Sunday August 14th 2022

The Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

Sermon by the Rev. Jack Alvey, rector of Ascension Birmingham

Intro by Polly

The first weekend I was at seminary, our dean of students loaded our class onto a bus headed for Hayneville, Alabama. We were taking a day trip to participate in the Jonathan Daniels and martyrs of Alabama pilgrimage. Although I had grown up in Alabama and knew of the diocese’s commitment to honor those who died in the struggle for civil rights, it was not until I attended the pilgrimage that I really learned the entire story of Jonathan Daniels. One of my father’s old friends on this trip, an Alabama priest named Francis Walter, who I knew had spent most of his ordained career fighting for civil rights. I wondered what inspired him to do some of the hardest work there is as a clergyman. To put yourself out there against the tide of what’s accepted as normal, to risk your reputation, your earnings, your family’s acceptance. He would say it was just what you do when you find others in need, when you know the right thing to do is not to look the other way and say that’s just the way things are now. When you hear folks say “just give it some time” and you know if they were the ones whose kids were growing up in a world, doing without, they would cry otherwise.

This friend of my dad’s said what he did was nothing more than what a friend of Christ is supposed to do. His answer is much like that of Jonathan Daniels, when folks asked him why he came to Alabama to work for civil rights when he hadn’t yet finished seminary.

I’m going to tell you the story of Jonathan Daniels today in the words of a one of my friends, a clergyman who serves as priest of Ascension in Birmingham, but who served in Selma, Alabama just after his ordination. My friend’s name is Jack Alvey and these are his words:

“Of all the faithful men and women commemorated on the Episcopal Church calendar, I have the closest relationship with Jonathan Myrick Daniels. I first learned of Jonathan’s life and witness during my college years as I was preparing for seminary. I was immediately drawn to his story because he was murdered in my home state of Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, Jonathan, who was a seminarian himself, was only a few years older than I was at the time when he was killed.

I thought, that could be me. Am I willing to take a bullet for someone else?

During seminary and the beginning of my ordained ministry, I was continually drawn to Jonathan’s story. I preached on his life and death on numerous occasions. I made it a priority to make the annual Jonathan Daniels’ Pilgrimage to Hayneville where he was killed in August of 1965 by a sheriff’s deputy. Throughout my ministry, I have gained tremendous encouragement through his writings and by his willingness to give up his life for another. And I still wonder, am I willing to take a bullet for someone else?

In 2014, I was called to serve as the Rector of St. Paul’s parish in Selma Alabama, where Jonathan spent the last six-months of his life in worship.

It took three tries before Jonathan was permitted to worship at St. Paul’s. After Dr. King’s call for people of good conscious to come to Selma, the Vestry at St. Paul’s met to draft a resolution saying that only members of the parish could worship during the Selma demonstrations. Two Vestrymen, however, opposed the Vestry’s stance. Their names were Miller Childers and Sam Earle Hobbs. The rector, Frank Mathews, supported those who spoke up, responding that closing the doors does not reflect the spirit of the church canons. However, he did nothing else to change the Vestry’s stance.

When denied entrance at Saint Paul’s, Jonathan, other clergy who’d come in support of the movement, and members of the local African-American community, kneeled on the steps outside the Nave doors, to say the General Confession. About twenty members of St. Paul’s also stood outside, behind the group, in solidarity with those who were denied entrance. An AP photo depicting this scene appeared in the New York Times the following week.

By the following Sunday, the Vestry had amended the resolution to allow white clergy members to worship during the demonstrations. Jonathan, however, would not worship where his friends could not worship. They returned to Brown Chapel and celebrated the Eucharist on the sidewalk where members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham were in attendance. Meanwhile, members of St. Paul’s sang the processional hymn, “O, Jesus thou art standing outside the fast closed door.”

This was 1965, a year after Civil Rights Act declared segregation unconstitutional in this country…the law was met with much resistance in the south, Gov. Wallace famously stood in defiance of the act, schools still separate, actively suppressing voting rights for African Americans. The voter’s league in Dallas County, Alabama where Selma is, asked MLK Jr. to come help speak, march with those who’d come to protest. One march was planned, in the end there were three marches—the first is now famously known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and county posseman attacked the group on a bridge leading out of Selma, beat the marchers with bully clubs and threw tear gas at them. One woman was beat unconscious. Two days later the protestors lined up for a second march, but it ended as marchers stood face to face on the bridge with troopers, who stepped aside, but MLK Jr. led marchers back, seeking federal protection. Third march was successful—25,000 persons marched three days, many clergy—entering Montgomery.

