Sermon – 203rd Diocesan Convention
Grace Church, Sandusky
November 8, 2019
Good evening. On behalf of the Rector, Vestry, staff, and communicants of Grace Church, I welcome you to this Convention Eucharist, and on behalf of all of us, I thank them for their warm and generous hospitality. We are very grateful.
I want you to know about our spiritual forbearer, James Theodore Holly, whom we remember today in our calendar of saints and celebrate tonight in our Convention liturgy. He was the first black man to be ordained a bishop in The Episcopal Church. His family being freed slaves, he was born a free African American in 1829, in Washington, D.C., where his grandfather had come in 1799 to work on the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building. Holly was raised a Roman Catholic, baptized and confirmed at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. He came to The Episcopal Church in his early twenties while living in Windsor, Ontario, where, among other abolitionist work, he organized the Amherstburg Convention of free blacks in Canada. In 1854 he attended the first Emigration Convention in Cleveland, subsequently serving as a commissioner of the National Emigration Board.
In 1855, at the age of 25, he was ordained a deacon in St. Paul’s Church, Detroit, and, at his own request, was recommended by his bishop to serve as a missionary in Haiti. With the encouragement and support of the Rev. Gregory Thurston Bedell, later to become the Third Bishop of Ohio, Holly received a commission from the Foreign Committee of the Episcopal Church and sailed for Port-au-Prince that year on an exploratory visit to evaluate the potential for establishing an Episcopal mission in Haiti. He returned two months later to make his report and was subsequently ordained a priest in January of 1856 by the Bishop Coadjutor of Connecticut, John Williams, to take up service as Rector of St. Luke’s Church, New Haven. While there, he founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People, later to become the Union of Black Episcopalians.
His commitment to mission work in Haiti, however, did not diminish, and five years later, on May 1st, 1861, within three weeks of the Battle of Fort Sumter which marked the outbreak of the American Civil War, Holly sailed again to Haiti, this time with 110 men, women, and children, in his words “as the pastor of a company of no persons emigrating to Haiti, in response to an invitation to that effect addressed to the colored people of the United States by the President of that island.” While he had the approval of his bishop to serve as a missionary, the Foreign Committee had not permitted the establishment of a mission in Haiti, so Holly did not inform the Board of Mission that he and his companions considered their journey to be one of emigration.
In their first year on the island, 43 of Holly’s companions died of malaria and yellow fever, including his mother, his wife, and two of his four children. All but twenty of the survivors returned to the United States. Those who remained with Holly and his two young sons, then aged 3 and 5, were committed to the work for which they believed God had called and spared them.
The following year, 1862, after becoming a Haitian citizen, Holly traveled back to the United States seeking funding from the General Convention to begin a formal mission relationship in Haiti with The Episcopal Church. His plan was again turned down, though he did receive a modest stipend which allowed him to rent a home in Port-au-Prince and establish Holy Trinity Church. Bishop Alfred Lee, the First Bishop of Delaware visited the following year and confirmed 36 candidates. It was not until another three years had passed, however, that the Board of Missions finally agreed to sponsor Holly’s mission in 1866, after Bishop George Burgess, the First Bishop of Maine, had made a visitation to Haiti, laid hands on 27 confirmands, ordained two deacons, and organized the Haitian Church Convocation.
At the General Convention of 1874, a covenant was established between the House of Bishops and the Haitian Convocation, and on November 8th of that year, in Grace Church, New York, James Theodore Holly was ordained and consecrated the First Bishop of Haiti. He served in that capacity until his death in Port-au-Prince in 1911. Along the way, he served as the Liberian Consul to Haiti and was, in 1878, the first black bishop to attend The Lambeth Conference.
I recount this history of Bishop Holly not simply because his date of consecration and remembrance happens to fall on November 8, nor because of his only slightly tangential relationship to the Diocese of Ohio through Bishop Bedell (though I am sure that delights our Archivist, Brian Wilbert). Of course, his model of commitment and sacrificial dedication to the Gospel of Jesus and the work of the church are exceptionally worthy of our attention. As well, his mission zeal to serve and benefit the people of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Liberia is both inspired and inspiring. But I am most drawn to this holy man because of his particular commitment to his African American sisters and brothers in a specific time and context in our country’s history.
Most of what I have described to you I have taken from Bishop Holly’s own words, and largely from an 1897 appeal for supporting what had by then become the church’s mission in Haiti. What his personal account reveals is how his response to both slavery and emancipation were conditioned by the overarching image he had of what humanity, and particularly white, western-European society, was capable of achieving. He was born 35 years before the end of slavery in this country, and his ordained ministry began before the Civil War and continued into the 20th Century, arguably the most politically and socially divided period in our country’s history. And while he worked tirelessly for emancipation with other abolitionist colleagues like Frederick Douglass, his vision for the future of the United States was not one in which blacks would ever be on equal ground with whites.
Holly was an emigrationist. He advocated the antebellum Back-to-Africa movement of the early 19th century. He believed there was little or no future for people of African heritage in the United States. Rather, he supported the establishment of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti by former slaves as places to build prosperous and peaceful societies for the African diaspora. His convictions about what lay ahead for African Americans in North America conditioned his understanding of God’s mission in his day and how he was called to participate in it.
