The following is text of the sermon from the Rev. Ann Gillespie on August 14, 2016 

Fifty-one years ago today, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels was one of a group of twenty-nine protesters, who went to Fort Deposit, Alabama to picket its whites-only stores. All of the protesters were arrested and taken to jail in the nearby town of Hayneville. Most of the group was held for six days; they refused to accept bail unless everyone was bailed.

On August 20, the prisoners were unexpectedly released. The group waited near the courthouse jail while one of their members called for a ride back to Fort Deposit. Daniels with three others—a white Catholic priest and two black female activists—walked to buy a cold soda at Varner's Cash Store, one of the few local places to serve non-whites. But barring the front door was a man named Tom Coleman, a volunteer special deputy who was holding a shotgun and had a pistol in his holster. Coleman threatened the group as they approached and leveled his gun at seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales to the ground and caught the full blast of the shotgun in his chest. He was killed instantly. Father Richard Morrisroe grabbed activist Joyce Bailey and started to run. Coleman shot the Catholic priest, severely wounding him in the lower back, and then stopped firing.

A grand jury indicted Coleman for manslaughter. He claimed self-defense and was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury. Coleman continued working as an engineer for the state highway department and died at the age of eighty-six without having faced further prosecution.

Ruby Sales, the woman whose life Daniels saved, was so traumatized by his murder that she nearly lost the ability to speak for the next seven months. Despite death threats made to her and her family, she testified at Tom Coleman's trial. Sales went on to attend the same Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts that Daniels had attended and became an Episcopal priest. She has worked as a human rights advocate in Washington, D.C. ever since. She founded the non-profit organization, The Spirit House Project, an inner-city mission dedicated to Daniels. 

In 1991, the Episcopal Church designated Jonathan Myrick Daniels as a martyr, and August 14 was designated as a day of remembrance for the sacrifice of Daniels and all the martyrs of the civil rights movement. The Episcopal Dioceses of Alabama and the Central Gulf Coast sponsor a pilgrimage in Hayneville every August 14. Upon learning of Daniels' murder, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that "one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels".

While in seminary, Jonathan Daniels found he could not ignore Dr. King’s televised appeal to come to Selma in March of 1965 to help secure the right to vote for all people. His time there transformed him forever. Daniels returned to seminary, but he could not stop thinking about what he’d seen and experienced. He asked for leave from seminary to return to Selma. He was motivated in part by his love of the Magnificat, our Gospel passage this morning. That is the hymn the newly pregnant Mary sings as she contemplates the birth of her son Jesus. Before he left, Daniels wrote: “I knew that I must go back to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.” In particular he was moved by these words. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Do you notice the tense of this passage? It is a vision that has already been completed. He has scattered, he has brought down and lifted up. As followers of Christ, we are called like Daniels, to help bring about this vision of restoration. Jonathan Daniels couldn’t resist it. What are we to do with Mary’s words and the story of Daniels’ witness on this sultry Sunday in 2016? One step we can take as a congregation, as the beloved Community, is to get to know one another. To really know one another, to dare to have conversations about uncomfortable subjects like racism, so that we can hear one another, and our assumptions can be challenged. Then perhaps we can move forward as a more cohesive whole.

Fifty-one years ago, the murder of an educated, white seminarian who was defending an unarmed teenage girl shocked members of the Episcopal Church and other whites into facing the reality of racial inequality in the South. I would guess that a number of us have been shocked by the events of racial struggle in the last year. I just happened to be in Charleston last summer at the time of the shocking murder of nine people at a bible study at Emmanuel AME Church. We have seen one instance after another of young black men killed by police. We have seen the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.  We have seen a disturbed black man target and kill police officers during an otherwise peaceful protest in Dallas.

Eight years ago I think many of us whose skin is white assumed we were in a post-racial society.  We had elected a black president! Wasn’t that a demonstration of how far we’d come? It was. We had passed through some very difficult struggles especially in the 60's and 70's with the Civil Rights movement, but basically, we thought we were on the other side of them. If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear in the last year, we are not on the other side of them. It is folly and irresponsible to think we are on the other side of our racial struggles as a country. This is not news to the black community. But it is a bit of a wake-up call to those of us who are white. We cannot pretend any more that we have not benefited from systems that are designed to favor white skin and to disadvantage those with brown skin.   

Recently I encountered the phrase “a psyche well-informed of its parts.” This originates with the poet William Blake who said that said that poetry accesses both sides of the brain and therefore reflects a psyche well-informed of its parts. Then at my MFA residency I heard contemporary poet Lee Young-Li say, “We are living in an age and society uninformed of its parts. Senators and congressman are uninformed of their constituents. Police officers are uninformed of their communities. Whites are uninformed of blacks. Blacks are uninformed of Asians. Christians are uninformed of Muslims… The only hope is to be informed of our parts.” 

So is the question that we don’t know our parts? Or is that we are unwilling to look closely to explore the truth of those parts?  Or is that the same question? One of the advantages of being white in our society, is that whiteness is normative, it’s the norm to which everything else is compared. That means, when we read a book or a newspaper article it can be assumed the person is white unless otherwise noted. When an American athlete wins an Olympic event, it can be assumed he or she is white unless otherwise noted. When we as white people are presented with certain opportunities, we imagine that those same opportunities are available to everyone else. But as one black friend said to me, “Ann, you are not made aware of your whiteness all day long. I am always aware that I am the only black person in the room.”

We at Christ Church are uninformed of our parts. A bunch of us have never even been downstairs in the Fowler House; there’s a whole other world down there when Sunday school and the choir are in session. We are uninformed of our history. We are uninformed of our Confederate past. Or we choose only to believe what we want to believe about our Confederate past. “It was good, it was bad.” It was both. Until we know one another, until we dare to really have some substantive conversation, we are destined to miss one another, we are destined to form snap judgments about one another. We are destined to reduce this important conversation to polarized camps of do we remove the historical plaques or not? It’s so much bigger than the plaques. They are part of our history, too. It’s not about the plaques. It’s about being a Christian witness for truth and reconciliation in a secular society that doesn’t know its parts. We need to know our parts first. And we start here. We start today in our forum as we explore the picture of whiteness portrayed in the words of William Faulkner’s iconic book, Absalom, Absalom!

There’s going to be more conversation about racism this program year. We will read another book together, we will hear more from our historian Julie Randle and we will have some opportunities to listen to one another. My friend Don Reed says that as Christians it’s not enough to not be racist. We need to do something, take some action that acknowledges our complicity in systems that benefit us and work to reverse the inequity.

Recently I was with a big group of predominantly white Christians that were called into a conversation around claiming our racist history. One brave woman stood up and asked, “How do we best repent?” It’s a good question. Did you know that the framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer designed the confession that we do just before the eucharist to be a group confession? There are liturgies for personal, individual confession, elsewhere in the prayer book. Most of us when we get to that part of the service, we usually pause and reflect on our individual transgressions. And that’s not wrong, but it is not what that prayer was originally intended to do. We ask for forgiveness for ‘us’. “We confess that we have sinned against thee….” “Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father…” One thing we can do is to ask for forgiveness as a group for the sins committed on our behalf. We as individuals may not have committed them, but we belong to groups that have. I know people resist being lumped into groups, but like it or not, we’re in them. They define us. Sometimes they limit and hold us back, but sometimes they give us greater access to opportunity over other groups. And institutional sin is a real thing. Racism is as much an institutional sin as it is an individual one. So praying the confession as a group confession is one way to start.

In his papers, Jonathan Daniels wrote of his experience in Selma: “I began to know in my bones and sinews that… With them, the black men and white men, with all life in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout… I began to know…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”  What do you know in your bones and sinews? I want to know. We want to hear it. I pray you’ll share it with us.