It was on the third Sunday following Bloody Sunday that Jonathan and his friends returned to St. Paul’s and were admitted to worship. The week prior, after receiving pressure from the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, as well as Alabama’s Bishop Carpenter and the rector Frank Mathews, another special meeting of the Vestry was called and a resolution to open its doors to all passed by a vote of 8 – 3. Several members of the Vestry and congregation left St. Paul’s after that, never to return until they were buried there years later. Later that summer, the congregation was forced to borrow from the bank to pay its bills. But he following year the parish’s finances were stronger than ever before.

In the months to follow Jonathan befriended several members of the congregation. Perhaps the strongest relationship was formed with the Gamble family…he wrote to them, “Though we speak in different accents, though we live perhaps in different worlds, you and we have already begun to live that life in the vision [of the beloved community] we share. And for that we are deeply thankful.”

After repeated warnings from the Gambles and other members of St. Paul’s not to go to Lowdens County, Jonathan went to Lowdens County in August of 1965 to help with voter registration. Jonathan and his friends were arrested in Fort Deposit and jailed in Hayneville in deplorable conditions. While jailed, Jonathan wrote this final journey entry before he was killed:
          “I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one’s motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.

As … I said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible “communion of saints”…With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Christ Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and “ends” all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”

Not long after, Jonathan and his friends were suddenly released from jail, and along with a young African-American woman named Ruby Sales, they went to the local Cash and Carry Store to buy a cold drink. It was a “white’s only” store. A sheriff’s deputy was waiting there, and he pointed his shotgun at a Ruby as she started to open the door. Jonathan pushed Ruby out of the way and received the shotgun blast. He was killed instantly. The deputy who shot and killed Jonathan was later acquitted by a jury of his peers.

Every year now for 25 years, yesterday being one of them, pilgrims gather in that same courtroom to remember Jonathan and other Alabama martyrs who died in the civil rights struggles, including the young girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. And in the courthouse, the same place where a miscarriage of justice happened, pilgrims remember (Jesus’ crucifixion) the ultimate miscarriage of justice that brings salvation to the world, (and celebrate his resurrection) pilgrims drink of the body and blood of Jesus Christ and remember “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are ONE in Christ Jesus.”

Fifty years following the integration of St. Paul’s, we held a service of reconciliation with Miller Childers and Lou Willie, III (a nine-year-old from St. Mark’s who was denied entrance in 1965), and called the congregation to worship saying, “this Church opens wide the door, and says in the name of the Lord Jesus, WELCOME.” Members of the West family, who Jonathan lived with during his time in Selma, were also in attendance.

In a very real sense, my friend Jonathan was there too. Throughout the planning process, I felt Jonathan’s encouragement. The words he wrote to the Gambles fifty years ago were being spoken to me, “The dream of a beloved community in which white men and black men, old men and young men, whole men and sick men will join hands in the way of the Cross and find there, in the Life broken, shared and renewed for them all, the unspeakable glory of God.”

“Still, all these years later, I wonder,” Jack says, “am I willing to take a bullet for someone else? My faith tells me that I would, but I could never be sure unless I found myself in that situation. Odds are, I will not find myself in that situation. However, I do know that God is calling me to give the love that I know in Christ Jesus to others, everyday – black and white and brown, American and foreigner, Christian and non-Christian, young and old, gay and straight, republican and democrat, poor and rich alike.

Jack ends his sermon thanking Jonathan. It may seem an odd thing to do—to thank someone who’s no longer living on this earth. Yet we believe in the community of saints, whose lives can inspire us to have more courage, more faith….which is why we celebrate this feast day today.

Jack concludes: “Thank you, Jonathan for being my companion along way. Thank you for encouraging me in a faith that believes in a God who casts down the mighty from their thrones and fills the hungry with good things. Thank you for reminding me that through baptism I am already dead in the only sense that really matters and alive in the only life that really matters” – the life in Christ.

Thanks be to God.