This Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest in what is presently, the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. This day of devotion is annually set aside in February by the Episcopal Church, to commemorate this pioneer of religion, social action and transformation. I have always admired him for his passion, for breaking barriers in an established church. Jones was born a house slave in 1746, he taught himself to read by using the New Testament because school was not available for him. At age sixteen, Absalom Jones was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia.
It was there, that he finally attended a night school for blacks, run by Quakers.
At St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for the church's black members. His active evangelism greatly increased membership in the parish, which alarmed the parish vestry. At a Sunday service soon after, the blacks walked out when ushers attempted to segregate them into an upstairs gallery.
In 1787, these Christians of African descent created the Free African Society, and Absalom Jones, along with Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. church, was elected one of its overseers. Members paid monthly dues which were used to help the very poor in the city. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, when over 5,000 died, they formed the single most effective corps of nurses and burial teams, primarily through their churches. Through the establishment of the Free African Society, they effectively aided in the emancipation of slaves and the protection of the rights of free Negroes. They petitioned Congress in 1800 to free slaves. They also wrote, published and distributed pamphlets promoting these various causes. In the most exemplary sense, Allen and Jones were the fathers of the Black church as the "visible" American institution we know today. In 1782, the Society began to build a church, and it was dedicated in July, 1794.
One of the first things that group did was to apply for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, but with these stipulations: they would have control over their own affairs, be received as an organized body, and Absalom Jones would be licensed as a lay reader and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.
They were admitted to the diocese in 1794, as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained as a priest in September, 1802. He often warned 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 Jones' constant ministry and mild manner that made him so loved -- not only by his own members, but the entire black community. As a result, during its first year St. Thomas Church grew to over 500 members.
Absalom Jones' spirit of independence is an example to all those of African descent in liturgical traditions. Our Christian experience commits us to the view that there is no greater source of strength in the struggle of justice, equality and human dignity than faith in Jesus Christ. Jones, who faced blatant prejudice and discrimination, learned through his faith that activism transcended oppression to discover the suffering servant, the crucified prophet of Nazareth, the present and risen Lord. Just as Christ came to reform the law, Jones confronted injustice from a power base alien to the established church. As Episcopalians and Lutherans of African descent, we are stakeholders of the more traditional churches because of the beauty and dignity of the liturgy as expressed in the creeds and the sacraments. Due to the comfort of our cushioned pews and economic stability, we have refused to raise the pertinent questions in demanding that theological institutions take our heritage and unique discourse of faith seriously.
Like the Apostle Paul's thorn in the flesh, there is a positive dimension to our tension. It reminds us, that our choice of approach comes from the same impetus and cultural criticism as belonged to the man we celebrate today. Our critique is found in finding an effective balance between the polarities of the subtle, but relentless, tide of systematic racism within the liturgical churches. We can counter this oppression by affirming the strength of our heritage. Our worship and fellowship is rich and should be preserved by the continuation of Feasts that celebrate Christian pioneers of African descent. This is the stand of Absalom Jones and the volatile stand we should take as we march together in unity as God's beloved children.
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