Looking back from the vantage point of our own time, there is ample reason to judge that Holly was in no small part correct in his vision of the future. As Bishop Williams reminded me, this perspective has been embraced at subsequent times in our nation’s history, notably following the 1967 riots in Detroit with the rise of the Republic of New Afrika and other black nationalist movements. And there is much about the racial inequities we struggle to confess and address in our society today – in our educational, political, economic, judicial, healthcare, and other systems – that reflects the notion that we are limited in our capability, today and in the future, to achieve the equality to which we claim to aspire. A very effective primer in this is Undesign the Redline, the remarkable exhibit currently showing in the Gallery at Trinity Commons. I encourage each of you to experience it. As well, you would find very helpful the opening remarks of the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, to the recent meeting of the Executive council of The Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
The more I have studied the ministry of James Theodore Holly, the more his vocation as a Christian appears to have been directed in part by this guiding conviction that I have found difficult to accept. Bishop Holly believed that we Americans would not be capable of creating a future of equal freedom, opportunity, and justice for people of all races and backgrounds. His experience as a free African American in the 19th century formed that guiding conviction and doubtless informed his sense of God’s call to him and to the church.
To me, however, it felt like he was selling out. I wanted to say to him, “Wait a minute. Don’t give up. That is just what the power of evil wants, for us to abandon the higher goal, to forget Jesus’s expectation that we might all be one.” Yet in my prayers, I imagined Holly replying, “‘Wait,’ you ask? A century and a half later, what do you really have to show for it?” And of course, he is right. Hate crimes and displays of white nationalism are increasingly more evident, if not actually more prevalent. Racial fear, mistrust, prejudice, and violence continue to polarize our communities and institutions. And I am led to ask myself, “What are the guiding convictions that lead my vocation as a Christian, particularly in regard to racism and racial reconciliation?”
James Theodore Holly challenged me to see that perhaps it is my sense of the possible that is limited, not his, simply because mine comes from a position of racial, economic, and social privilege. Because of that privilege, the just and peaceful future I imagine for God’s beloved is already available to me. Easy for me to wait. But when I look to that future through Holly’s eyes, I begin to see that the rights and equality we both believe God dreams of for all of God’s children are not obligated to wait for the conversion of the dominant culture. It is not required that they wait for me. Like Moses leaving Egypt, Holly was willing to go to the place where he believed the inbreaking of the kingdom was possible, rather than wait for others to get to that place within themselves, even when it meant uprooting his life, ministry, and family to do so. The great irony is that this country was founded by emigrationists, people who came here seeking a future free of oppression, people like my own family, English Quakers who emigrated from Britain with William Penn in the 17thcentury for much the same reasons that James Holly sought to leave here 200 years later.
And so, my request of Holly changes from “Wait a minute” to “Hand me the plow.” As his life and ministry shed light on my own, I have begun to hear the teaching of Jesus in tonight’s Gospel in a new way. For here the saying does indeed hold true, “One sows and another reaps.”
“I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor,” Jesus tells us. “Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” In the communion of all the saints, we, who labor still, are called to reap not our own seeds, but often those sown by others whose experience, perspective, and convictions are ones not always accessible to us by our own devices. Jesus calls us to enter into their labor that it might inform and direct our own. In the communion of all the saints, we join with others, in the words of Richard Baxter’s beautiful hymn, both the “blessed souls at rest” and those “who toil below,” so that our souls might faithfully bear their own part.
Without the other – the one whose perspective sees the world from a different angle, the one who differs from us in appearance, heritage, conviction, belief, or values – we can never fully understand ourselves and hear God’s call to us. It is only through the rich differences of others and their identity and humanity that we can accurately see the limitations and inadequacy of our own. In the mystery of God’s love, it is they who can make us whole. That is the truth with which Jesus repeatedly confronted everyone: by asking water from the woman at the well; by laying healing hands on those to whom others would not come near enough to touch; by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s house; by eating with tax collectors and sinners; by portraying despised Samaritans as good; by lifting up as godly examples the outcast, neglected, and scorned; by showing with his own love that God loves everyone with neither condition nor exception.
When we claim that there are no exceptions to God’s love, we are not simply referring to something between God and whoever that may be. We cannot say, “God loves you. No exceptions. But please go and be loved by God over there, somewhere.” Rather, in those five words we are proclaiming a guiding conviction for our own lives and responsibilities as Christians. We are saying that precisely because you are loved by God, whoever you are, I, as part of the body of Christ, will love you, too. No matter what that costs us.
Connecting to James Theodore Holly and understanding the guiding convictions that formed his vocation as an emigrationist and a Christian need not cause us to relinquish our own conviction that we are called to work toward achieving God’s Beloved Community in our church, society, and nation, here and now. Rather, they should encourage and sharpen that vocation. Through his eyes, we may better understand both its expectations and its cost, and following his sacrificial model, we too may find opportunities to surrender more fully our lives and wills to God. Such labors will never be in vain, for by them we will reap the seeds of love sown by those before us and sow new seeds of love for others to reap in ages to come. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
XI Bishop of Ohio