One hundred fifty years ago, on April 19, 1865, the Rev. Elias Birdsall, rector of St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, eulogized President Abraham Lincoln, acknowledging the self-sacrificial and “awful responsibilities” the assassinated president had undertaken in guiding the nation through four years of bloody civil war that ultimately ended slavery.
The eulogy and Lincoln’s leadership were recalled 150 years to the day of Birdsall’s acclaimed address, made in the Los Angeles County Court House. The gathering, at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, was part of the ongoing commemoration of 150 years of Episcopal parish ministry in Southern California.
Bishop Jon Bruno, who presided at the 150th anniversary event, called upon Southland Episcopalians to embrace Lincoln’s commitment to eradicating social injustices.
“We have the responsibility of standing with people like Abraham Lincoln did, like Martin Luther King Jr. did, like Gandhi did, and to put ourselves in harm’s way in order to make things better in this world,” Bruno said.
The Episcopal Chorale and the drum line of Lincoln High School, East Los Angeles, performed at the gathering, part of a series of 150th-year anniversary events planned throughout the year, and which drew about 75 people from across the diocese.
The Rev. Canon Frank Alton, St. Athanasius’ current rector and newly appointed provost of the Cathedral Center, expressed gratitude for the words of his predecessor but also noted that injustices and divisions remain.
“My question as pastor of this congregation today, as we engage civil rights now, is whether the church can be effective by carefully walking a balance between sides on issues that continue to divide our nation, and that affect the lives of fellow citizens and aliens in our midst,” he told the gathering.
Alton continued: “Can we avoid taking sides on this Earth Sunday, around issues that affect the survival of our planet? Can we avoid taking sides when video cameras finally make it possible for all of us to know what black people have known for centuries — that those charged with upholding the law often target minorities for persecution? Can we avoid taking sides when the children whose parents we want to deport go to school with our children? Can we avoid taking sides when the people who share our streets do not earn enough money even with the minimum wage to support their families or even themselves?”
Bruno said that as Christians “we are called to action because we are created in the image of God … and we’re called to see that image of God in all humanity.”
Baptismal promises “to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and mercy in this world” supersede social and political divisions and compel a renewed call to civil rights action, Bruno said.
Birdsall’s eulogy may be read online here.