Tomorrow our church remembers Absalom Jones, the first African American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Jones was born into slavery in Delaware and at sixteen was sold to a shopkeeper in Philadelphia. He married at age 20, bought his wife’s freedom and then bought his own in 1784, when he was 28 years old. In Philadelphia, Absalom Jones served as a lay minister for the black membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. As the black membership increased, the Vestry (white) decided to segregate them in an upstairs balcony. This decision was communicated unexpectedly on a Sunday morning, and when ushers tried to remove black parishioners from the main floor they walked out of the church in protest.
Absalom Jones went on to become one of the founders of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, the first independent black Episcopal congregation. He was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest on September 21, 1802. He was an ardent abolitionist, who believed that God hears the cries of the oppressed and acts on their behalf. He was beloved by his congregation; St. Thomas grew to over 500 members in its first year. His community mourned his death in 1818 on February 13, and that is the day we honor his many contributions to our nation and our church.
It’s important to recognize “the firsts:” those courageous people who shatter the boundaries around any category and, by their very presence, widen the circle of acceptance and inclusion. Of course, any “first” is exactly that—the initial recognition of what should have been reality all along. We should rejoice in each and every “first.” At the same time, we can never be complacent. The work continues, always. Both our individual hearts and the spirit of our faith communities must always remain open to conversion and to change.
Every year at this time, the Episcopal Diocese of New York holds a special service in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to honor Blessed Absalom Jones. This year the service will be held online next Saturday, Feb. 20, from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm. Here is a link, and here is the collect for the day:
Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.