Black history month held special meaning for parishioners at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia when they gathered to worship around the altar used by Absalom Jones, the first black Episcopal priest in the United States.
“Until recently, it has simply sat in a corner of the church and [been] used mainly as a table,” said the Rev. Martini Shaw, rector of St. Thomas, who dedicated the altar, then celebrated the Eucharist from it. He said the altar, restored by parishioner Clarice Evans in memory of her husband, would be moved to the Parish House with other historical records, documents and artifacts once the $1.2 million restoration to that building is complete.
Jones was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746 and brought to Pennsylvania in 1762. After first saving enough money to buy his wife’s freedom, he gained his own in 1785 and became a leader of Philadelphia’s black community.
In 1792, under his leadership, the African Church was organized as an outgrowth of the Free African Society, the center of black religious life in Philadelphia. Eventually the church became St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, the first black Episcopal Church in the United States, with Jones, a deacon, as its leader. When Presiding Bishop William White ordained Jones in 1802, Jones became the first rector of St. Thomas.
Earlier in February, the Rev. Michael Battle, vice president and associate professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, preached about the need for integrity as Episcopalians live out their faith at a diocesan-wide service in Philadelphia Cathedral to celebrate Absalom Jones Day.
“Absalom Jones was filled with integrity; he is someone we deeply need to remember in our current cultural wars,” Battle said. “He was a black man who stayed an Episcopalian. “Why in the world would a black man want to be an Episcopalian? The answer is that our primary identity is in Christ,” Battle said.
“Our primary identity is not being a black man, a white woman, , gay or lesbian, or an American,” he said. “Our primary identity is shaped in Christ.” “How we practice this primary identity is by being the church,” the theologian said. “The only unforgivable sin is when we are not the church. When the church is taken over by culture wars, egos and personalities, we blaspheme the Holy Spirit.”
The Diocese of Pennsylvania, traditionally the largest African-American diocese in the Episcopal Church, faces a mounting crisis today because it is unable to attract men and women of color for ordination, according to a report released early this year from a Black Aspirancy Recruitment task force established a year ago. The report says there has not been a black male candidate in the diocese in the past 20 years.
“The reality, the scarcity of black recruits, represents a manifestation of the problem, rather than being a statement of the problem itself,” it says. “The problem is the historical impact and the present reality of racism in the church.”
Early in February, St. Thomas’ parishioners began Black History Month with a guest preacher, the Rev. Angela Ifill, missioner for Black Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center.
Then, to conclude the month, parishioners at St. Thomas, in conjunction with the city’s Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum, presented a program honoring the spirit and dedication of Absalom Jones with a reenactment of his famous 1808 speech to mark the outlawing of the international slave trade that year.
That reenactment, by actor Jonnie Hobbs Jr., was the first program in a “Faith and Freedom” series sponsored by the museum and several historic African-American churches in the Philadelphia area. The series continues until June.
“These churches were integral to the growth of African-Americans in Philadelphia, up through abolition, Reconstruction and into today,” said Millicent Sparks, the museum’s education and community outreach coordinator. “Each church has ‘African’ in its name because that’s who they supported, because no one else would.”