The Other Struggle in the Episcopal Church

But the Rev. Juan Y. Reed disagrees. Reed is vicar of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on the West Side of Chicago, a progressive African-American church that links spirituality and social transformation. Reed notes, “All gay Episcopalians are not white.” A handsome 6′ 7″ man with a bellowing baritone voice, Reed is gay and African American.

“While visiting an Episcopal Church on the far South Side of Chicago, an African-American straight priest said something positive about gay people and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It piqued my interest.” That was at a time, Reed told me, when no African-American clerics were mentioning the AIDS epidemic ravaging the black community, let alone saying something positive about LGBT people. “I gradually began to come more frequently [to] and then finally became involved with the Episcopal Church; and it was just not the issue of sexual orientation [which drew me], but also issues of social justice as they pertained to race, class, and women’s issues.”

Ordained to the priesthood in July 1991, Reed’s prophetic ministry in the Episcopal Church to what he calls “the church’s throwaways who are all those folks on the margin — blacks, women, gays, the poor, etc.,” stands on the shoulders of a history of black radical activism in the denomination.

As many Americans this February celebrate Black History Month – the heroes and sheroes of the African Diaspora who make America what it is today — so too many Episcopalians will celebrate one of its heroes who began the radical and activist strain in the church — the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818). As the first church’s African-American priest, many Episcopal congregations will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jones’ ordination this February 15th.

“The Anglican (Episcopal) church in America has historically assumed the image of a conclave of white elitists who are not quite sure how to worship, witness, and share fellowship with those who have been blessed by God with ebony grace,” stated Kortright Davis.

However, this august event will occur in the context of the larger Episcopal Church’s negligence of the issue of race, not only represented in its low numbers of African Americans in attendance but also the death of its black urban churches across the country. These congregations represent the church’s present throwaways.

“The Anglican (Episcopal) church in America has historically assumed the image of a conclave of white elitists who are not quite sure how to worship, witness, and share fellowship with those who have been blessed by God with ebony grace,” stated Kortright Davis, Professor of Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, back in 1996.

I have many queries to the Episcopal Church, dubbed by many as the “ruling class at prayer,” with respect to its urban black churches, including:

  • Will the Episcopal Church move as aggressively on race issues as it has on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues?
  • Can Episcopalians only talk about the welcoming inclusion of its church in the context of women and LGBT issues in white face, but can’t when the issue is race?
  • Does the Episcopal Church’s catholicity fall short with people of color because its hegemonic model of being Christian is not only racially white, but it is also theologically and liturgically Anglican?

Black Anglicans here in the United States not only have a difficult time legitimating their religious identity to African Americans of the traditional Black Church, but also to the larger Episcopal Church. Much of black Anglicans’ difficulty is that Anglicanism was the religion of the slaveholding plantocracy, and immediately following the end of the Civil War in 1865 many slaves who were Episcopalians defected from the denomination.

In Yet With a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church, Harold T. Lewis, former staff officer for Black Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, wrote, “In 1868 the bishop of the diocese of South Carolina lamented to his delegates attending General Convention that year. ‘You are aware how large a proportion of the colored population have been lost to our Church; we are not without hope that a more settled state of things, and a more mature judgment will bring many home again to the old fold.’”

The paucity of people of the African Diaspora in the Episcopal Church was not always the case. Its beginnings trace to 1787, when Absalom Jones and Richard Allen broke from the historic St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Penn. They had been pulled from their knees in prayer for not praying in the “nigger pews,” a separate seating for colored worshipers in the galley of the church. The indignity, however, sparked the formation of two separate black Christian communities: in 1792, Absalom Jones founded the African Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, and Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first distinctively separate black denomination, in 1816.

Reed’s prophetic ministry stands on the shoulders of those early churchmen. Sent to St. Martin’s at a time of shifting demographics due to white flight and the concomitant problems of urban blight, Reed’s arrival was besieged with conflicts and challenges. The interior of the church was filthy. The century-old physical plant needed repairs. The liturgy was exclusive and uninviting — during worship the celebrant kept his back to the congregation. And the church, in order for it to be relevant and faithful to changing times, needed to reflect and to welcome its diversity in a positive way.

As often happens in churches that undergo major transitions, dissension grew, and any suggestions for change were fought tooth and nail. For example, the hymnal music became a huge source of contention: some wanted to retain old classical European music instead of what one parishioner depicted as “that music of the lower classes,” referring to the African-American hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing. It was known in the neighborhood as an “unwelcoming church,” and its power base was in the clutches of those few whites who remained at St. Martin’s in order to maintain the old ecclesiastical ways.

The hymnal music became a huge source of contention: some wanted to retain old classical European music instead of what one parishioner depicted as “that music of the lower classes,” referring to the African-American hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Change at St. Martin’s, however, started with Reed’s ordination. And it was not just experienced in the calling of an openly gay African-American priest, but also the liturgy. Reed intentionally preached an embodied sermon: he situated his homily and tall frame among the people. He stepped out of St. Martin’s tradition — he faced the parishioners and talked neither at them nor about them, but instead his homily talked with them.

