Moving Forward in Truth: Letters in Exchange

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning”

Again, some of the work for negroes has justified itself—some other has not.  I am the Bishop of the negroes, too.  I believe the Church has a definite mission to the negroes.  The negro work has been here for thirty-five years.  I may or may not have initiated it.  I think, however, that I would have, not because it was an easy thing to do, but because I believe that it is our Christian duty to give them this opportunity.  As their Bishop, I have to plan the best I know how.  These few—perhaps only two hundred—depend on me.  I cannot fail them.

Bishop Quin’s Council Address 1933

Ever since my husband shared them with me, I have been fascinated with some old letters that he let me read. The letters written in 1935 and 1936, now nearly a century ago, were exchanged between Bishop Clinton S. Quin, the 3rd  Bishop of Texas and my father-in-law, the Rev. John E. Culmer, who at that time was priest at St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Miami, FL, and who later became Archdeacon of South Florida.

I was fascinated for a number of reasons. One of these reasons, of course, was the fact that the exchange had taken place at all, and that it was between my husband’s father and the Bishop of the state where we currently reside, and, having both grown up in the southeastern United States, never before imagined we would ever live. And, the time, of course, was so long ago, six decades before we would come to live here. For those of you doing the math, no, we are not that old, though getting there, but that is another story altogether. I was equally, if not more fascinated with the subject of their exchange, wherein Bishop Quin was asking Fr. Culmer’s input on racial matters in the church. From what I have read of Bishop Quin in Council notes and from his addresses to Council, I could glean his ongoing concern for the plight, if you will, of the Negro, his sense of responsibility to the cause and his varied attempts to address these issues and concerns in ways deemed appropriate or feasible at the times. This exchange of letters suggested that he was willing to go to greater lengths to seek counsel beyond his usual and familiar advisers in hopes of finding meaningful solutions. He was willing to reach across miles, cultural barriers and color lines to get answers that could not only provide him content for a magazine article, but that could potentially impact a culture…or not. While we may still be seeking solutions and answers to some of those same questions today, I thought it was a gesture worth noting and the contents worth sharing at this particular time.

On December 7, 1936, Bishop Quin wrote the following to the Rev. John E. Culmer of Miami, Florida:

Dear Brother:

I have been asked to contribute an editorial to The Living Church on the subject of the Negro Work in the Episcopal Church and would like to have your very frank answer to the following questions with the privilege of quoting the same if I deem it wise:

            What do you consider to be the present condition of the Negro work in the Church?

            What are some of the present day handicaps?

            What immediate needs could be met if we set our lives to the task?

            What suggestions have you to offer to the Church at-large of some things we could so all together to advance the Church’s life among Negro people?

I would appreciate it very much if you would let me have your answer sometime before the twentieth of December.

Thanking you and with kind personal regards, I am

                                          Faithfully yours,                     

On December 16, 1936, the Rev. John E. Culmer responded to Bishop Quin’s questions with the following responses:

Right Reverend dear Father:

At my earliest opportunity, I am sending you my very frank answer to your good letter on December 7.

First: I consider the present condition of the Negro work in the Episcopal Church similar to that of a much neglected, invalid, child, in an otherwise healthy and well-ordered family. With few exceptions, I think this is generally true. I say neglected because the Church seems to regard the Negro as a sort of appendage tolerated to maintain the outward and visible sign of Catholicity. I say invalid-weak and infirm-because, in many respects, he has been denied that active participation so essential to the development of strength and character. This condition may be traced to many causes chief among which are (1) the dominant characteristics of our American civilization by which, if measured, the Negro suffers by every comparison.  (2) On the one hand, too little has been required for what has been done for him, while on the other hand, too much has been expected of him removed, as he is, not many years from slavery and identified with a Church whose approach to God is the same as the many century cultured crowned heads of England as well as the uncrowned kings and queens of America. In order to possess the souls of black America, the Church must have patience.

Second: Some of the present day handicaps are prejudices from without and petty jealousies from within. Episcopalians are accused by other religious groups of lacking in race consciousness and pride in that they are members of a white man’s church. This accusation has a cooling effect upon whatever ardor the prospective candidate may possess for membership in our communion. From within, petty jealousies are legion. They extend to both pulpit and pew alike. They are sectional, international and intraracial. The Negro clergy of the North vs. the Negro clergy laboring in the South; foreign born clergy vs, native born; foreign born laymen vs. native born; then there are class and “complexion” jealousies also. The Episcopal Church is generally regarded as the Church of the socially elite; and many of our members and, in some cases, some of our own priests, countenance and encourage it. This kind of propaganda keeps the poor masses without.

Third: Some of our immediate needs can be met (1) by establishing a post-graduate (post ordination) training school centrally located for our clergy. (2) Retreats for our clergy. (3) Trained men with special fitness for conducting Preaching and Teaching Missions.

Fourth: To advance the Church’s life among Negro people much has been said and written for and against the Racial Episcopate. While I strongly favor Negro Bishops, whether Suffragan or Missionary, I do not believe that Negro Bishops as such will have any magic charm for the unchurched masses. To advance, our most urgent need is what I shall call Church patriotism – men imbued with a burning zeal for souls; priest and people organize into a mighty army resolutely determined to advance and bring men to Christ and his Church. But despite one’s zeal and fervent prayer for a poor, hungry man, that prayer becomes but empty words unless one gives him some food to eat. Food for the hungry, hospitals for the sick, homes for the aged and orphaned and character building institutions for neglected children will do more to attract the Negro to our Church than anything else I can think of. In this, the Church will be offering something different from what is offered by other denominations and, in the South where inadequate provisions are made for Negroes in municipal and state institutions, the Church will not only supply a crying need, but will, in due time reap a rich harvest of souls for Christ and His Church.

With all good wishes for a Joyous Christmas and praying God’s abundant blessing upon your work, I am

Your obedient servant,

Since I began this series, I have sought the opportunity to share these letters, and not just because they included an exchange between my husband’s father and the Bishop of Texas. Somehow, reading these letters brought to life the dilemma that they in the church faced at that time; it made the struggle so much more real and personal. But, it also served as a reminder that while some of the conditions and circumstances of that day and time have changed, there is yet much work to be done for our own soul’s sake and for the advancing of God’s kingdom. While Bishop Quin and Fr. Culmer lived worlds apart in terms of rank and experience, color and culture, it was their faith that gave them common ground and common cause. Each had, no doubt, pondered the shortcomings of the Church in serving its members equally and equitably, but from very different vantages. Yet, the insights and cooperation of both were necessary to bring about substantial and sustainable change. And, as Fr. Culmer indicated in his response, it is our common cause as the church to harvest souls for Christ and fill the needs of those who have answered the call. When we follow that as our guiding principle we will become better members of the Church and more easily recognizable followers of Christ.

I don’t know how or if Bishop Quin used Fr. Culmer’s input or not. I saw no further communication between the two. But, whether or not he used it to write his editorial for the magazine, I would like to think that it in some way made a difference, that it impacted him in some way for his own sake and for the Church’s.

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