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Jun 09, 2020 | Kathy H. Culmer, Ph.D.

Moving Forward in Truth: No Ways Tired

 

“In a startling article entitled, “The Color Line in Medicine,” in the current issue of the Saturday Evening Post, Dr. Murray Brown of Meharry Medical College’s Hubbard Hospital offers this concluding sentence: ‘The issue is education, not race.  If we take care of education, race will take care of itself.’ Surely, this Council might take a leaf from such an observation.  For, in a far more profound way, the issue here is religion, not race.  If, in the Church of the Living God we take care of religion, race will take care of itself!

– John E. Hines, Bishop Co-Adjutor’s Address to Council, 1948

 

  “I don't feel no ways tired

I've come too far from where I started from

Nobody told me that the road would be easy

I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me”

--The Rev. James Cleveland

 

When I think of The Rev. John Dublin Epps, the longest serving priest for St. John the Baptist in Tyler, Texas and the second Dean of the Colored Convocation for the Diocese of Texas, I think of the verse above from Rev. James Cleveland’s 1979 gospel recording, “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” Even before I sat down to write or knew what I would write, the words were playing in my head, just thinking about the life he’d led. Maybe the words came so readily because it is, after all, African American Music Appreciation month, and I’ve been thinking about the rich and varied musical contributions that African Americans have made to the cultural heritage of this nation, gospel music, having a prominent place among them. Maybe, they came to mind as I thought of the many roles that Mr. Epps played in ministry while serving the Diocese of Texas, from 1930 until his death in 1979. Or, perhaps I thought of the words when I thought of this man who never learned to drive a car, but somehow served from Galveston to Houston to Austin to Lufkin to Tyler and parts in between, some of which he served concurrently. 

When I spoke with one of the older members of St. John’s to ask if she could remember anything about him, she said, “The folks around here who knew him are dead, but I do remember hearing them talk about how you could see him walking around town.  You know he walked everywhere; that’s how he got around.” Having never owned a car, Rev. Epps walked nearly everywhere in Tyler. When traveling to Austin, Houston, or Galveston, he took either the bus or the train. Yes, there were plenty reasons for him to get tired, to grow weary, or to take off his shoes, but he kept going. He kept walking.

 In no way could the road have been easy for Mr. Epps who was born less than two decades after the end of slavery, March 13, 1881 in Kingstree, South Carolina, just short of 75 miles from Charleston. In the face of whatever obstacles the times and place may have challenged him with, he earned an undergraduate degree from Claflin College in Orangeburg, SC and then a law degree from Howard University in 1914 before moving to Oklahoma with his family where he practiced law and sold insurance until 1927, when the family moved to Texas.

In 1930, The Rev. Epps began working as a Sexton at Christ Church, Tyler. It is no surprise that Bishop Clinton Quin would take notice of this college-educated and accomplished man, nor that he would enthusiastically support and encourage his ordination. Bishop Quinn ordained him into the diaconate on November 27, 1935, just two weeks after the horrific lynching in Colorado County, Texas. He ordained him with the stated intent to have him, “minister to one of our needy Negro congregations.” Soon after his ordination, he was placed in charge of St. John’s in Tyler. In 1938, he was ordained in St. John’s as a priest and served there for the next 22 years. While serving as the church’s Vicar, he was also named Dean of the Colored Convocation, a separate convocation of the Diocese to oversee and respond to the needs of Negro congregations during the time when they did not have seat, voice or vote at Council.

Since the 1880’s, certain southern dioceses grouped black clergy and parishioners into separate “Colored Convocations” and appointed “Archdeacons for Colored Work,” or in the case of the Diocese of Texas, the “Deans of Colored Work” to provide supervision. These Convocations were not allowed to send delegates to General Convention, and for their Diocesan Conventions, would have limited representation. Harold T. Lewis in his Yet With a Steady Beat says that the Church “invented the colored convocation …to ensure that in the Church, as in society, there would be virtually no opportunity for the races to comingle as equals.”  Whatever the intent of the Colored Convocation’s creation, it provided  an empathetic ear to hear and voice to speak the concerns and conditions of African Americans in the Diocese, as well as an empathetic and relatable preacher to offer guidance, assistance, and who would whole-heartedly seek to meet their spiritual needs.  The Colored Convocation in this Diocese was created by the appointment of W. Bright-Davies from St. Augustine’s as Dean at the Council meeting by the Rt. Rev. Clinton S. Quin in Beaumont in 1937. According to Council notes, the Convocation was renamed from “Colored” to “Negro” by Council’s meeting date in 1948. The last report from the Dean of the Negro Convocation was made in 1949.

Because the needs of the churches were great and ongoing and the distance between the congregations considerable, the role of Dean was demanding. It required a great deal of travel by this clergyman who had no car. In the role of Dean, Rev. Epps supervised work at the Church of the Advent in Austin, later renamed St. James, St. Stephen’s in Lufkin, and St. Francis of Assisi in Prairie View. He is credited with organizing the Austin Church and St. Stephen’s in Lufkin, and with being instrumental in the building of St. Luke the Evangelist in Houston. During 1940 and 1941, Rev. Epps visited Austin once a month, traveling by train, to conduct services, and from 1946 to 1949, he served as Priest-in-Charge concurrently at St. James there and at St. John’s in Tyler. Additionally, he was responsible for the summer camping program for Black youth.

According to his Dean reports to Council each year, African American churches were growing in numbers and participation in the Youth programs was expanding, yet there were ongoing financial challenges and with the availability of clergy to serve the churches. In his role of representing the interests of the Negro parishes, he consistently presented these challenges and appealed to the body for help in alleviating them, but the needs and concerns oftentimes remained unmet. His annual Reports from the Dean of the Colored Convocation to Council, beginning with his first one made in 1943 and every year thereafter until 1949, included appeals for adequate meeting spaces for congregations, more clergy to serve the congregations, and for an adequate space for both children and adult meetings, since at the time Negroes were not allowed to meet at Camp Allen. In his report to Council in 1948, he was still making the appeal, “We hope we can have a permanent site for camp by this Summer for our Youth Program.”

While there was reason enough to be tired, Rev. John Epps never seemed to tire of working to answer the call to serve his Church, his community, or his people. Even after his retirement in 1956, the Rev. Epps continued his work at St. John’s by serving as Sunday School Superintendent and preparing people for confirmation. And he kept walking. 

Inspired by his life and ministry, organizers of the first chartered diocesan chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) for the state of Texas, established in 1984, named themselves The Rev. John Dublin Epps Chapter. For more than 200 years, the Union of Black Episcopalians has provided leadership fighting racism in the Episcopal Church. To this day, the Epps Chapter remains one of the most active and impactful chapters in the organization, sponsoring annual celebrations for Absalom Jones in February and The Holy Grill Bar-B-Que Cook-off on Labor Day.

Tired and weary though we may sometimes get, let us not forget those who have come before us and made a way for us, that we too may walk in the way that has been prepared and even beyond it, until we have reached a better day and made a better way. For indeed, God has not brought us this far to leave us.