The lingering attitudes of its old European past had become an impediment. Reed recalled, “You walked into ancient Europe, and sadly enough not contemporary Europe.” He surveyed the impact of white religious images on his African-American Sunday School kids, and asked them what Jesus looked liked. “Not one said like themselves. One argued with me that Jesus was indeed white and then pointed to the stained glass windows of the church,” Reed said, shaking his head.

With the complexion and worship style changing in St. Martin’s, I had to ask Reed what made what he was doing part of the Anglican tradition. “At St. Martin’s we dovetail two traditions — the Anglican tradition and the black radical church tradition. Our symbols are Anglican. What are our symbols? The communion table is in the midst of the people, the baptismal pool, the table of the Word, and the biggest symbol is the people themselves, and that is Anglican. At St. Martin’s we break the tradition open not destroy it. To be Anglican does not mean to be Anglo. Our Anglicanism does not have to be expressed in a Eurocentric way. At St. Martin’s it’s done in a very black way.”

In recognizing the need to refurbish St. Martin’s, Reed also recognized the need to alter the interior countenance of its worship space in a way that reflected the religious, cultural and neighborhood sensibilities of the people he was now serving. So in 1999, as part of a revisioning process, St. Martin’s face began to change. And with the face change, the neighborhood began to see and to witness St. Martin’s as an integral part of an African-American community called Austin on Chicago’s West Side. “We couldn’t say we were an Austin church because it situates us in a particular place and to a particular race, class and religious needs of a people,” Reed said.

In prayerfully probing questions like “Who is St. Martin’s in this era of changing demographics and changing social and spiritual needs?” and “What is unique that St. Martin’s bring to the Austin community and the larger Chicago area,” Reed birthed a prophetic ministry. “If we were to be like every other traditional Episcopal church on the West Side of Chicago we will not be here any longer. If we are going to be like all the other churches around here we don’t need to be here. What we decided and discerned was that God is calling us to do what those other Black Churches are not doing, like teaching ministries to address ex-offenders and persons with HIV and AIDS, tackling African American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, linking issues of social justice to spiritual transformation.”

In implementing ministries around these issues, Reed is doing at St. Martin’s what Jesus did to Lazarus — he is raising it from the dead. In creating space for marginal voices, St. Martin’s is welcoming and affirming the unchurched, multiple types of families, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and all those unfulfilled by traditional churches.

However, with all the good work going on at St. Martin’s, its doors struggle to remain open. Despite being the last Episcopal Church remaining out of ten that once served Chicago’s West Side, St. Martin’s many pleas for help continue to fall on deaf ears.

The unresponsiveness to dying black urban churches is emblematic of the Episcopal Church’s ineptitude to grapple with the ways that racism and classism choke not only the spiritual life out of a church but its monetary life as well. With the Episcopal Church’s urban landscape changing from white to black, the denomination has opted to pour its support, money, and energy not into these historic black churches but instead into developing urban Hispanic churches. The gentrification of the urban church by replacing one minority group with another sets up a paradigm of “divide and conquer” that makes neither group feel welcomed, but both expendable.

“Those Hispanic churches are set up like a ‘reservation system’ within the Episcopal Church,” said Juliana Gutierrez, a Mexican American.

Comprised primarily of a migrant population from all over Latin America, these newcomers form missionary congregations set up by the Episcopal Church. Unlike parishes, missionary congregations are not free-standing: they cannot call their own rector, and cannot make their own decisions. According to Gutierrez, these missionary congregations have a paternalistic relationship with the Episcopal Church because they are not only dependent on the church for monetary support but also for a place to worship. Oftentimes Episcopal churches seek to remedy the tension by devising “separate but equal” worship hours between Spanish-speaking missionary congregations and English-speaking parishes that must share the same facilities. “The two groups come together only for special events and the Eucharist,” Gutierrez said.

With the Episcopal Church’s urban landscape changing from white to black, the denomination has opted to pour its support, money, and energy not into these historic black churches but instead into developing urban Hispanic churches.

On February 22, 2004, Holy Communion parish, situated outside of Chicago proper, will mark the closing of another African-American Episcopal church. St. Martin’s will fellowship with Holy Communion to celebrate with them their years of dedicated service to their community and the Episcopal Church. Holy Communion’s parishioners, however, will be cast out to try to find another church home.

When Bishop V. Gene Robinson was named by The Advocate, a national gay & lesbian newsmagazine, as their “Person of the Year,” an interviewer offered that when he thinks of people on the margins he automatically think of gay people. Robinson replied, “Absolutely. But its more than just gay people.”

Reed reminds us of that when he said, “St. Martin’s invites people and the Episcopal Church to deal with things often left at the church door. Marginality is not a place or site of God’s absence but a place that God invites us for deep revelation. The scripture substantiates that point. We can’t be a church without these throwaway people.”

An investment in the ministry of St. Martin’s is both a contribution to the sustainability of the urban church and to the mission of the larger church. Please send donations to: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 5710 West Midway Park, Chicago, Illinois 60644. Thank you.

Comments are closed.