John M. Burgess, Episcopal Church’s first African-American diocesan bishop, dies at 94

Diocese of Massachusetts
August 24, 2003

The Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and the first African-American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, died Sunday, August 24, 2003, in Vineyard Haven. He was 94.

Burgess stood among the last of the Episcopal Church's great progressive bishops of the 20th century. He was known for his witness for inclusion of racial minorities in church and society and carried out a lifelong ministry of promoting the welfare of the urban poor, always working to draw his church outside itself. "I just wanted to prove that the Episcopal Church could be relevant to the lives of the poor," he said in a 1992 interview.

The funeral liturgy will be held Friday, August 29 at 11am at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 138 Tremont Street in Boston. The Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE, bishop of Massachusetts, will be the celebrant. A memorial service and interment from Grace Church in Vineyard Haven will be held at a later date.

John Melville Burgess was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 11, 1909, the son of Theodore Thomas and Ethel (Beverly) Burgess. He received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Michigan in 1930 and 1931, respectively, and graduated from Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts., in 1934. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1935.

A ministry to the poor

He began his ordained ministry at his home parish, St. Phillip's Church in Grand Rapids, and was then given charge of the mission church of St. Simon of Cyrene in a community outside of Cincinnati that he described as "the poorest of the poor." From St. Simon's he administered a social services center, medical clinic and day school in an effort to make the church a place that ministered to the whole person. His experiences at St. Simon's, coupled with his activism alongside the region's auto workers toward integration of organized labor, helped shape him as one who understood the concerns of working people and the poor and, later, as a bishop who provided unusually effective leadership across lines of race and class.

On Aug. 2, 1945, he married Esther J. Taylor in Fredericton, New Brunswick. An activist in her own right, Mrs. Burgess was arrested and put in jail in 1964 (with others, including Mrs. Malcolm Peabody, wife of a bishop and mother of Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody) when she refused to leave the Ponce De Leon Motel in St. Augustine, Florida., after being told that she would have to eat in the restaurant kitchen.

International connections

Bishop Burgess served as the first denominational chaplain at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 1946-1956, a ministry notable for its outreach to students from Africa and the Caribbean. The hospitality and mentorship offered by the Burgesses to these students at critical times in their countries' political development led to lifelong international connections as former students returned home to become leaders in their own right.

Named a canon at Washington National Cathedral, where he served from 1951 to 1956, Burgess used the national pulpit to heighten the social conscience of the Episcopal Church during a period in which the Supreme Court was moving to overturn the separate but equal doctrine that opened the way for the modern civil rights movement.

Burgess began his ministry in Massachusetts as archdeacon of Boston's missions and parishes and superintendent of the Boston City Mission. He restructured the organization according to his vision that it should be a catalyst for change rather than a social services provider, and renamed it Episcopal City Mission, as it is still known, so that it might enable work in urban centers outside of Boston.

Believing that ministry is best carried out at the parish level, he worked to develop an urban mission strategy that sought the engagement of city churches in the lives of the poor. He was not daunted by resistance from clergy whose urban congregations were dwindling because of "white flight" to the suburbs but who were nonetheless more comfortable with the status quo than seeking out the welfare of racial and ethnic minorities in their midst.

He advocated the institutional church's support of mission in the city. "I think that any church in a poor urban area which says that they can go it alone has not developed a big enough program. Their program ought to always be bigger than their resources," he said.

Lasting changes

On September 22, 1962, John Burgess was elected bishop suffragan (an assisting bishop) of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts on the first ballot. He was consecrated on December 8, 1962, at Trinity Church in Boston. He was honored by Time magazine in January 1964 with other African-Americans who had "broken barriers, earned positions of trust and become part of the leadership community in the U.S."

On June 7, 1969, the diocese elected him bishop coadjutor, to succeed the Rt. Rev. Anson Phelps Stokes, Jr., as the diocese's 12th bishop, making him the first African-American in the Episcopal Church to head a diocese. He was installed January 17, 1970, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.

"I hope that we will not lose sight of the fact that our true and essential mission is to the world and not to ourselves," he told the Diocesan Convention in 1970--his first address as a diocesan bishop. Working with an expanded staff and vision for the diocese, Burgess instituted a number of lasting structural changes designed to enhance lay participation in diocesan decision making.

Upon his retirement in 1975, the Joint Urban Fund that he had initiated at Episcopal City Mission was renamed the John Melville Burgess Urban Fund in his honor. The fund, which makes grants available to community groups addressing systemic causes of poverty, is considered a groundbreaker in grant making to community organizers and has to date contributed more than $3 million to revitalization efforts in eastern Massachusetts cities.

People of all kinds

Bishop Burgess never lost hold of his vision for what the church could be. In a 2000 interview, he reiterated: "I would hope that our congregations would feel responsible toward inviting people of all kinds into their membership and not feel that certain people are our kind. Our kind must be all people."

Through the technological and economic advances made during his nearly century-long life, he said, "We are realizing more and more that we are one world and that we cannot exist apart from the welfare of all mankind. We've always had a theory of the so-called Kingdom being made of all kinds of people, but now we are confronted with the reality of it."

Burgess was active in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. He served the Episcopal Church on numerous national commissions and boards. He was a strong supporter of the Union of Black Episcopalians--serving after his retirement as its national president--and worked to open up the Episcopal Church's hiring practices, in part by helping to restore a national staff position for black ministries.

Burgess was honored over the years with a dozen honorary degrees. After his retirement he taught at Yale's Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, serving for a time as its interim dean, and was the board chairman at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was a mentor to countless young clergy of all races who were committed to social justice causes and urban ministry. He was an assisting bishop in the dioceses of Washington, Connecticut, North Carolina and Curacao. His writings include Black Gospel/White Church, published by Seabury Press in 1982.

The Burgesses moved from Connecticut to Martha's Vineyard in 1989 and were members of Grace Church in Vineyard Haven. In 1999 Grace Church honored Burgess on the occasion of his 90th birthday with the dedication of a new stained glass window bearing his likeness. Burgess served as a hospice visitor and enjoyed volunteering as a reader to schoolchildren on the Vineyard.

Burgess is survived by his wife, Esther, two daughters, Julia Burgess of Washington, D.C., and Margaret B. Harrison of Boston, three grandchildren, Yvonne Williams, Kevin Williams and Lisa Joyner, and two great-grandchildren, Hewitt Joyner IV and Alysse Joyner.

Memorial contributions are designated for Episcopal City Mission, 138 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02111 or St. Augustine's College, 1315 Oakwood Avenue, Raleigh, N.C. 27610.

Related Topics: