Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Modern Seminarian Reflects on the Ministry of a Martyr

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was the future of the Church. A seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was in 1965 just one year from graduation and embarking on his vocation in the ordained ministry. But the times in which he lived were anything but ordinary, and in the face of continued oppression of blacks - the denying of voting rights or equality of any kind, from opportunities for better jobs to access to better housing - something happened.

In those extra-ordinary times, Daniels took an extraordinary step: he left what could have been an easy and comfortable time at ETS and voluntarily joined thousands of others - black and white, young and old, ordained and laity, rich and poor, known and unknown - on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. In the final year of his life, he put his seminary studies on hold and devoted his time and energy to fighting for equality in Alabama. He took part in the voting rights struggle in Selma. He worked for the integration of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in that city - the church where, 31 years later, I would be married. He lived in the Selma homes of the very men, women and children who were enduring the worst segregation and injustice imaginable. And he joined in protests against stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama that were operating under strict "Whites Only" policies. Sadly, it was this final act of non-violent protest that resulted in his death in the most violent of ways.

Now, 51 years later, I myself am a seminarian. I am less than one year from graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary and (God willing and the people consenting) taking the next big steps into the vocation of ordained ministry. But even with the passage of time, and while things have improved somewhat, you need only open the newspaper or turn on the television news to see that we as a country still have a long way to go. Housing and economic inequality still burdens far too many individuals and families. Too many men, women and children still face segregation and racial inequality. Too many lives are being lost to the bullets and gunfire that ravage cities and towns across this country. We are losing far too many of our young people to violence, and far too many of those sworn to protect us are falling in the line of duty.

Five decades after our black brothers and sisters were given equal rights, what should be the joyful shouts of modern-day equality are sadly silent. In the 1960s, Jonathan Daniels recognized that black lives matter, and he followed a personal journey in answer to a call from Dr. King to work for an understanding of that fact. Today, parts of this nation still struggle with understanding that black lives do matter. They do not matter to the exclusion of any other segment of this nation's population, despite what some think when they see banners and social media hash tags. Black lives matter because they have been - and sadly, continue to be - demeaned and offered fewer opportunities to achieve their American dream. Black lives matter because they are the lives of the men, women and children who have been ignored. Black lives matter because when one part of our body is hurt, the entire body suffers. And when our brothers and sisters suffer continued subjugation and victimization, the entire body of humanity is hurt.

In the midst of all of this, the pain and grief that still holds this nation in its terrible grip, I think about Jonathan Myrick Daniels. I think about the man and the priest. I think about that time when as a young man of 26 he was the future of the Church. And as I reflect on the tragedy of his death, I rejoice in the fact that he wasn't just the future of the Church. He was - and is - the Church. To look at the example of Daniels' life is to look at what the Church that I love stands for. Loving all, and praying for our enemies. Respecting the dignity of every human being. Working to ensure that those without are given opportunities to live their lives with. Seeing that the face of God isn't reflected in the faces of a select few, but is seen in the faces of all of God's children.

I think about Jonathan Daniels and how God was reflected in his face. I think about the courage he displayed and the life he led. And I pray that I can emulate his work and continue what he started - being one small part of the best of what the Church is and what it can be in the future.

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