Sermon on Jonathan Daniels, August 16, 2015

Today we remember the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels so I will begin this morning by sharing the story of his life with you. He was born in Keene, New Hampshire in 1939 to a Congregationalist family. Jonathan grew up to be studious and found great comfort in religion. He joined the Episcopal Church as a high school student and began to feel a call to ministry. Jonathan attended the Virginia Military Institute for college. Jonathan loved the South and considered it his adopted home. However, his romantic vision of the South was dashed by the reality of race relations. There were no African American students at VMI and Lexington, VA was completely segregated.

The intensity of his experience at VMI and the death of his father began a phase of religious doubt for Jonathan. At this point Jonathan decided not to become a minister and began a graduate program at Harvard in English. He did not enjoy his time at Harvard and became quite depressed.  At his lowest he went to Easter Sunday services in 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston. While there, he realized he was in the wrong graduate program. So Jonathan decided to pursue ministry and enrolled at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1963.

In March 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, asked northern clergy and seminarians to join him in Selma, Alabama, for a march to the state capital in Montgomery to demonstrate support for the civil rights movement. Jonathan was contemplating this request when he attended daily Evening Prayer at the chapel at the seminary. Daniels decided that night that he should go. Reflecting later on this experience he wrote: 

I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary's glad song. "He hath showed strength with his arm." As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled "moment" that would, in retrospect, remind me of others--particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”

Daniels showed remarkable reflection and discernment in his writings. The words he heard every night took on new meaning as he discerned a call to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The words of the Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel inspired him to travel to Selma.

            After the march, Jonathan and another seminary student, Judith Upham, decided to stay and to continue being a part of the movement. Reflecting on this choice, Daniels realized that his experience with the Civil Rights movement was his education and that it made Christianity true for him. While Jonathan was in Alabama the situation became increasingly violent. He and Judith spent time trying to integrate local Episcopal churches. They were also involved in various protests throughout Alabama.

            Jonathan was arrested on August 14, 1965 with a group of protestors in Fort Deposit, AL. Jonathan and the other remained in jail for six days and were released on August 20th.  The group left the prison and walked to a corner store to buy soda for the group. A man named Tom Coleman met them at the door with a shotgun and would not let them into the store. Tom aimed his gun at a young woman in the group named Ruby Sales. Jonathan Daniels pulled her back and was killed himself. He was 26 years old. Tom Coleman was charged with manslaughter, not murder, and was acquitted by an all white jury. His acquittal enraged the country and helped change the justice system in the South. When he heard of the tragedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels." For his sacrifice Jonathan Daniels is now remembered as a martyr in the Episcopal Church.

            The story of Daniel’s life and sacrifice is inspiring. But it can be hard to know what to do with it. For one thing, it makes me feel like my own Seminary career was somewhat boring! But beyond that it is easy to think that our country is really beyond the deep racism that was entrenched in the South in the 1960’s. But are we really? I read things on my facebook newsfeed everyday about the danger of being African American in our country. I don’t need to go over these news stories because you know them too. We have moved forward from the 1960’s but racism is not overcome. If you are anything like me, you may think things like “Well I’m not racist this doesn’t apply to me.” You many think you don’t know any people who suffer racism or who are racist. Or you may even think that race doesn’t play a role in your life at all. But truly it affects all of us.

This fact became clearer to me this week as I read Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set A Watchman.” Now hopefully what I share won’t be a spoiler for those of you hoping to still read it. Scout has returned to Maycomb, Alabama as a young woman and is horrified at the racism in her town and in her own family. She is so disgusted in fact that she packs her things to leave Maycomb forever and resolves to have no contact with anyone in Maycomb. She considers this to be the only possible reaction to what she encountered. As she prepares to leave her Uncle offers her this advice: “You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ‘em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.” Scout’s uncle was telling her that she had to stay and work with the people who didn’t agree with her. This idea knocked me over. I often think race doesn’t really apply to me, but this speech showed me that I have to take the time to be with people who think all different kinds of things about race or I’ll never grow as a person. As long as we deny or avoid race we make the problem worse.

            This is a good time to think about race as our Bishop Diocesan has made gaining a better understanding of the rising racial tensions in our communities a focus for the Diocese of Virginia. To this end our Bishops are hosting hand in hand listening sessions throughout the diocese. These sessions are just an opportunity to listen to what people are experiencing in our own communities. Hopefully, this mandate from the Bishops to think about racial tension and the story of Jonathan Daniels will inspire us to think about the racial realities around us. If we use the Magnificat as our point of departure – what will we find? How can our souls magnify the Lord? Amen.

--- The Rev'd Deacon Grace A. Pratt