When the city of Pasadena’s Black History Month Parade route concludes at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Feb. 15, Michael Mims will be waiting. “I’ll be there to answer questions, to invite people to come and take a look, to give them information,” said Mims, 75, a retired Pasadena City College photography professor, who calculates that he has attended the historically black congregation since he was about three years old.
As part of the city’s yearly black history month celebration, he will display his eight-panel photographic retrospective in front of the North Fair Oaks Avenue church, beginning with “the early days” in 1923 when his aunt, Rosebud Mims, and seven other women founded the church.
St. Barnabas, along with St. Philip’s Church in Los Angeles, are considered the two diocesan historically black congregations, churches started by African Americans.
At least six others — Christ the Good Shepherd, Church of the Advent and St. John’s in Los Angeles, along with St. Timothy’s, Compton; Holy Communion, Gardena; and Holy Faith, Inglewood — were founded by whites but because of changing demographics have been predominantly African American for at least some portion of their history.
Now, many of those churches are themselves navigating new immigration waves and demographic shifts as they build toward the future.
There are 90-some historically black churches still in existence in the United States today, congregations created by Blacks who were not welcome in mainline Episcopal churches during racial segregation. The oldest is the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, established in 1797 in Philadelphia. It grew out of the Free African Society, an independent mutual aid organization created by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen to provide assistance for the economic, educational, social and spiritual needs of the African American community.
Jones eventually became the country’s first black priest and is commemorated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints on Feb. 13. But then- Pennsylvania Bishop William White would agree to ordain Jones and receive St. Thomas into the diocese only if the church did not send any clergy or deputies to diocesan convention, thus depriving Blacks of voice or vote in church governance, which “characterized the duality of race relations within the church for much of its history,” according to historical documents of the church.
Black churches: sacred places, civic engagement
Black churches have historically been spiritual homes, sacred places and “the apex of civic engagement for African Americans,” said Dr. Lorn Foster, an Episcopalian and Pomona College (Claremont) professor who is assisting in the creation of St. Philip’s archives.
Reading Douglas Lamming’s book Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow (UC Press, 2006) inspired him to connect with St. Philip’s and the city’s other historically black churches because while “it was well-done, something was missing” from the book, Foster told The Episcopal News. “He only spent three or four pages dealing with the role of African American churches.”
Foster decided the rest of the story needed to be told.
For example, founding members of the Los Angeles branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP in 1914 included St. Philip’s parishioners, John and Vada Somerville, both USC dental school graduates, and the Rev. Walter T. Cleghorn, vicar, as well as Joseph Horsfall Johnson, first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Foster said.
John Somerville was a friend and colleague of W.E.B. Dubois, a leading civil rights activist, author, educator and organizer of the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the 1909 founding of the NAACP throughout the country, he added.
Unraveling the church’s past also offers interesting insights about the city’s history, Foster said. The Somervilles, for example, in 1928 built the Hotel Somerville, using all-black contractors, laborers and craftsmen and financing. The Spanish-style architectural landmark at 41st St. and South Central Avenue for many years was the only major hotel in Los Angeles to accept black guests. Many blacks were also employed at the hotel, according to records. It later became known as the Dunbar Hotel, and was the site of the first NAACP convention on the west coast and a vacation spot for visiting black dignitaries.
Foster said he is also working with seven other historically black congregations in the Los Angeles area, including the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (founded in 1872); Second Baptist (1885) and Westminster Presbyterian (1904) to preserve their documents and record of social engagement.
“These were not just sacred places,” said Foster, the college’s Charles and Henrietta Johnson Detoy Professor of American Government. “These were secular places where we also did politics.”
‘A continuity of faith that has stood the test of time’
Charlene Diggs and others sifted through more than a century of precious memories prior to the Jan. 19 blessing of the St. Philip’s archives by North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry and Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno.
Curry told the congregation that he “shared their patron saint,” as he grew up at St. Philip’s Church in Buffalo, also an historically black congregation, in the Diocese of Western New York.
“Our historically black congregations have their origins either in post-slavery after the Civil War or during Jim Crow segregation and they represent a continuity of faith that has stood the test of time even in inhumane circumstances,” Curry told The News.
He said that changing demographics “represent a real opportunity for the Episcopal Church to be a gospel witness. The question for historically black congregations is now, how will we claim the high calling?”
Diggs called the archives “a work in progress,” begun in earnest after St. Philip’s celebrated its centennial in 2007.
