I’m so pleased to be with you on this glorious day. I think this is the first time I have preached and celebrated in a banquet hall, but that’s fitting, isn’t it — we share in the heavenly banquet, the Eucharistic feast. And what a perfect name — the Grapevine. Thank you to all of you who have turned this place into a beautiful worship space.
Today we gather to acknowledge one of the significant figures in the Episcopal Church, Alexander Crummell, who is acknowledged as a saint of the church. Here is a man who was told no over and over again — driven out, dismissed, rejected, excluded because of his race … yet he persevered, he persisted, he insisted … and he prevailed.
We are here today to lift up and honor and celebrate the ministry of Mother Gloria. She too was told no over and over again — dismissed, rejected, excluded because of her race … yet she persevered, she persisted, she insisted … and she prevailed.
We set their accomplishments against the background of the historically black churches in the Episcopal Church. These churches — including you, St. Philip’s — persevered and persisted and insisted … and became the cradles, the nurturing homes, the support systems for many who would go on to serve the world and the church in outstanding ways. They prevailed.
One of those people is with us today: a son of St. Philip’s, whom some of you knew when he was “so high.” When his father was the rector here, St. Philip’s was the parish home, the spiritual family, the fertile soil where the seeds were planted and grew and thrived … for the boy who grew up to become the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, and now the presiding bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church, our dear friend, Michael Curry.
Let me tell you a story.
The first time Mother Gloria set foot in Buffalo, she was working in New York City as an independent consultant teaching office skills to government employees. She was asked if she’d mind going to Buffalo to teach a class there. She recalls, “I always thought that it was a sign of some kind of success if one had to travel for the job — get on airplanes with a briefcase, etc. — and so my first on-the-job travel was to Buffalo.”
She goes on, “What I distinctly recall is visiting the ‘largest record store in the world’ on Main Street” — who else remembers Record Theater?
But who knew what God had in mind for Gloria in sending her to Buffalo? Years later she would get a call from a church in Buffalo to become their rector — yours.
Getting to that position as a professional business consultant was a long, difficult journey. You can read Mother Gloria’s biography in the program. But what that biography doesn’t tell you is the back story. About an 11-year-old girl from the tropical West Indies who moved to Brooklyn … and had to get used to 5-degree temperatures as she waited at the school bus stop.
About a young woman who went looking for a job after high school graduation, and had first-rate secretarial skills … but discovered that when she went for an interview, the position had magically “just been filled.“ It took her a while to understand the code.
Eventually she got a job at Topps Chewing Gum in Brooklyn, the manufacturer of Bazooka Bubble Gum, the producer of baseball card gum. She attended night classes for five years to earn an associate’s degree … and she could never figure out why she could not be admitted into the four-year bachelor’s program she had applied for.
She went on to earn advanced degrees and certificates, and to work her way up the ladder.
And then she had an experience that tells me God was looking out for Mother Gloria all along. He wanted to show her what the Kingdom of God could look like and invite her to help him.
She was working as a legal secretary in a very plush Park Avenue law firm, full of graduates of Harvard and Yale. Pay was good, benefits were great. If you worked past 6 p.m., you could get a free dinner. If you worked past 11 p.m. you would be taken home by a car service and you didn’t have to come in until noon the next day. It was a nice job.
And then one day she learned that some of the lawyers would take a day off from time to time and go uptown to Harlem to do pro bono legal-aid work. One day she went up to see for herself. “It was mostly landlord-tenant or criminal-court work,” Mother Gloria told me. Eventually, she said, “I changed jobs and went to work uptown in Harlem — quitting my ‘nice’ job. The work was immensely rewarding and inspiring. I was doing something that directly helped people, my people — poor, black and Latino people who would not otherwise have a chance to prevail.”
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A chance to prevail!
Isn’t that the chance we all want, for ourselves and our children?
A chance to prevail!
Isn’t that was Alexander Crummell was striving for?
Born in 1819, he was driven out of an academy in New Hampshire, dismissed as a candidate for Holy Orders in New York, and rejected for admittance to General Seminary. Alexander Crummell heard “no” over and over again, but he persisted, and he prevailed. In 1844 he was ordained priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts. And because he prevailed, he opened a door for someone like Mother Gloria to be admitted to General Seminary and become a priest.
I take some personal pride here because I was her teacher at General. It is always rewarding for seminary professors to watch the careers of our students and hope we have played a small role in our students’ success.
Crummell wanted to establish a strong urban presence of independent black congregations that would be centers of worship, education and social service. That is the perfect description of St. Philip’s — founded 154 years ago, on the eve of the Civil War … and to this day a place that is “a force for good,” serving not only you, the congregation, but the neighborhood and the community around you.
