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NEW YORK: St. Philip's celebrates Thurgood Marshall feast day

[Diocese of New York] The Diocese of New York celebrated Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's feast day on Sunday, May 16 with a service at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem, where Marshall was a longtime parishioner and vestry member.

The service featured music by the St. Philip's choir, joined by choir members of other congregations, as well as spoken tributes and a celebration of Holy Eucharist led by Bishop Mark Sisk and Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam.

The 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church added Marshall to the church's liturgical calendar of "Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints" designating May 17 as his feast day. The date corresponds with the anniversary of Marshall's victory in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that ended school segregation throughout the United States.

(Permanent inclusion on the calendar will require votes by the 2012 and 2015 meetings of General Convention; until then, local churches may mark Marshall’s feast day at their own discretion.)

Marshall's renowned career culminated in his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, when he became the first African American to serve as Supreme Court Justice.

After moving to New York City in 1936 to work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Marshall joined St. Philip's in Harlem, remaining there until he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1965 to become solicitor general.

Professor Courtney Brown, who served on St. Philip's vestry with Marshall, said, "St. Philip's is a historical church of greatness, and he came in like one of the brothers." He added, "I'll tell you what kind of person Thurgood was. He'd come to vestry meetings, he used to take up collection like everybody else… he was just another brother on the block."
 
Throughout his life, Marshall was an unflinching advocate for social justice, a cause he worked for as a lawyer and church member. St. Philip's, the second oldest historically black church in the Episcopal Church, has a long history of serving God through worship and social action and was therefore a fitting spiritual home for Marshall.

Brown explained, "St. Philip's was the most progressive Episcopal church in the country. I will say that unequivocally. We built houses. We were the first to begin to deal with the whole drug population. We dealt with alcoholics… and we dealt with [these issues] in the name of the church."

The Rev. Canon George W. Brandt, Jr., rector of St. Michael's Church, Manhattan, spoke of Marshall's childhood experience as an altar boy at an Episcopal church in Baltimore.

"Consciously or unconsciously, Thurgood absorbed the essentials of the faith and understood that Jesus' faith has as its core belief  that we are all created equal in God's eyes and that we are all called to live that belief out in our own lives and to work to realize that belief in the community in which we live," Brandt said.

Brown touched on the timeliness of the tribute, given that Elena Kagan, who served as a law clerk for Marshall, was recently nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Brown said that Marshall nicknamed Kagan "Shorty" and "Lil' Bit." "That was just his style -- very blunt, very forward," he said fondly.

"And you're probably wondering how the young lady who learned from him is going to do, how she's going to deal with Scalia," Brown said, referring to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. "She's going to eat him up," he said, emphasizing every word.

Brown concluded his remarks about Marshall saying, "I'm reminded that he's the kind of guy that fell in love with Jesus. He thought Jesus was the hippest cat that walked on the face of the Earth."

-- Mary Beth Diss is a New York-based writer and former editor of The Episcopal New Yorker.

Editor's note: The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, Maryland, May 16 held its fourth annual celebration of Marshall's life and witness in the Diocese of Maryland with a service of evening prayer -- Maryland Bishop Eugene T. Sutton preached -- and reception in honor of Marshall's feast day.

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