- Faith & Family
Black history is filled with stories that chronicle the struggles and triumphs by individuals and groups, all committed to gaining fair and equal treatment for Blacks — the history of the Black church parallels that commitment. On Saturday, Feb. 18th, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family hosted an Absalom Jones service to honor the first Black priest ordained in the Episcopal Church more than 218 years ago.
The service, which was sponsored by the Theodore R. Gibson Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, also featured a luncheon and fashion show.
The Diocese of South East Florida has been holding an annual Absalom Jones service since 1984. This year’s observance, held in Miami Gardens, drew over 200 people, according to Father Horace Ward, the rector of Holy Family Episcopal Church.
“The continuing celebration of Absalom Jones is an opportunity to value the cultural diversity of the Episcopal church and to value the contributions of its African-American members,” said the 51-year-old Ward.
Stepping out on faith
In the late 1780s, Jones, a former slave, became so dissatisfied with the unequal treatment Black members received at a Philadelphia-based Methodist church, that he and several other worshippers left their place of worship forever. Eventually, Jones would go on to found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1794 — he would be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1804.
While Jones was breaking new ground in the Episcopal church, his actions also inspired the creation of another Christian denomination. His friend, Richard Allen, was similarly dissatisfied with the treatment of Blacks in the majority-white Methodist denomination. But he took another route, founding the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which would remain independent.
Some see his actions as the official beginning of the Black church in the U.S.
“I really call it the first Civil Rights Movement,” said Rev. Jimmie Williams of the St. James AME Church.
Today, the AME denomination celebrates a Richard Allen Founders Day every second Sunday of February.
More than 250 years after the AME denomination was founded, it is still important to remember how it all started, explained Williams.
“It kind of helps us to realize how far we’ve come as a race, as a country and as a religion,” he said.
In spite of the discriminations and the hardships that Jones and Allen faced within the church, neither of them sought to establish churches that looked for ways to gain revenge against those who had formerly oppressed them. Ward believes this is not surprising.
“It boils down to who Jesus Christ is,” he explained. “Jesus Christ was about the business of God’s reconciling love and the church is an agent to proclaim that reconciliation across cultures — no matter what our differences, all are welcome in the church.”
By Kaila Heard