What can one human being do to illuminate a world where he can expect only to be discarded and ignored?
This year’s celebration of Absalom Jones Day was held at the Church of the Holy Cross on Saturday, February 7. The only predominantly African-American Episcopal parish in Pittsburgh, Holy Cross was founded as a mission for African-American Pittsburghers in 1875. The congregation took the name of Holy Cross when it was still a mission in the early 1900s, and after a succession of church homes from downtown to the Hill District to the North Side, it found its current home in a beautiful old church in Pittsburgh’s Homewood-Brushton neighborhood. Holy Cross’ and Saint Andrew’s (in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood) current buildings are of the same vintage, 1906-1909, designed by the same architectural team of Carpenter and Crocker.
Led by the Rev. Dr. Moni McIntyre, the parish celebrated Absalom Jones with rich and varied music, a wonderful sermon, and warm hospitality. Absalom Jones (1746-1818) was the first priest in the American Episcopal Church of African descent. Born a slave, he taught himself to read using the New Testament. At the age of 20, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings. He bought his own freedom in 1784. At Saint George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the evangelism of Jones and his friend Richard Allen resulted in greatly increased Black membership in the church. This threatened the vestry, who decided to segregate Black parishioners into an upstairs gallery without notifying them. When ushers attempted to remove them from the church, they indignantly walked out in a body.
Subsequently, Jones helped organize the African Church, which applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. The church was admitted at Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church in 1794, and Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795, followed by ordination as a priest in 1802. It is this history that has led to celebration of Absalom Jones Day in many churches in the country. Incidentally, Richard Allen went on to form the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. It is interesting that our own Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, Rector of Pittsburgh’s Calvary Church, wrote the words to the hymn honoring Absalom Jones, sung each year at this traditional service, "Blessed Absalom" (#44 in "Lift Every Voice and Sing, II").
The guest preacher at this year’s event was the Rev. Dr. Ronald Peters, Associate Professor of Urban Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and founding Director of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute, an interdisciplinary program of religious leadership development for urban society. In his sermon, Dr. Peters reminded us that in Absalom Jones’ time Africans were considered subhuman, on a par with animals which could be bought and sold. Former slaves had to carry papers certifying their free status. It was in this atmosphere that Jones chose to challenge the status quo.
One wonders how he managed this, day by day, carrying his belief as a light into the darkest corners of our history. According to Peters, God used Absalom Jones to shine light into the darkness at that time, and we are called to do likewise in our own time. Dr. Peters remarked that the deepest dark that we experience is illuminated by the smallest amount of light. In a light-less void, the merest glimmer—from a match or the glow from a cell phone screen—can help us find the stairs, the door, the cupboard where the flashlight is. The glow from just one person’s belief, from just one person’s right actions, may bring God’s kingdom closer.
Must we be extraordinary people to shine this light?
We talked with Dr. Peters briefly after the service, asking him to reflect on this Absalom Jones Day in 2009, only weeks after the first African-American President had been inaugurated. In particular, we asked him to reflect on racism in America since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time and what kind of progress we have seen. While acknowledging the election and Inauguration are evidence of wonderful progress, Peters pointed out the limitations. He described the “challenge and the energy” that young people had during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time to bring positive changes. By contrast, the difficulty in our times is what we see as extraordinary. “People are shocked,” he says, “when someone does their job” or commits a right action, speaks truth. Laurel Roberts, Ph.D., an African American parishioner of Saint Andrew’s and a seventh generation Episcopalian, observed that, “while substantial change has occurred since Dr. King’s death, we still have some distance to travel. When the failure (or success) of a Black person, particularly a Black man, is still discussed with an implied ‘for his kind,’ as in ‘Mike Tomlin is quite successful (for one of his kind),’ we do not have true equality.”
Laurel went on to say that she still feels the need to carry a valid ID at all times, perhaps a holdover from the past. As is probably well known, emancipated slaves had to carry papers to register their freedom status to avoid false enslavement. That history is still with us, though possibly of lesser importance to the current generation now growing up. There is much food for thought for all of us.
People like Absalom Jones, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack and Michelle Obama are prime examples of people who bring about desired change. But they are not different from the rest of us in our ability to also bring change or God’s light somewhere, to someone. Dr. Peters seemed to say we see our leaders through the lens of celebrity and history writ large. In fact, many of the things we admire about them are simple acts of charity, honesty, perseverance. What is extraordinary may not necessarily be the effort. Instead, it may be—like that path illuminated in the darkness—the results.
—Al Mann and Beth Schunn