Moving Forward in Truth: Pressing on Toward the Mark

“Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 3:14 

 Lift ev’ry voice and sing
‘Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ’til victory is won

–J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson

The purpose of telling our stories or sharing our history is not so that we will go back in time and place just for the sake of going there or so that we will get stuck there, but so that we can appreciate the journey that has brought us from where we were to where we are, and if necessary, to help us realize the work that remains to carry us forward towards living into and becoming our best selves. We, as a Church, are the sum total of the experiences of all our parts, as is true for any family. We look at where we have been so we can see where we were, how we have grown, what we have overcome and where we may still have room to grow.

When the Commission on Black Ministry was started in 1991, it had as its 3 primary goals:

  1. To increase awareness and understanding of the diversity of members in the diocese
  2. To provide continuing education on cultural diversity, and
  3. To develop strategies to help raise up and deploy Black clergy and lay leaders

From almost as far back as the records go and show, there has been a concern for finding and maintaining Black clergy.  In his 1947 address to Diocesan Council, Bishop Coadjutor Hines said:

When I wrote the Rev. Tollie Caution, Executive Secretary for Negro Work of our National Church, about the desperate need for Negro clergy, he replied:

“In the shortage of clergymen among the Negroes which we are facing, it is very difficult to get clergymen to accept a call to the South, especially in areas like the State of Texas.  Today, a number of our churches in more largely populated areas than the two which you mention, are without any leadership whatsoever, so far as Negro clergy are concerned.  (Then after suggesting the name of a student, he added).  There are other clerg[y]men whose names I could send you, but I could not honestly feel that they would stay on the field for five consecutive years, nor do I feel that they would do the kind of earnest, consecrated work that these two places call for.  Therefore, I feel that having no Negro clergymen at all is better than having one who might do more harm to the progress of the work, than good.

“I ask your prayers daily that we may be able to recruit leaders for the Church’s work among the Negroes.”

The Diocese and perhaps the Church overall remains challenged in the area of recruiting and retaining African American clergy. Included with some materials I recently received from the Episcopal Church Archives in Austin was a document entitled “Negro Work in the Diocese of Texas.” The document was an appeal for financial support for the building of a facility for the operation of a youth program in Galveston associated with St. Augustine Church. If you have followed the series, then you know that St. Augustine was the first African American Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Texas, founded in 1884.

As well as providing information about the work of St. Augustine and the youth program operated from there, the document also shares information about the Rev. W. Bright-Davies and the challenges that he then faced, and perhaps what some other Black clergy faced as well. And while the particular hardships he faced may have been unique to that time period and in nature different from those facing our clergy today, it may be helpful in adding to our understanding of some of the challenges that those before us have overcome for the sake of teaching, preaching, and living out their Gospel calls.

By his own account, Rev. Bright-Davies was the 13th priest to serve at St. Augustine’s. In a summarizing statement about himself in his service to St. Augustine, he says, “I am the 13th man to serve here; I came here on Friday, the 13th of June.  I have just completed my 13th year; there are 13 letters in “W. Bright-Davies,” and the figures 1930 [the year in which he began his work there] added together equal 13!” He concludes by saying, “I am not a bit superstitious…or am I?”

While this document was an appeal for financial support, Rev. Bright-Davies begins with a story. His own. The letter found at the beginning of the document begins, “Dear Friend: May I visit with you today? And will you kindly listen to my story?” Perhaps that’s the part that got to me right away. As a storyteller, I am always looking for a good story, whether to hear one or tell one. His appeal to listen to his was an invitation I gladly accepted.

For whatever good it may bring about, whatever insights or understanding it may lead to, for whatever glimpses into the past that might give insight into our former selves and help to shape our view of our current selves, as a church, I will share here a portion of The Rev. Bright-Davies’ story, priest who served in the Diocese for 18 years, 1930-1948, before he moved to another diocese to continue his service to the Episcopal Church. And while my role as a storyteller is often to tell the stories of others, here, because he has left it with us, I will let him tell his own story in his own words, taken from the opening letter and the Epilogue of the document.



May I visit with you today? And will you kindly listen to my story?

First, please permit me to introduce myself. I was born in Accra, Gold Coast Colony, a British protectorate on the west coast of Africa on Thursday, October 8, 1896. I was baptized a few weeks later and given the Christian name William. My native name, Quan Tawiah, was “tagged” on me in addition to the family name, Bright-Davies. My full name is William Quao Tawiah Bright-Davies. (The history of these names would fill a good-sized booklet.) I was confirmed by Bishop Mather of the S.P.G. Mission at Holy Trinity Church, Accra, on October 8, 1912.

As a boy I attended the Government school and took special training in the church choir school, serving in the meantime as a member of the boys’ choir at the Holy Trinity Church, and English church mission at Accra which is supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

In the spring of 1916, I was sent by my father, a retired government official and owner-publisher of the “Nigerian Times” of Lagos, Nigeria, to England for further training. Here I did some college preparatory work at Eton and Durham; studied under private tutors in Birkenhead in Cheshire; Liverpool, Birmingham and London and too a “pass” course at Queen’s College, University of Oxford.…

I came to these United States in March, 1921, on a lecture tour and it was here that I met and married Miss Beatrice Grant at Beaumont, Texas. (She entered the “Larger Life” in 1936, leaving four daughters.) We settled in Galveston during the summer of 1926 and I served as lay leader and church school superintendent in St. Augustine’s Church up to the fall of 1927 when, through the “machinations” of the Rev. Father Kellam, assistant to the Rev. Mr. DeOvies at Trinity Parish, (now Major Kellam, a chaplain in the United States Army serving somewhere in Sicily), I left for Virginia to enter the Bishop Payne Divinity School at Petersburg as a postulant for Holy Orders. I took special subjects at the New York School of Social Work during summer vacations in 1928-1929. After completing the three-year course of seminary work in two and one-half years, I returned to Galveston and began my work here on Friday, June 13, 1930. Bishop Quin ordained me to the Diaconate in December, 1930, and advanced me to the priesthood six months later, July, 1931.

