Moving Forward in Truth: The Little Church That Could – And That Kept On

This is not the Bishop’s Church, nor John Hines’ Church, nor any person’s church.  This is Christ’s Church.  Its Gospel is His Gospel, its sacraments are sacraments ordained by Him for our soul’s salvation!  It would be unthinkable—and an affront to One who bore all affronts for you and me—to say to an honest seeker—regardless of color or race—“You cannot worship in this Church with us!” –Bishop John Hines, Address to Council, 1958

In 2015, I completed a project for the Commission on Black Ministries in which I compiled the histories of the predominantly African American Episcopal churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. The compilation is titled, “This Far by Faith: A History of the African American Presence in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.” The histories, by far, are not complete, but they were as comprehensive as they could be based on what I could find written or was able to corroborate at the time. Each story I found to be an indisputable example of perseverance, fortitude, endurance, and faith. The people who sang together, prayed together, and worshipped together in these sacred places and spaces endured not only the challenges placed before them of a segregated world__a world that too often and in too many ways placed barriers before them, deemed them to be less than, then set about proving that to be so, but also the insult and injury caused them by their brothers and sisters in the faith, of another hue, who professed to seek and serve Christ in all persons,” only to follow it with a “but…” There are lessons to be learned from their stories, even from the ones that are no longer here to tell them. They still carry a balm that can bring healing even in this time. Every bit of medicine that we must take is not sweet. It is often the medicine that is bitterest and that even carries a lingering aftertaste that brings the desired healing.

An article with the following headline: “Two Churches Come Together: Congregations Join to Become Hope Episcopal” appeared in the Houston Chronicle on August 11, 2011. The article went on to read: “Two Houston Episcopal churches have united to form a new congregation.

The former Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, with a predominately black congregation, has joined with St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, with a primarily white congregation, to create Hope Episcopal Church, 1613 West 43rd St.”

More than five decades since it held its first church service in the home of Clark and Janie Ward, Incarnation Church would unite with the church that for many years had been referred to as their “Mother Church” to become one, for the sake and survival of both.

In the beginning, there were two churches. Well, even before that, there was one church, as the story was told to me. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fr. John Bosman was serving as Rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the Oak Forest section of Houston. Fr. Bosman was an outspoken Civil Rights activist who had marched along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, AL. Fr. Bosman invited Clark Gable Ward, who later became the first African American Assistant DA in all of the Deep South, and several other African Americans to attend St. Michael’s for worship. However, for many of the parishioners of St. Michael’s, they were unwelcomed guests. After a number of visits, some of the parishioners there expressed their disapproval, even to the point of withholding funds. This must be, universally, the preferred method of church folks, second only to changing membership, for expressing their displeasure with whatever it is they are displeased. It has perhaps provided the slats to the proverbial fence that the church straddles between living out the Gospel and living in the world. But, I digress.

Undaunted by the resistance they met at St. Michael’s and determined to worship together as Episcopalians, they began to meet in the home of Clark and Janie Ward. Fr. Bosman, who had initially extended the invitation to his darker brothers and sisters to worship in the, then all-White, St. Michael’s, presided over their worship services. With his assistance, the group set out to establish a church for Negroes in which they might worship together in the Garden City Park area in Northwest Houston. The group went door to door, canvassing members of the community to see if there were residents who had an interest in forming an Episcopal Church in the area. In 1960, Incarnation Church was admitted as a mission to the Diocese of Texas, with Fr. Bosman serving as priest-in-charge. St. Michael’s, who had initially spurned the idea of having Black members worship with them, came to be known as their “Mother Church.”

In the early years, they met in the homes of prospective communicants and later in the Garden City Park Elementary School. As the numbers grew, the “band room” at George Washington Carver High School on South Victory Street was secured to provide a place of worship. Here, they had access to a piano and were able to add music to their services. Fr. Bosman continued to serve simultaneously as the Rector at St. Michael’s and the Vicar at Incarnation.

In 1960, the same year that Incarnation became an official Mission of the Diocese, property was purchased from Dr. R. O. Roett on Nuben Road in the Acres Homes area. When a member of St. Michael’s who worked for the school district donated a small school building, it was moved to the site at 6902 Nuben Street, a four-acre lot that extended to Little York Road. This two-room building had no running water, heat, air conditioning or bathrooms, and yet it became the church’s first worship space. Bosman would vest in one room and hold services in the other. Because the property was not within the city limits, a well was dug and a septic tank acquired. Later, the congregation borrowed money to renovate the facility, and the city expanded the city limit to encompass the area. By the time the first service was held there on Palm Sunday, March 22, 1964, the church had an entryway, a kitchen, restrooms and running water. The building was dedicated on May 3, 1964, with 70 in attendance. The property on Nuben not only provided them with a space in which to worship, but was a source of pride to the members, because it was their own property, bought, redesigned and paid for by their own members.

