[The Episcopal News] The Rev. Canon Ronald Byrd, The Episcopal Church’s missioner for African Descent Ministries, issued a rousing call to worshippers attending the Jan. 14 annual diocesan celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King “to move their feet” like drum majors for justice, peace, love, and for Christ.
Preaching at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Los Angeles’s historic Leimert Park, Byrd wove together themes of the African concept “ubuntu,” or connection among all humanity, activism and leadership, and the honored role of drum majors, “that does not come without hard work, dedication and commitment … but rallies others to do their part for the common purpose.”
The joyful celebration included performances by the Episcopal Chorale, led by former director Canon Chas Cheatham; a pre-service presentation by Naomi Welikala of the diocesan Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service Black Migration Assistance Project; and greetings from the Rev. Judy Baldwin, priest-in-charge; Program Group on Black Ministries chair Canon Suzanne Edwards Acton; the Rev. Guy Leemhuis, on behalf of the H. Belfield Hannibal Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, and Bishop John Harvey Taylor, who introduced Byrd.
“I’m just really excited to be here with you all” and for diocesan support for the program group, Edwards Acton said. “We serve as a group of people who help to remind the diocese of the needs and cares of all the different Black communities, the different cultural experiences we all have,” she said.
Baldwin drew laughter when she told the gathering of about 100 that both she and Byrd formerly had owned restaurants – and invited everyone to remain after the celebration to share a soul food meal.
The “Be a Drum Major for Peace and Justice” theme of the livestreamed gathering echoed a sermon King preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta two months before his assassination, in which he imagined his own funeral. Rather than dwell on his life’s achievements, such as receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King said he wanted to be remembered as one “who tried to give his life to serving others.” Asking his congregation to remember his attempts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort prisoners, he added, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”
Taylor introduced Byrd as “a brilliant business leader and innovator and entrepreneur (who) mid-vocation took all those gifts and transferred them over to the church because the church needed him more.”
Byrd, who took part in a panel discussion on new communities at the L.A. diocese’s Nov. 10-11 annual convention, is a strong proponent of entrepreneurial ministry and leadership development. He worked for 20 years in executive management, including positions at four Fortune 500 companies. He has served as a deputy to General Convention, a design team member for international Black clergy conferences, and as lead consultant for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s newest leadership development program, Vital Teams.
In 2011, Byrd and the congregation of St. Katherine’s Episcopal Church in Williamston, Mich., created and launched Forster Woods Adult Day Center, a facility that ministers to persons living with dementia and other physical and mental disabilities.
“This is a charismatic, pastoral prophet in our struggling but essential Episcopal Church,” Taylor said of Byrd. “I hope you heard him at our convention in November. He works hard to identify and cultivate the leadership that our church needs in this time. And every time I’ve had the blessing of talking to him, because of the magic of the kind of ministry he has, I always end up feeling more optimistic about the church, even a little bit better about myself, and therefore newly resolved to do the best I can.”
The Rev. Guy Leemhuis, vicar of St. Luke’s, La Crescenta, offered greetings on behalf of the H. Belfield Hannibal chapter of UBE which, along with the program group, has been offering Black church worship opportunities across the diocese.
“We are just so excited to see our numbers growing and to see the Black church experience revitalized in our diocese,” added Leemhuis, who said additional gatherings are planned for 2024. “Because, if not here, then where? This is L.A. and L.A. is home to the largest number of people of African descent, second only to Kings County, New York. “So we need to act like we know who’s here, and we need to come out.”
There is a longing in this country, and even in the world, for the skills necessary to be a drum major, like broad shoulders and a loud voice, Byrd said.
Echoing King’s Aug. 28, 1963, speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, Byrd said, “There’s an urgency of this moment.
“In today’s climate, where so much negativity abounds, where justice can often be determined by one’s zip code, race, or gender, we often find ourselves at odds with the very notion of civility and discourse. White supremacy has a drum major. White supremacy continues to unfold.
“Which, incidentally, to my mind, manifests in what we call or hear called the MAGA movement —misdirection, seeds of division, dividing our country, our people, dividing and defining folks along racial lines, ethnic groups, social economic status, cultural values and yes, based on the color of their sin and not the content of their character,” he said. “We desperately need a drum major for justice and peace.”
Adding that “we’re in the hope business,” Byrd said it is urgent to take up King’s mantle. St. Paul in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, he said, offers a prescription for the challenges faced today. Putting on the whole armor of God, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit, “which is the word of God with us.”
“This is not about one against the other; it’s about uniting,” Byrd said. “It’s about coming together and being a drum major under a common purpose for the grace and the wellbeing of all God’s people. Let us continue to dream the dream that King dreamed.
“Get your feet ready with the gospel of peace. Oh, how beautiful are the feet that preach and proclaim the gospel of peace, believing God is capable and able and will do more than we can ask or imagine, that God will do what is impossible. But we gotta work for God.”