On the feast of Alexander Crummell: Sermon by Ms. Ora Houston, President, The Rev. John Dublin Epps Chapter, Union of Black Episcopalians
Seminary of the Southwest
September 12, 2012
In our lives Lord, be glorified
In your Church Lord, be glorified
In my words Lord be glorified, today…
I am going to invite you to do something very un-Episcopalian (participate) - most of us have seen signs, banners or bumper stickers which proclaim, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”. If you believe that proclamation in your soul, say ‘Amen’.
Unfortunately, for me and others in our communities we find those words to be hollow. The words do however, invite us to stretch our understanding of ‘welcome’; and grow into the reality of what those words mean.
Rev. Alexander Crummell who we remember today, was a product of not being welcomed, not being accepted, and being made to feel that he did not belong in the denomination he felt called to serve. His journey of faith was circuitous and difficult. He was denied entrance to General Theological Seminary, yet that did not deter him. He studied privately and at the age of 25, Alexander Crummell was ordained priest in 1844. 50 years after the ordination of Rev. Absalom Jones in 1794 and 19 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. We, the descendents of slaves have been faithful members of this Church a very long time.
Rev. Crummell decided to leave the United States and travel to England after experiencing additional personal affronts. He graduated from Queens’ College, Cambridge University in 1853. Then his ministry called him to Liberia, he was an evangelist, church planter, educator and author. When he returned to the States Crummell began ‘mission’ work at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC. Rev. Kim Baker, a graduate of this seminary is currently assisting at St. Luke’s.
Rev. Crummell never left the Episcopal Church, even when it was silent on the institution of slavery.
In 1882, a priest in Mississippi launched an attack on Blacks because our numbers were declining. The reasoning was that Blacks lacked the intellect, morals and leadership ability to be members of The Episcopal Church. The Sewanee plan proposed to segregate Blacks into a ‘diocese based on race’. In response, The Convocation of the Colored Clergy was organized; Rev. Crummell was its 1st president. The name was later changed to the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People.
Their agenda was to lobby and fight for the full inclusion and participation of Blacks in the life of the Church at the congregational level, in seminaries, at diocesan conventions, and General Convention. The organization fiercely opposed the Sewanee Plan. Under the leadership of Rev. Crummell, separate and unequal was not formally placed in the canons or polity of our church.
Rev. Crummell was highly educated, well traveled, and articulate. Can you imagine? Men and women who were slaves or newly freed having the audacity to speak up in support of their rights, as children of the Living God to participate in the Church they loved. This was during a time when it was dangerous for Black people to speak out against or challenge anything.
Some called Rev. Crummell a trouble maker, an agitator because he was a vocal activist who pushed the Church to stretch and grow. I call Rev. Crummell and members of those early organizations – prophets, servants of God who were courageous and willing to take personal risks to the ‘glory of God’ and for the greater good.
Rev. Crummell and those early organizations laid the foundation and the continuing vision for The Union of Black Episcopalians, which formally organized in 1968. As president of the Chapter in the Diocese of Texas, I am proud to inherit their legacy of advocacy, evangelism, education, identification of and eradication of systems of oppression in the Church and in society. It is a privilege to stand on the shoulders of praying, faithful, dedicated servants like Rev. Crummell. When I think about it Not much has changed. Leaders of the church still use scripture to deny the humanity of some of God’s children. I have neverleft the Episcopal Church, even though in my lifetime the Church was silent on Jim Crow laws (voter suppression/poll taxes) and it was only in the 1990’s that The Episcopal Church began to address the issues segregation and racism.
You are thinking, “What pray tell does this have to do with me or my ministry? I offer two take a ways:
*Our church must not be one of exclusion, the church of our great grandparents, grandparents or parents. Research the histories of non-white Episcopalians in your community/diocese and insure that the histories of ‘many peoples’ are imbedded in the fabric of your ministry. Share their love of God, their faith, witness and tenacity in the face of being pushed to the margins and outright rejection.
*When people show up at gatherings, who don’t look like you, smile, acknowledge their humanity and demonstrate the type of welcome we proclaim. As a leader, everyone will be watching your reaction and response. It is important to model the love of and respect for every human being which Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry.
Our baptismal covenant requires it…it is not optional.
Did you hear ‘his’ story? Rev. Alexander Crummell’s story. What will you do with the seeds that have been planted? Will they become a part of you – thrive, grow and bear fruit? Or will they die? My sisters and brothers, God the Holy Spirit is pushing each of us to stretch and grow.
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” and I mean it.