Presiding Bishop's Sermon for African-American History Month

Church of the Good Shepherd, Lexington, KY
February 25, 2010

We’re here tonight to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans, and most often in this context we hear about both well-known and little-known African Americans and their gifts, history, and contributions within the United States. I want to stretch us a bit by thinking about how African-American members of this Church have spread the gospel beyond these shores.

God has been at work in Americans of African descent in many contexts. The God who promised to bring the slaves out of Egypt has been invoked in other places of slavery, and the history of slavery on these shores has connections to slavery elsewhere.

The largest diocese of this Church is in Haiti. Before the earthquake, Bp. Duracin reported 100,000 to 120,000 Episcopalians, in 169 congregations, served by 37 clergy. That diocese ran 254 schools, serving 80,000 students, from preschool to university, in a school for handicapped children, trade and music schools, and the only graduate nursing school in the nation. All of that work owes its beginning to James Theodore Holly, one of the first African-American priests of this Church, ordained in Connecticut in 1856. He also helped to start a society (the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church among Colored People) which eventually gave rise to the Union of Black Episcopalians.

After serving for several years as a rector at St. Luke’s in New Haven, Holly left this country in 1861 with 100 others, to settle in Haiti. One of the first things he did there was to start a school, so that potential converts might be able to read the Bible. He founded Holy Trinity, which later became the cathedral, destroyed in the recent earthquake. In 1874 he became the bishop of Haiti, the first African-American bishop in this Church. Twenty years later he also became the bishop of the Dominican Republic. He served both dioceses until he died in 1911.

We have to look a bit more deeply at the history of Haiti to see more of the ties that bind us. Established in 1804 as the second free and independent nation in this hemisphere, Haiti was born of a slave revolt against France. The people of Haiti had honed their hopes for freedom by the example offered on these shores. In 1779, a number of Haitians fought on behalf of our emerging nation, in the battle of Savannah. Haiti was also significantly involved in other revolutions in Latin America, helping Simon Bolivar with funds and soldiers in establishing five other sovereign nations independent of their colonial masters.

The links to the U.S. continued as well. Many Haitians settled in New Orleans during and after the slave rebellions there, and a good deal of New Orleans culture has its roots in Haiti. The history of oppression is shared, and the similarities between the effects of Katrina and this recent earthquake are not accidental. God’s people are still groaning in the wilderness.

Fr. Holly was not the first or only free black American to seek greater freedom and self-determination in Haiti. Many abolitionists in the United States believed that resettling free blacks in other places would help to solve the problem of slavery in the U.S. and provide greater opportunities for freed blacks, away from the pervasive racism here. The motives of those colonization initiatives were not always the highest. Some of them thought exporting the problem was more expeditious than curing this nation of slavery.

A similar colonization initiative led to the establishment of Liberia, which was a diocese of this Church until 1982. The American Colonization Society sent free black settlers to the coast of West Africa in the early 1820s, leading to the establishment of Liberia as a free nation in 1836. The government of Kentucky was among those who provided funds for transportation. The first colonists were followed in 1835-6 by Episcopal missionaries. Many of them died of disease soon after they landed, but the work they began took root and flourished. The American colonists became the ruling class in Liberia, and it was the native Africans who eventually began to cry out for deliverance from their second class status. The civil wars of the last 20 years in Liberia are the result.

These United States have, over the centuries, attempted to keep both nations in thrall as client states, through dominance of the sugar industry in Haiti and the rubber industry in Liberia. Our armed forces have been called on to “keep order,” and our government has attempted to maintain conditions favorable to American business interests. We have some lasting responsibility for the cries in the wilderness in both places.

At the same time, the Episcopal Church has been a major resource for education and health care in both nations, answering needs their governments have been unable to fill. The Diocese of Liberia opened the first degree-granting university in Africa, Cuttington, in 1889, with a grant from the treasurer of this Church. Before the civil wars in Liberia, nearly half of government officials were graduates of Cuttington.

In recent years the United States has received a number of Haitian and Liberian migrants, with a resulting expansion and enrichment of African-American culture – Wyclef Jean for example. The migration crosses our borders in both directions. Hilda Alcindor, who started that graduate nursing school in Haiti, spent 30 years here, and went home to share her gifts. The current president of Cuttington University, Dr. Henrique Tokpa, received his doctorate here in the United States. So did many of the Liberian Episcopalians who are today’s government ministers, and leaders in education, politics, and business.

African-Americans continue to lead us toward greater love of our neighbors in other parts of the world. Abagail Nelson is a senior vice-president of Episcopal Relief and Development; she oversees programs in places like Haiti and Honduras and Burundi. Antoinette Daniels is a director of mission for The Episcopal Church, with an important ministry of building partnerships.

The call of the gospel is to love God with all we are and have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our brothers and sisters of African heritage in this church continue to lead us toward a world where cries in the wilderness are heard and answered. We are edified, built up, encouraged, and challenged by the witness of these saints, fellow members of the body of Christ.

Moses was called to lead God’s people into the promised land. Some of them arrived, only to find out that they were meant to do a lot of the work of grounding the promise. They had glimpses of the promise, and some seasons in their history seemed closer to the promise than others.

But that promised land is still waiting. If we’re all going to get across the river, past the rocks and the snakes, the crooks and the warlords, we’re going to have to love our neighbors. None of us will find our home, our true native land until we all do. The promised land requires the healing of the whole of God’s family. We are all related, under the skin. We have learned in recent years that our DNA has its common origin in Africa – we all have African ancestors, even though if some are very far away and long ago. We have the same source, the same creator, and the same destiny. Give thanks for Africa, cradle of humanity. Give thanks for the gospel witness of African-American saints, leading us onward to the promised land, the garden which God has given to us all.

Give thanks, rejoice, and sing.