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Feb 07, 2011 | Carol E. Barnwell, Kathy H. Culmer, DMin

Absalom Celebrated for Being a Kingdom Builder


Over 200 gathered at Christ Church Cathedral, February 5, to celebrate the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818), a freed slave and first African American ordained in the Episcopal Church. The Rev. Canon Harold T. Lewis, author and professor logical Seminary at Pittsburgh, spoke at a luncheon following the festival Eucharist.

Noting that she had been ordained 23 days and 15 hours, the Rev. Glenice Como, chaplain to the Beacon, a homeless ministry of the Cathedral, said she recognized that she stood on the shoulders of Absalom Jones “and many others.” Calling Jones a pioneer and an agent of change, Como challenged those attending the worship service to exemplify the same “love supreme” of Christ that Jones has lived in his life. “The best relationships come from an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ…” she said, adding that this “love supreme” is lived out “in community by putting others needs before our own to be God’s agents.”

“We celebrate Absalom Jones, not because he was born a slave, but throughout his life we see how he lived as a kingdom building and ushered all to the love of Jesus Christ as they came his way,” Como concluded.

A moving trumpet descant of the Doxology by James Page punctuated the diverse musical offerings before and during the service, provided by youth choirs and a combined choir under the direction of C. Vincent Fuller and Bruce Power. The event was sponsored by the Commission on Black Ministry and the Union of Black Episcopalians. 

Jones was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, Jones taught himself to read using the New Testament. Nearly 40 years later he was able to purchase his freedom and led a group of to found St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. He was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802. Jones preached a message of liberation, that God was the Father who always acted on "behalf of the oppressed and distressed," and he denounced slavery. During its first year, St. Thomas’ grew to 500 members. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints on February 13, the day of his death in 1818.   

The Rev. Canon Harold T. Lewis, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and author of Yet With a Steady Beat: the African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church, spoke to the group during a luncheon that followed the Eucharist on the topic, “Absalom Jones: An Icon of Inclusion.”  In his remarks, Canon Lewis pointed out that Absalom Jones and his ministry in the Episcopal Church were the early seeds of inclusion planted in the church that would later bear fruit in the ordinations and acceptance at the “welcome table” of people regardless of their color, gender, or sexual orientation.  One cannot look at him [Absalom], one cannot celebrate his life without recognizing that here is where the conversation of inclusion began. Here is where the Episcopal Church was first called upon to make good of its baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”   The seeds that Absalom planted so long ago, challenge us to continue the conversations.  The conversations in which we engage, the fact that the conversations even take place, make us a better church. To be a people committed to Christ and the church, we must be willing to continue the conversations of inclusion, no matter how difficult. In the end, we are a better church for it. 

Caption: The Rev. Glenice Robinson-Como (l) and Vyonne Carter-Johnson following the recessional at the Absalom Jones Festival Eucharist.