They were aided by Foster’s students, who created a video record of the remnants of lives that, collectively, made St. Philip’s – more than 100 years of parochial reports, baptismal, wedding and death records, choir robes “with the coverings they wore on their heads,” letters from the first priest, the Rev. Walter T. Cleghorn, photographs, bulletins and programs, and even a baptismal font dating to the founding of the church.
“We took that to an antique shop to see when it was made and it was way back when the church was started,” Diggs said. “It looks like it’s all crusted inside but the person at the antique shop said that’s what makes it valuable. You can think of all the people who’ve used it and you wouldn’t want to try to get that out.”
A letter survived, penned by Cleghorn, where he “talks about the problem of getting parishioners to agree to build a parish house,” Diggs said. “He was talking about how the parish house is needed but he couldn’t get them to agree to it and he wrote to this person and sort of vented.”
Unlocking and preserving the past helps fuel the present, Diggs added.
“It’s been very interesting,” she said. “It’s very important because some of this is still going on today and it’s important to know why we’ve built what we have. The memories make up the whole church experience. There are people who’ve gone on that we miss and some of them had dreams that one day we would do this, or that, and we keep them in mind while we try to accomplish that.”
It also offers a gift for future generations.
“It gives the young people some idea of what made St. Philip’s what it is,” she added. “There’s a heart. There is a core. And of course, everything that happened in the past, everything doesn’t still fit but those things that do and those things that matter do (fit), and it’s important for young people to know that.”
As the oldest historically black Episcopal congregation in the city “it’s important that we’re still standing,” she said. “We’ve had to make some changes, some adjustments as we’ve gone along through the years, but we’re still standing because of our history. And that history is important to us because we want to preserve that, but we also want to move on and do what we need to do to be relevant today, and that’s not an easy job, either.”
St. Barnabas: ’embracing the community beyond the walls of the church’
Michael Mims said he reached into his family’s archives to create his photographic display of St. Barnabas’ history.
“I have pictures of my great-aunt, who was responsible for taking me to St. Barnabas in 1941 – Laura Kennedy” who had moved to Pasadena in the 1930s from Greenville, South Carolina to help his mother raise six children, he said.
The photographs tell the story – of the first meetings, in the home of Georgia Weaterton on Del Mar Street where as many as 29 worshippers attended on Sunday mornings, sometimes with lay readers from All Saints Church, Pasadena, and a St. Philip’s organist.
Also included are snapshots of the first vicars after 1932, when St. Barnabas was accepted as a mission congregation of the diocese: the Rev. Alfred Wilkins (1933-1943); the Rev. Alfred Norman (1943-1946, 1951-1970); the Rev. Jesse Moses (1946-1951); the Rev. Ivor Ottley (1977-1990) who challenged the congregation to “find its true vocation as black Episcopalians” and commit to an ethic of stewardship, authenticity, education, leadership, ecumenical fellowship, social justice and outreach, “embracing the community beyond the walls of the church.”
It is that ethic that continues to define the church, according to the Rev. John Goldingay, a Fuller Theological Seminary professor of Old Testament, who now serves as priest-in-charge.
“We’re only a tiny congregation” but nonetheless he and about a dozen church members recently took part in cooking for, serving and eating with members of the homeless community at the Union Station Shelter, he said.
“It is kind of a transitional place for people who are on their way toward being able to get back to work,” according to Goldingay, a Church of England priest. “Our congregation does dinner there one Friday per month. It’s a neat thing.”
With an average Sunday attendance of about 50 between two services, the congregation is facing the familiar changes of most churches in mainline denominations: dwindling membership, aging population, changing demographics, and is weighing “how we can reverse that trend,” Goldingay said.
Over the years the congregation’s traditional African American population increasingly has embraced Blacks from across the diaspora, including the Caribbean and Central America, as well as whites like himself, he said.
“I was a priest in England for 30 years when I came to California in 1997 to teach at Fuller,” he recalled. He moved to Pasadena and with his wife visited St. Barnabas “not knowing we’d find ourselves the only white people there,” he said. “But, we got this fantastic welcome. They seem to accept me as a human being, and a priest, and a Christian.”
Mark Bradshaw, 32, a seminarian serving at St. Barnabas, agreed. “I am not black,” he said during a telephone interview with The News, but added that he and his wife Katie were so warmly welcomed when they visited that “we became Episcopalians and were confirmed at St. Barnabas and it has become everything my wife and I had been hoping and praying for in a congregation.”
He and the congregation have embarked on several projects, he said. “I’m in the process of meeting people, updating the website, spending time during the week at the Jackie Robinson Park across the street,” he said.