When Southern bishops proposed that a separate missionary district be established for black congregations, Crummell created a national convocation to fight the proposal. The Union of Black Episcopalians is an outgrowth of that organization. He would not take no for an answer, he would not be marginalized, and he saw the Episcopal Church as an appropriate home for the moral and spiritual regeneration of African-Americans.
Crummell wanted to create a Christian republic in Liberia, where he envisioned a national Episcopal Church headed by a black bishop. Now, his dream has come true … not in Liberia, but right here, where the Episcopal Church encompasses both the United States and 16 foreign countries with 1.9-million members … and where we welcome our first black presiding bishop. Sometimes it takes longer than we wish to realize the dream.
Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland — who is African-American — says that when he is with other African-American Christians, “they ask me, ‘Eugene, why are you in that white church?’ I say, ‘I actually am a member of a predominantly black church. I’m an Anglican.” Most Anglicans are various hues and colors from around the world. The typical Anglican is a 30-year-old African woman.”
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You know that I had a first career as a historian and teacher, and that equips me to know and to tell your story, to celebrate what St. Philip’s has been. Yours is a story of survival and witness — surviving fires, surviving race riots, surviving urban renewal, surviving economic downturns. You have overcome reduction of income, reduction of membership, reduction of youth — and you have prevailed.
You partnered with the community to create a tutoring program, to start a community center to care for children, to create a food pantry, to promote and empower disadvantaged youth, to work as mentors and outreach liaisons in the Council for Unity.
You have raised up acolytes and lay eucharistic ministers, and ordained priests in the Episcopal Church and ministers in other denominations. You broke the barrier when you called a woman as your rector. You have been witnesses to the Gospel. You know what it means to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being.
Long before it became a popular slogan, you knew that it takes a village to raise up our children and support each other. You insisted, you persisted, you prevailed. You knew that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before — Blessed Alexander Crummell, who would not take no for an answer, and many generations who suffered and struggled so those who came after them would not have to. You know the names. You know that the struggle was not in vain. We have an African-American president. We have an African-American presiding bishop-elect. Ten years ago, how many of us would have thought either of those was possible?
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I lift up St. Philip’s — and the work that Mother Gloria has done there — as a model as I look around the City of Buffalo these days and see the economic boom — and I am aware that it has the potential to benefit some but not all of our citizens.
In the last year, I have written two joint pastoral letters with Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese in which we called on our community to make sure that the abundance and prosperity Buffalo is experiencing — for the first time in 60 years — benefit not just the new outsiders, or those who live in Allentown or the Delaware District, or Parkside, but that the East Side shares in the jobs, the good salaries, the opportunities for advancement.
Last month I signed Mayor Brown’s Opportunity Pledge, encouraging a culture that supports economic diversity and equality in Buffalo.
I am inspired to take this stance because of you.
Your heritage of survival and witness is what equips you now to be the moral voice for the new Buffalo. You have the heritage that entitles you to be that voice. It is the historically black churches that have changed the terrain in our country — St. Thomas in Philadelphia, St. Philip’s in New York City, St. James in Baltimore, St. Luke’s in New Haven, St. Matthew’s in Detroit, and Good Shepherd and St. Philip’s in Buffalo — by raising up leaders and pointing the way and doing the work and being unafraid to speak when your voices needed to be heard.
Your voice is needed now more than ever in this city where we have had 13 shootings in the last month alone. Two men were shot Monday night on East Amherst Street. That same night, I turned on CNN and saw images of my home town in Mississippi — the street I grew up on — lined with armed officers as they pursued a gunman who had shot a professor dead a few blocks away on the campus of Delta State University, where my parents taught. If ever there was a need for human and Christian unity, it is now. If ever we were called as witnesses to peace and justice, it is now.
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In our collect a few minutes ago, we asked God to “raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom.” Alexander Crummell was one such evangelist and herald. Mother Gloria is another.
Will you all be evangelists and heralds of the kingdom?
Will you be the evangelists and heralds who tell the world that black lives matter?
Will you be the evangelists and heralds who tell the world that black lives of the past matter — and tell the stories and share the history and remember the names and the faces and the pain and the glory?
Will you be the evangelists and heralds who are the moral voice for what is right in this country and this city?
Will you be the evangelists and heralds who tell the world that institutions matter — the church matters, government matters, schools matter — and they need to look like the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of greed or a failure factory for our children?
Will you be the evangelists and heralds who speak out against gun violence, mass incarceration of young black men, and police violence against unarmed black citizens?
Will you be the evangelists and heralds who support our new Presiding Bishop, the Chief Evangelism Officer of the Episcopal Church, as he preaches the Good News that we already know to a world hungry for Jesus?
In the name of Jesus — Amen.