Now that you know something about my background, may I tell you something about my work in this Diocese? The total membership of this mission was twenty-six in 1930; it has increased steadily, and our last year’s report showed a list of 175 communicants. (Twenty-four persons were confirmed this year which makes a total of 199 communicants.) We have an active women’s auxiliary; a chapter of Daughters of the King; an altar guild of twelve active members and eight honorary members; a very dynamic young ladies club; a garden club; junior and senior choirs and an acolyte guild of ten boys.

St. Luke’s Church building in Houston was completed in September, 1931, and I was asked by the Bishop to give them two services on the day of the dedication of the building. This turned out to be a nine years and four months relationship with the congregation as priest in charge.

St. Luke’s had a membership of twenty in 1931; in 1940, when I relinquished my work in Houston, I left one hundred and eleven parishioners. One of my “sons” in the ministry, Deacon Jimmie Murray, is now in charge of St. Luke’s Church.

I organized the first Negro young people’s summer conference in this province in August, 1930, with twelve local young people and a few small children….Our conference has grown in interest and inspiration. Fifty-eight persons from two churches registered this year…As you no doubt already know, Camp Allen is not available to the Negro members of our diocesan family, so I have, perforce, turned over the vicarage each summer to the women and girls, while the male leaders and the boys spend the nights in the yard in good weather and in the garage and under the church building when it rains. This deplorable condition has existed for thirteen years and we are now trying to help ourselves in finding a remedy….

We ask in addition to your contribution that you remember us in your prayers; that God’s blessing may rest upon the work of the Church among Negro people everywhere, especially the Negro young people’s work in this Diocese. I am,

Very respectfully yours,
Organizer and Director Negro Summer
Conference in the Diocese of Texas

In the Epilogue, Fr. Bright-Davies continues his story writing about his struggle as a priest serving in this Diocese, as well as the struggles of other priests who chose not to answer the call to serve here or who answered and left to continue their ministry elsewhere:

One thing, I feel, I must point out at the close of this treatise is that this much has been accomplished by the courage, faith, determination and persistency of one man. It would not take a necromancer to tell what could have been done with more men on the field. You may ask, why weren’t more men available? I answer, there have been a number of really good men in the past, but they did not stay, and no one can justly blame them for leaving here for “greener pastures” elsewhere…

For years, before I took charge of this work in June, 1930, and several months later, it was the custom of our wardens to go to Trinity Parish to “beg” for pieces of candles and wine and wafers for their communion services. At our September, 1930, vestry meeting, (three months after my arrival) I suggested that some arrangements be made to buy and pay for our own altar wine. I was literally “cussed” out for making such an insane suggestion—paying for what they had been getting for nothing. I stated politely, but firmly, that there will be no more communion services until the vestry provides, by buying and not begging, for the “elements.” Our October and November meetings that year were devoted, almost entirely to arguments and near “fisticuffs.” I was knocked down several times, but refused to stay down….Early in December that year, the late Carrie Granger Johnson, president of the Women’s Auxiliary, and her loyal and faithful women, God bless them, saved the day when they gave me $25.00 to pay for a case of altar wine, candles and some wafers. We have bought and paid for our own supplies ever since…. These facts are mentioned here simply to show what can be done everywhere by Negro missionary priests if they were given real encouragement and support, financially, fraternally, and “otherically.”

Today, there are nearly a dozen African American clergy, among the approximate 540 active clergy serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. And while there are now more clergy of color, perhaps, than ever before and while they certainly no longer have to borrow bread and wine for communion or worry about their children having adequate spaces in which to lay their heads for overnight outings, they still face challenges that are unique to their place and circumstances in the Church. We, the Church, are in a continuous state of becoming…of living into our Christlikeness and creating spaces to allow Christ to live more fully in and through us.

“The “Stained-glass ceiling still exists,” said one of our African American clergy when asked what challenges still face Black clergy in this Diocese. “Few opportunities exist in predominantly White parishes. An African-American has a better chance of becoming a Bishop in another diocese than of becoming an associate at one of our larger, more affluent churches, let alone becoming the rector. While the Cathedral consistently shows leadership around diversity among its clergy, they are atypical. The Cathedral usually reflects the mindset of the Bishop of the diocese. Therefore, it is diverse. Parishes reflect the mindset of their parishioners. Therefore, there’s less diversity.”

Another agrees saying, “Large churches with a majority of White parishioners are not ready or willing to call a Black priest as rector or head of congregation. And while historically or predominantly Black churches in EDOT would prefer a Black Rector/Vicar, these churches are, oftentimes, unable to afford them.”

As I said at the beginning, telling our stories and learning our stories allows us to see how far we have come, but also how far we have to go and all the places we still have room to grow,

In his final words in the document  written by Fr. Bright-Davies, he made one final appeal, saying, “I plead, therefore, that the Diocesan authorities must not forget or neglect the problems of the “Shepherds of the Few Sheep,” and concluded with the words to the song “Rise up O Men of God,” which includes this verse:

Rise up O men of God
The church for you doth wait
Her strength unequal to her task
Rise up and make her great.

Though we may still be a long way off from greatness, we are closer than we have been…And we march on…’til victory is won.

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