“And I’ve been meeting with people in the congregation and we’re thinking about starting a new service or altering one of our services that would be very true to who we are and very liturgical, but that might also be a service that would better meet the needs of younger persons,” he said.
He hopes other newcomers can experience the same sense of belonging he has found. “I have never been a part of people so welcoming,” he said of St. Barnabas.
“It’s interesting. This congregation that started because they weren’t welcome has become so welcoming. I’ve never witnessed before the kind of warmth with which they welcome new people into their midst. It’s a wonderful gift.”
Mims agreed, adding that the past shapes the future and the church’s ongoing story. “I think about all the years, the service, the people who have gone before us, the forefathers and foremothers who’ve gone forth and who established this church. I can reflect on them and know who they were. Each time you teach one, you teach some; you touch one, you touch some, and so we have been touched by a lot of different people through the church.”
Jesus Christ: Mover, changer … and black?
On the cover of this issue of The Episcopal News is an icon, “Black Christ,” by the Rev. Canon Warner Traynham, who served as rector of St. John’s Church (now the ProCathedral) from 1983 to 2001. In 1973, Traynham wrote a book titled The Christian Faith in Black and White: A Primer in Theology From the Black Perspective, in which he addressed the question of why it is not only appropriate but important to sometimes portray Jesus as Black in artwork. An excerpt is reprinted below.
UNTIL RECENTLY, you would be hard put to find Christ represented as black in black churches in America because we were not able to say, “The best thing I can do for my friend is to make him one with myself.” The American Indian, also an oppressed minority, still considers it their highest honor to take a man (or woman) into their tribe. But Christ has not been taken into ours. Yet Christ is black. He affirms our identity as we are. If the gospel means anything to black people, it must mean at least that. The self hatred in the black community is the heritage of slavery and the white cultural, social, and economic domination that followed.
But a new day is dawning. A rediscovery of history, of worth, of a style and a meaning peculiar to the black community is changing all that.
It is a sound instinct that leads men to represent Christ as one of themselves, as a friend. The love we have for others can only be a sick love if we have none for ourselves. (After all, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves.)
But Christ never comes simply as a friend. He did not 2000 years ago and he does not now. He divides people. He comes to move and change people. Yes, he affirms who they are — first. But he comes also to make them what they should be. He comes as judge. As one teacher has noted, Jesus was not crucified for saying, “Consider the lilies of the field,” but for showing up the respectable people and threatening the people in power. He came as a friend, but at the same time as judge. You either changed and kept him as a friend, or you refused and made him become, for you, an enemy.
So while it is natural to represent Christ as one of our own, whoever we may be, it is dangerous too, for we may be lulled into believing that since he is a friend, it ends there, when in reality, that is where it begins. Christ comes as judge, as someone different, foreign to us, inviting, demanding change. He comforts, but he also chastises. Often we do not recognize him or understand the company he keeps. The risen Christ goes where Jesus went — to the outsiders, to those whom society has rejected. In Judea he went to those who did not live up to the high standards of the time-consuming religion — to prostitutes, cheats, and the simple people of the land. In Nazi Germany he went about with a star of David sewn on his coat as a Jew — because then they were outsiders, the symbol and the victims of oppression. In India he is an untouchable and in America, he is black. Wherever the sickness of society surfaces, there he is, demanding that we deal with it — a friend, loving us, but a judge because he loves us all. He forces us to deal with what we’d rather avoid. He is suddenly hard and foreign where he has been gentle and friendly, forcing us to act because he himself becomes the outcast, the untouchable, the Jew, the black. He makes us scorn, ignore, shove aside, kill or accept him, in the form of the one whom society has locked out of its goods and its life.
Christ is black because historically blackness is America’s sickness, its outsider, the reality it would rather ignore or destroy. Christ is black because white America excludes blackness, and black America has been taught to be ashamed of it.
That is why in every church in America Christ should in some prominent place be shown as black, so that men will remember that he is not simply our friend — ours is not a religion of the status quo — but that this is also the strange God, the judging, redeeming God, who requires of us that we conform to his will and the breath of his love. Then it would be visually clear that a person who does not love his strange brother cannot love Christ either.
Black History Month: Congregations mirror changing times
St. John’s, Los Angeles, and Holy Faith Church, Inglewood (published Feb. 12)
Christ the Good Shepherd Church and Church of the Advent, Los Angeles (published Feb. 19)
St. Timothy’s Church, Compton, and Church of the Holy Communion, Gardena (published Feb. 26)