oblations in front of Varner's Cash Store next-door, at the spot where Jonathan died.
During the Eucharist at the courthouse, the black mayor welcomed us. A younger brother of Ruby Sales told how Jonathan Daniels' martyrdom to save their sister's life had changed the lives of everyone in the family, and had brought them all into vocations of community service in a sacred way. Ruby was struck dumb when Jonathan was killed. It was only when they needed her to testify at the trial that she recovered her ability to speak..
Many parts of this pilgrimage were deeply personal to me as a native Alabamian born to white male privilege. How enormously great is my debt to this holy outside agitator who refused to sentimentalize spirituality. How glad I am that he did not do as I had done in graduate school, and take a comfortable trip to look at the cathedrals of Europe, but came instead to hot, rural, bigoted Alabama to help register black people to vote. What a price for him to pay for our ignorance, our blindness, our injustice!
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
At the picnic I sat across from two elderly women, each widows of FBI agents who had brought black justice workers into their homes 40 years ago on many a night to keep them from being murdered.
A man approached me looking at my Executive Council cap, squinting in the sun, and our faces each lit up with recognition. "Buddy!" I shouted. "Louie!" he replied. I had not seen Buddy Cornet since we were released from the Tuscaloosa jail in 1969. He and I had refused to obey the order of a policeman who was trying to break up our demonstration for Peace in Vietnam. Police had been cracking the heads of students so that the incumbent governor could show that he was as tough as George Wallace, who was about to run again. I felt it was time for at least one faculty member to stand up to this abuse. Later I was to be so glad that the FBI kept a file on me. It is one of the few things that lets me hold my head up in that dreadful period of our common life.
I knelt at the spot of the Daniels' martyrdom with Bill Parnell+, another Southerner now with me in the Diocese of Newark.
I walked arm in arm with a gay friend from Birmingham who told me that he is finally leaving the Cathedral of the Advent to join a parish with social justice outreach because he can no longer take the abuse that the Advent heaps upon gay people.
I connected with some colleagues from the House of Deputies, and with Bishop James Curry, who was visiting in Alabama as part of his sabbatical research of resources for ministry in higher education.
At an Integrity reception for the pilgrims afterwards I met people who had come from all over the two sponsoring dioceses (Alabama and Central Gulf Coast), and several who had come from the Diocese of Atlanta. I reconnected with Charles Suhor, long-time director of the National Council of Teachers of English and brother to Mary Lou Suhor, editor of The Witness for most of the 1970s and early 80s -- and she helped the Episcopal Church enormously to begin to live into gender justice. Charlie and his wife are indefatigable leaders in PFLAG in Alabama. Don't mess with parents who love their children as God does!
A cousin whom I had not seen in 40 years lived next door to the hosts of the reception; we're both 'black sheep' in our Baptist family for having become Episcopalians. How wondrous to reconnect. Our reunion was edged with pain as each recalled specific black people whom our families had exploited, whose love had nurtured us even in the grips of our own injustice. Eula Jackson, rest in peace. Lilly whom the family never allowed a last name, rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon you.
Back in Birmingham, Integrity leaders Brad Lamonte and David Gary took me to the new play by Del Shores, "Southern Baptist Sissies." Shores wrote the movie "Sordid Lives." Brad and David had prepared me for the delightful humor of the show, which follows four young gay men who try hard to be good Southern Baptist and the terrible twistedness that occurs when we embrace a theology that hates us. I was not prepared for the spiritual depth I encountered in this production. The house was packed. And as the cast sang many of the Baptist hymns, dozens of those in the audience sang along in full voice from memory of many of the verses. The play is one of the strongest affirmations of God's love I have ever encountered. In the lobby was posted a letter from a Baptist pastor and patron asking to be removed from their mailing list, saying that they had chosen a play that unfairly attacked his denomination. I look forward to the day when he or his children or his children's children will understand that it is the theology in this play that will keep alive the faith we received at Baptist altar calls.
On Sunday I had the privilege to preach at Grace Church in Birmingham, which has a huge outreach to the poor and the homeless. At least a third of the congregation are now Hispanic. Rich and poor serve together as disciples in this place. Most rectors still risk being fired should they invite me to preach, yet I am beginning to notice a pattern in many and varied places that do. A vast majority of them have outreach programs to the poor. They are not afraid of reality.
What a blessing to preach on yesterday's gospel, with Jesus ticked off, with a psalm that encourages us to be ticked off, even as Jonathan Daniels was ticked off.
Why is it that we move all the strong social justice issues to the middle of August when God is on vacation, and most clergy are in Maine? We need to move these texts to Christmas and Easter, and the Sunday before election day, when more people feel a need to be seen in Church, and might save the Easter and Christmas stories to nourish those diehard pilgrims the year round.
I can think of no higher tribute to Jonathan Daniels than that each Episcopalian take personal responsibility for persuading five poor people to register and vote in November.
Over the next 10 years we as a nation are going to commemorate many specific episodes that made our country more just, our church more inviting to Jesus.
50 years ago this month I arrived as a freshman at Baylor. Earlier that year, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court had decided "Brown vs. Board of Education." When I was a junior at Baylor, in the fall of 1956, Arhurine Lucy arrived at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to test that decision. There were horrible riots. When I was a senior at Baylor, in the fall of 1957, Central High School in Little Rock was integrated.....
Friends in Alabama who had gone to earlier pilgrimages for Jonathan Daniels got quite aggressive this time. "You can no longer call yourself an Alabamian if you don't come home for this one!" they insisted. "But I still pay property taxes in Coosa County," I noted. "That just makes you another absentee landlord," they responded. "But my exile from home has been quite involuntary," I pointed out; "at one time or another I applied for a job at every university in the state, but they weren't ready to hire an outspoken sissy in an interracial gay marriage." "Louie," they broke through, "Come home!"
What a homecoming!
Next year they will probably have to use the Hayneville High School to hold the group for the Eucharist, and use the courthouse as one more station on the procession. In five years, I would not be surprised to see 5,000 coming to the Pilgrimage. You don't have to be Alabamian to find this powerful. As Bishop Charleston preached, "We are here for the same reason Jonathan Daniels came, to witness to a God of love."
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
In the name of The greatest Outside Agitator,
Lutibelle/Louie, Newark Deputy, Member of Executive Council
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