Moving Forward in Truth: Just Our Church

“The time, however, seems to have arrived when the Church must reach out after larger results than under our present sent could ever be obtained. Under our present method we are not influencing any considerable number of colored people, and if you will allow me to say so, I doubt if the white people consider it desirable that we should be active and enthusiastic in this direction.

– Bishop Kinsolving, 1903 Diary Entry 

Take me back, take me back dear Lord
To the place where I first received you
Take me back, take me back dear Lord where I
First believed
.” – – Andrae Crouch, “Take Me Back”

“We never really thought of it as being a Black Church,” said Beverly McHenry Griffin, who currently serves as Parish Administrator at St. Luke the Evangelist and who has attended since childhood. “It was just our church. The place where we were going. Having fun and enjoying ourselves.” By all accounts of those who can recall, it was simply the neighborhood church where they worshipped together with family and friends on Sundays and where they, as teenagers, got dressed up on some Friday nights and got together for sockhops, where they played the jukebox, flirted with the boys (“but shush, don’t tell anybody”), and had the best times just socializing with each other, according to…well, I guess I can’t say.

St. Luke the Evangelist Episcopal Church was the third African American Episcopal Church to reach mission status in the Diocese of Texas and the first in the city of Houston. In 1899, the Committee on New Parishes of the Diocese of Texas received an application from “the congregation (Negro) of the Mission of Our Saviour, located in Houston, Harris county, for admission,” but it never made it to mission status. While the Committee recommended they be admitted, it was reported at the 1901 Council that, “Our Mission in this city, among the poor colored people, can do but little without the aid of our more wealthy churchmen, as the Church of Rome has the ear of some of the best churchmen of this city to help them pull down all we may have done for Christ and His Church.” “Work in the Mission,” it was reported, “has not been encouraging.  The membership increases very slowly owing the denominational prejudice.  Attendance at public worship fluctuates considerably.” The congregation did not survive. 

It would be 1920 before another group of African Americans would come together as an Episcopal congregation in Houston. St. Luke the Evangelist Episcopal Church began as a mission under the name St. Clements Episcopal Church, holding their first service on the second Sunday in May 1920 in the basement of the Carnegie Library at Robin and Frederick Streets. The Rev. George Walker, Rector of St. Augustine’s, Galveston, Texas, preached the first sermon. 

Dr. Rupert O. Roett is credited with being the driving force behind the establishment of this congregation. Dr. Roett was one of a number of African American physicians who worked to establish Houston Negro Hospital (later renamed Riverside General Hospital), the first African American full-service hospital in Houston. He is said to have influenced the renaming of the church after St. Luke, the Physician. This 50-bed facility, which had its dedication on June 19, 1926, Juneteenth,  was the city’s first non-profit hospital for Black patients and provided a place for physicians to work who were not allowed to admit patients to the “Black Wards” of Houston’s other hospitals. A number of physicians who practiced at Negro Hospital became members of the parish and contributed to its growth.

From the basement of the Carnegie Library, the church moved to a building at 2409 Hadley Street. On December 2, 1922, the first service was held in the new Chapel with an attendance of seven. The organization of this mission represented the third church for African-Americans in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. St. Augustine’s Church, Galveston, was begun in 1884 and St. John’s Church, Tyler, was begun in 1892.  Although St. Luke’s is listed as being admitted to mission status in 1923, it was not until early 1927 that the re-charted church began to grow. 

The Rev. J. Beaufort Boyce, who served the Diocese as Archdeacon for Colored Work, also served St. Clement’s, along with St. Augustine’s in Galveston, from 1926 to 1928. In 1927, while being served by Rev. Boyce, the congregation was renamed St. Luke the Evangelist and readmitted as a Mission of the Diocese. The Rev. William Hastings Bright-Davies, born in Ghana and educated in Africa, Britain, and the U.S., served both St. Luke’s and St. Augustine’s from 1931 to 1940, while still living in Galveston. He continued to serve St. Augustine’s until 1948.

