Absalom Jones Sunday at Grace, Jefferson City
Debra Greene, PhD, Sermon on Sunday, February 15, 2015, Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City.
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; for God himself is judge. Amen.
Good morning! "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118:24) Finally, Absalom Jones Sunday has arrived and I'm standing here. About 8 weeks ago, Shariya invited me to speak today and every day since, I've been ruminating on this message. I thank each of you who've crossed my path with conversations and reading recommendations. Unbeknownst to you, I was filing it all away for this moment. If you have seen me with my phone out during Sunday Forum or church, I wasn't irreverently texting during the sermon, I was taking notes – my phone has replaced my pen and the church bulletin. Thank you Shariya for giving me this opportunity and challenge again; I belong to a cadre of some really phenomenal lay speakers in this congregation.
The Gospel this morning tells of Jesus taking three of the disciplines with him into the mountains where they witnessed a sight that was both terrifying and awesome. After their experience, Jesus swore them to secrecy. Imagine, seeing your teacher and leader talking with long dead elders and prophets and hearing the voice of God and you can't tell anyone! And even if they were able to, do you think anyone would have been able to understand?
Don't you think Peter, James, and John wanted to share what they had experienced, at least with the other disciplines. And what did it mean "tell no one . . . until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead"? I'm sure they were as perplexed in their time as we are in ours.
In recent months, frustrated and depressed by what looks like a rash of police shootings of armed and unarmed young black men and women in the U.S.; beginning with Ferguson, as a black issue but being highlighted all over the country (unfortunately not a new phenomenon), as a national one, I have heard as have you that "white Americans should listen to the stories of racial injustice experienced by black Americans, native and non-native." I don't agree with that advice.
In the wake of the early Ferguson protests, Jim Lowry asked me "what do we do about this?" Note the question was what do we do; not Debra what do you think we should do? My response was I don't know but whatever it is we have to find the solution together. History tells us that change is made by people who are involved; not people listening.
And as church people and people of faith, we have a long history of racial and social activism. The Quaker community was the first faith community to call for an end to slavery in America. They began with their own community and worked outward. Congregationalists and Unitarians were the foundation of the antebellum abolition movement, initially preaching moral suasion and gradual emancipation. When that didn't work a few were willing to finance armed rebellion.
In the 20th century, civil rights activism and faith communities are almost inseparable. Now I may not know what we should do but I know we should respect the fact that being actively engaged in causes that inspire passion in us goes beyond just listening
Last Sunday, Shariya asked us to consider the familiar story of Rosa Parks' refusal to relinquish her seat on the Montgomery, AL bus December 1, 1955 from the vantage point of the white man who had expected to take that seat. Unfortunately his name has not been recorded. We can find the name of the bus rider and the two officers who arrested Mrs. Parks that day – they were the main characters in that episode but apparently, he was just an extra.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, most of us will be just extras. We won't be recorded in the pages of history as inciting a movement that changed the world, of writing a little book that brought forth a terrible civil war or leading a civil rights movement that spawned other civil rights movements and changed the laws of the nation. We'll be like the guy who by custom, tradition, and privilege expected to take a seat from a woman whose complexion didn't entitle her to the courtesies due women of her day.
But Rosa Parks was not simply a middle-age, black seamstress tired after a long day of alterations at the department store. Parks and other people like her, involved in racial and social justice movements across time, were experienced change agents when time and their moment met them.
Many of you already know that Rosa Parks was an active member of the NAACP in Montgomery; the branch secretary, in fact. And that she wasn't the first black woman to be arrested in Montgomery in 1955 for that offense. But most will not know that she had attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center founded in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression to train labor activists and later civil rights activists. In an excellent book entitled At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, historian Danielle L. McGuire writes "Rosa Parks was a militant race woman, a sharp detective and an anti-rape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott. McGuire argues that "the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways the final act of a decade-long struggle. . ."
You don't have to have special training to make a difference. As was the case of Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo, described as a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, housewife and mother of 5 children from Michigan. In 1964, she joined the NAACP, helped organize protests, attended civil rights conferences and believed she could make a difference. She heeded the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr to come to Selma, AL after the failed Bloody Sunday attempt to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. She participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and was helping to shuttle marchers to the airport when she was shot by klansmen because she was a white woman alone in a car with a black man. In the wake of Selma and Liuzzo's murder, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights bill (August 6, 1965). Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, the Voting Rights act is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the nation. At the time Congress had only one black congressman (Rep. John Conyers, Jr, Democrat from Michigan, sworn in, in January 1965). It's most immediate impact was to guarantee the protection of black voting rights 95 years after the right to vote had been federally granted to black men throughout the nation.
Although the nation has made tremendous advances since 1965, the challenges to the voting rights act in recent years in addition to the events of 2014 indicate that perpetual vigilance is necessary. So on this day recognizing the beginning of the Episcopal communion's odyssey into the racial justice arena, we acknowledge that we don't know the answer but we haven't been sworn to secrecy and we are willing to make the journey, the march, together believing in our ability to make a difference.
Debra F. Greene, PhD is a Professor of History and Department Chair at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Her areas of research include: African American History, African American Business History, Colonial United States, Civil War and Reconstruction, American South, and Women. She is a member of Grace Church, Jefferson City.