homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Feast of Henry Beard Delany and Edward Thomas Demby, April 14, 2016
|The Rt. Rev. Edward Thomas Demby|
Today is the feast day of two African-American bishops, one born free and one born into slavery, both important figures in the Episcopal Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Edward Thomas Demby was born in Delaware in 1869 to two freeborn parents. He grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (which we typically abbreviate as the AME Church), attended Howard University, and was ordained. It was during his time serving as Dean of Students at Paul Quinn College in Texas that Demby was confirmed in the Episcopal Church and was soon after ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.
Serving in several congregations throughout the South and then being appointed Archdeacon for Colored Work in Tennessee, Demby wrote that working in that environment was like “building bricks without straw.” He worked for the full inclusion of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church, always swimming against the tide of Jim Crow. For many years he worked for no salary at all, but nevertheless he founded a number of black hospitals, schools, and orphanages.
Demby became bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Arkansas—the first African-American to serve as a bishop in the United States. (A bishop suffragan is an assisting bishop elected to do specific work throughout a diocese.) Demby served in many groups both inside and outside the church, including the Forward Movement Commission, the Joint Commission on Negro Work, the Race Relations Commission, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, the American Association of the Advancement of Colored People, the American League for a Free Palestine, the American Humane Society, and the Sociology Society. He became the primary voice for the desegregation of the Episcopal Church and wrote many books and articles. At the age of 85, just a few years before his death, Demby was able to witness the landmark decision on Brown v. Board of Education.
|The Rt. Rev. Henry Beard Delany|
Henry Beard Delany, on the other hand, was born into slavery in Georgia just a few years before the Civil War began. Initially trained by his father as a farmer, carpenter, and brick mason, in his early 20s Delany became the recipient of a scholarship funded by his congregation, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. He attended St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, a school founded by the Episcopal Church immediately after the Civil War specifically to educate newly freed people. Delany studied music and theology, and after graduating, he stayed at St. Augustine’s to teach carpentry and masonry. He became the architect and chief builder of the school’s historic chapel. He also worked with students to build both a library and a hospital on campus.
During his time in Raleigh, Delany joined St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, and from there he was ordained to the priesthood in 1892. He was elected bishop suffragan in North Carolina, specifically for what the church then called Negro Work, in the same year that Demby was elected. Delany traveled throughout the Carolinas establishing black Episcopal congregations, since Jim Crow laws prevented any possibility of integrated churches in the South.
I personally can’t imagine living such an accomplished life as these two men did. Yet before this week, I had never heard of Demby or Delany. To be fair, our church has a long history, and there are many wonderful bishops I’ve never heard of. But it struck me that the work of African-Americans, especially, tends to be relatively unknown among us white folks. Growing up in small-town white America in the 1980s, my history books mentioned Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and no other stars of the civil rights movement. Growing up in small-town white Episcopal churches, I never heard the names of any black Episcopalians.
This basic ignorance of important pieces of American history is just part of our landscape, a continuing, unthinking contribution to a world that needs African-Americans to preach the gospel “in spite of great opposition.” The two men we honor today, like the Apostle Paul and his companions, “worked night and day” to proclaim the gospel of God, urging and encouraging and pleading that we white folks should lead lives worthy of God. We’ve come a long way, yes. But our ignorance indicates that we can go so much farther.
You know, sometimes you’ll hear people scorn other people for their ignorance—for not knowing something that they think everybody should know. I try never to do this, understanding that we all learn things when we learn them, and that none of us has the time or energy even to learn everything that would be helpful even to ourselves, let alone to others. So today, I’m glad to have learned about Edward Thomas Demby and Henry Beard Delany. In researching them, I googled some of the churches where they served so faithfully. I learned that one of my seminary classmates, Joyce Cunningham, serves as assisting clergy at St. Ambrose Church in Raleigh, the congregation that sponsored Henry Delany for ordination. This and many other historically black congregations in the Episcopal Church are the work of these two men and many other people.
I thank God for Demby and Delany’s legacies. They remind me that to know my own history is good, but that anything I can learn about another people’s history makes me a better person. Not only that, but doing so shows me that other people’s history is, in a very real way, my history as well—in this case, American history and Episcopal history. Finally, such learning helps fit me for God’s Kingdom: a kingdom of justice and equity, a kingdom that is alive in the world wherever the powerful choose to abdicate that power to others, and that is active in the world wherever people of every color, all beloved of God, love one another. Amen.