Black Episcopal Churches Called to Renewed Evangelism

Episcopal News Service. August 18, 1989 [89132]

Ruth Nicastro, Editor of Episcopal News in the Diocese of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (Aug. 18) -- More than 450 members of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) gathered in Los Angeles last month to talk about evangelism. In lectures, workshops and discussions on the campus of the University of Southern California, UBE members pursued with intensity the theme of "Expanding Our Horizons Through Evangelism" for four days, from June 26 to 29.

On three of those evenings their numbers were increased by several hundred others from the local community, both black and white, to fill and even overflow nearby St. John's Church for joyous eucharistic celebrations and sermons with an evangelistic flavor. The reason for the emphasis was clear from the keynote address of the conference, delivered Tuesday morning by the Ven. Hartshorn Murphy, Archdeacon for Congregational Development of the Diocese of Los Angeles: many black Episcopal congregations are in trouble.

Murphy cited the situation of the eight black churches in his diocese, each of which lost no less than 50 percent and as much as 75 percent of its membership between 1970 and 1986. He speculated that the same could be said for a number of other dioceses.

In what was essentially an upbeat though challenging message of hope in the face of gloomy statistics, Murphy traced the history of black Episcopal churches since the middle of this century. Up until that time there were many strong black parishes in the cities that served much more than a religious function for their people. They were, Murphy said, "an arena for reinforcing middle class values and aspirations -- that hard work, education and careful grooming could lead to economic security if not prosperity"; they were a place "of pride in an independent, financially viable black institution that could do as it pleased to do."

What has changed dramatically since the 1960s, Murphy said, is "the context in which all black Episcopal congregations seek to function and survive." There have been critical shifts in housing patterns ever since World War II, with upwardly mobile blacks moving out of predominantly black neighborhoods in the cities, for all the same reasons that whites move out of cities. For a long time these blacks continued to commute back to the old neighborhoods for jobs, goods, services and fellowship.

"Thus in the churches," Murphy said, "you continued to find teachers, lawyers and dentists rubbing elbows with postal workers, pullman porters and domestics...(this) kept the middle-class children grounded in reality and gave hope and vision to the poor." But today's middle-class blacks have abandoned the city, and the remnant churches struggle to maintain their traditional stance and liturgical practice in the face of neighborhoods filled with a poorer, less educated and often immigrant population.

In the suburbs, blacks are absorbed into predominantly white churches, their ties of community with other blacks, which were the great strength of black city parishes, further diluted. The Episcopal Church has traditionally been where middle-class blacks "arrived," Murphy said. "The black Episcopal Church was elitist and proud of it, and for that reason recruitment was seen as unnecessary."

But the civil rights and black consciousness movements have resulted in blacks discovering that "it's okay to be middle-class and Baptist, a black professional and Pentecostal, that a deacon is a prestigious as a warden and much more powerful," and that emotionalism in religious expression is acceptable. Black Episcopal churches that have not been willing to "acknowledge and celebrate the black religious tradition" in their services have lost members to other black churches that do.

Secularism and the breakdown of community in general have taken their toll, too, Murphy said, with a resulting cynicism and bitterness on the part of many blacks, and fewer and fewer role models for inner-city youngsters. "What we see is a breakdown of the social fabric of blackness as extended family, that very thing that sustained us as a people from slavery through Jim Crow."

Time for Renewal

Far from being hopeless in the face of such a picture, however, Murphy said he saw this as a challenging time for renewal and redirection, a time for black churches to dedicate themselves to evangelism and to be willing "to be fundamentally changed by those we evangelize," including particularly the Caribbean peoples that now comprise a large proportion of inner-city blacks.

"Our church needs to reflect the culture of the people," Murphy emphasized. "The essential message of salvation is not altered by the rhythms in which it is proclaimed. Black churches need to remember that in reaching out to Hispanic neighbors, but white churches need to remember it, too, in incorporating black music, preaching styles, and tastes of culture as well as black members.

"For those who are most deserving and most needful of hope, the black Church has something to offer," Murphy concluded. "We may need to wrap it in a different cultural package, but does not evangelism begin with hospitality?"

The participants spent most of the rest of the conference exploring in workshops various ways of evangelizing -- through liturgy, church school, education for ministry, political action, reaching out to the handicapped and the elderly and to young people, and by using the "gifts of the Spirit."

Bishop Harris Preaches

Tuesday evening's Eucharist was a memorial in thanksgiving for the life of Mattie Hopkins, long-time and much loved lay reader of the Episcopal Church and of the UBE. The preacher was her close friend, Suffragan Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts. "In Chicago, there was a disciple named Mattie," Harris began. She was known for her devotion to family and friends, to her church, to the UBE, to Operation PUSH, to Transafrica, and she a passion for justice.

"For us who come to celebrate and commemorate her sojourn among us," Harris asked, "what can be said about us?"

Throughout the rest of her sermon Harris eloquently challenged her listeners, many to whom had been personally close to Mattie Hopkins, to the kind of evangelism the honoree would approved, rooted in determination to call others into a life in Christ and to help them attain a better life on earth.

She cautioned her listeners not be satisfied with the status quo, nor with evangelism that was "quantative cloning" of themselves. Instead, she urged them to work for better education, economic justice, better health care and human service, so that inner cities would not be places of hopelessness inhabited by a "new class of throw-away people."

"Life is a gift from God," Harris reminded, "a priceless treasure, a perishable yet imperishable trust...We don't merit it. It was grace that woke us up this morning... it is by grace that we live at all." Therefore, life is to be valued, she continued, "our own and others... to be guarded with the utmost care and used for the highest purposes."

Later in the service Deborah Hines, president of the Black Women's Task Force of the Episcopal Church, presented to the UBE an earthen chalice and paten in memory of Hopkins. Blessing the vessels, Harris said they were "symbolic of our Lord's sacrifice and of Mattie's sacrifice for her Lord and her people."

Presiding at the Eucharist as host bishop for the conference, Los Angeles diocesan Bishop Frederick H. Borsch also paid tribute to Hopkins as someone he had known well and who had meant much in his life. He then paid tribute to Harris. "I cannot tell you," he said, "how much the ordination of Barbara Harris to the episcopacy has meant to my own episcopacy, which has been immeasurably enriched. And that is true, I think, for all the bishops of the Anglican Communion, although it may take some of them longer to understand it."

Despite the seriousness of the theme, there was a feeling of celebration throughout the conference. That often centered on Harris, whose presence in their midst as both a long-time member and leader and also as the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church was clearly cause for her friends to celebrate.

Most of the conference meals were in the residence hall on the USC campus, but the concluding banquet was a festive occasion at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. At that time plaques were presented to Harris from both the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and from the City Council.

Harris was visibly moved as she heard the long citation from the City Council, detailing her life and accomplishments, read by Conference Dean Nan Peete, Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Atlanta

"I have been so affirmed and so supported by so many," Harris responded, "and especially by all of you. I have just been carried along on a great river of prayer. It is the most buoying and strengthening thing you could ever know."

Kwasi Thornell of the Washington Cathedral, national UBE president, summed up the conference in his closing remarks as "the largest and the best conference we have ever had," which the membership confirmed by cheers and loud applause.