Then, in the mid-nineties, the decision was made by the Diocese, who had a vision of growing a large and thriving African American congregation in the Oak Forest area, to relocate the Church, according to former Vicar, the Rev. Bill DeForest. The Church was relocated to what had been a large industrial building on Antoine Dr. that had been donated to the Diocese by a local businessman. The building required a massive amount of renovation to convert it into a worship space, yet it provided ample space for growth and expansion of ministries and outreach programs. Once again, the congregation was called upon to adapt, and they came together to do so in a way that make a tremendous difference in the surrounding community.

According to the Rev. Deforest who served Incarnation from 1998 – 2003, although the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), was 75, the impact they made in the community reached into the thousands. While they had held a special affection for the property on Nuben Street, the larger property on Antoine allowed them to provide a number of services to the community that the community would otherwise have had to go without. Through the Episcopal Health Foundation, they received grants to run a clinic that provided health screenings and other patient care. They also reached the community with a Food Pantry, with neighborhood Soul Food dinners, and a number of other outreach efforts. The Rev. DeForest often likens the ministry they offered to the community to that of Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand, taking their “little” and multiplying it to feed thousands.

Even while all this ministry was taking place and worship was going strong, and a community was being served in significant ways, and while the parishioners had always adapted to make the best of the situations in which they found themselves, there were underlying feelings and resentments for having the will of others in the Diocese imposed upon them. This story, after all, began with recognition of the sacrifices that African American congregations had to make and the adverse circumstances under which many were able to survive. The fact that some of these churches exist today or that some existed at all is a testimony to their commitment to the Episcopal faith, their love of God and one another, as well as to their faith in God.

While the large industrial building they had been re-assigned to turned out to be a means to actively serve the community, the fact that they were forced to leave their Nuben Street location had also left a bitter taste in some parishioners’ mouths__the taste of anger, sadness, and loss that had lingered since they were forced to move there. 

In 2000, Bishop Claude Payne, who was not the Bishop at the time of the move, reached out to them to acknowledge their pain. He visited with the members of Incarnation and apologized to them. According to the Rev. DeForest, Bishop Payne told them that he was sorry; that the Diocese had made a mistake, and that he wanted the relationship with the Diocese to improve going forward. It was a turning point. It was eye-opening for the Rev. DeForest, as well, who said one of the greatest lessons he learned is that “the best way to find out what people want and need is to ask them.” To listen to people and pay attention to what they have to say can make a huge difference, more than one might think.  Things did change after Bishop Payne’s apology. The spirits of the people. Their attitudes. And the enthusiasm with which they performed ministry and outreach.

But as time went on, the neighborhood changed. Circumstances changed. Funding sources went away. Numbers declined. And while this “child” of St. Michael’s had done quite well on its own, even thriving for a while, both parent and child came to be in need. After experiencing a number of challenges over the years, in 2006, Incarnation Episcopal Church and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church came together under the leadership of the Rev. Martha Frances. They moved into the building where St. Michaels’ had held church back in the days when they were not always welcomed. All did not choose to come, nor did all choose to stay. I was told that one of the parishioners of St. Michael’s even had background checks performed on the members of Incarnation, only to be dismayed by the findings of how decent, upstanding, well-educated and non-threatening his fellow Episcopalians were. For those who chose to move forward together, they would become a new Church, for a new day, called “Hope.”

Church, in my humble opinion, is not a thing that can be regulated by laws and mandates alone. For it to truly operate as the Body of Christ, it must be governed by the heart. That’s where the real change must take place and that is what most affects what happens with the rest of the Body. 

Only when I began learning biblical storytelling did I come to know what “learning-by-heart” really meant. As a child, I grew up memorizing recitations to be said in church, and I thought that was learning by-heart. What I later came to realize is that this was not heart-learning, but was head-learning. With the one, you learn it to perform it, but with the other, you learn it to live it. With the one, you learn to recite the words; with the other you strive to live them. Too often we learn to say the words that our faith teaches, much more often than we put them into practice. We hold them in our heads while never releasing them to our hearts so they may flow uninhibited into the rest of our existence.

“We would be less than candid if we did not admit our own involvement in the blunted witness of this Church in this sensitive area of race relations.  Our trumpet gives “an uncertain sound” because the unbrotherliness we deplore in a secular society is too often found in the Church’s own fellowship, and before the Lord’s altar!” –Bishop Hines Council, 1959. 

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