Under the leadership of the Rev. Thomas (Toussant) V. Harris, who served there from 1949 to 1953, St. Luke’s became a parish in 1945. It was also under his leadership that the church began its outreach efforts to both Episcopal and Non-Episcopal students on the campus of Texas Southern University in 1951, providing counseling services, as well as opportunities for recreation and fellowship. In 1971, a Resolution was presented to Council to designate St. Luke’s Episcopal Church as the Episcopal College Center for Texas Southern University. It read:

WHEREAS St. Luke’s Episcopal Church sits adjacent to the predominantly
black Texas Southern University Campus, and
WHEREAS St. Luke’s Episcopal Church has the only black priest
currently working in the Diocese of Texas…
BE IT RESOLVED that the 122nd Council of the Episcopal Church of the
Diocese of Texas designate St. Luke’s Episcopal Church as the Episcopal College
Center for Texas Southern University, and…that the Diocese of Texas provide the necessary funds for the operation of an active, viable, and relevant program of Christian witness for Episcopal and/or unchurched students of Texas Southern University.

In 1931, using funds raised by the congregation and a grant from Bishop Quin, St. Luke’s built its first permanent structure at the corner of Simmons and Burkett streets. This facility served the congregation for more than 30 years.

Later, Lamar Fleming, an Episcopalian and Houston businessman, donated the two and a quarter acres of land on which the church is presently located. For a brief period, St. Luke’s met at the YMCA across the street from its present location, while the new church was under construction. Many of those who were children and teens during that time remember the fun times had while meeting in the Y facilities. Once the present building was completed and they moved in on November 3, 1963, while under the leadership of the Rev. Granville V. Peaks, Jr., who served as rector from 1954 to 1981.

At the turn of this century, St. Luke the Evangelist was almost destroyed by Tropical Storm Allison. Without a permanent rector, the members of the congregation banded together with interim rector, the Reverend Jim Scott, and completely restored the property. The beautiful facility where St. Luke’s holds its worship today is a testament to the resolve and commitment of its many members and friends. St. Luke’s has been a “sturdy rock” and “resting place” in Houston’s Third Ward for a century – a milestone it will celebrate later this year. Today, St. Luke the Evangelist is a vibrant and active congregation led by the Rev. Francene Young.

Church can be about a lot of things to a lot of people. Now, especially, we have been challenged to think about and re-think what church really means to us. Sure, church is the place where we worship, but it is so much more. For some, it is the place we come to know and know about God. It is about tradition. Service. Community. A place to be fed. And to feed. But, church is also the place we come to feel good together, with God at the center.

It’s kinda like what Beverly said, “It was just our church. The place where we went to have fun and enjoy ourselves.” That is a common attitude expressed by older Black Episcopalians when asked about their experience growing up as an Episcopalian in this diocese.

Richard Williams, currently a member of St. Luke’s who grew up in St. John’s in Tyler, who was also one of the 1945 group of campers who got to attend Camp Reposo, said,  “We didn’t think of ourselves as a Black church. We were born into segregation. We grew up in it and accepted it. We didn’t question it. We didn’t know any better.”

No one I spoke to expressed any concern about the resources they lacked or what they didn’t have access to, the lack of representation at the diocesan level, or even the infrequent visits by the Bishop…although one person did casually note that part about the Bishop. The people I spoke with just recalled the good time they had together as church. Granted their recollections were from a child’s perspective. I imagine their parents would have added something about church being the place where they went to worship and added some other churchy stuff. Would they have still been here to tell about it they may have expanded upon their children’s impressions and recollections by adding some of the grown-up observations, challenges and concerns as they had seen and experienced them in earlier.  But, I’m just guessing.

Maya Angelou is credited with having said, “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And this seems to be true for many African Americans who grew up in this Diocese. They mainly remember how it made them feel.

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