Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 7, June 21, 2020
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
I don’t really know how old he was. A young teenager, I guess. What I do know is that he was laughing with his new friend, well, his brother, actually, half-brother. They were part of the same family. They had the same father. His mother, born in Africa, was a slave in the household. His half-brother’s mother wasn’t from Africa and, as she would probably have said with indignity, was most certainly not a slave.
Somewhere along the way, he had gone from being a cute boy who played with her son to representing some kind of threat in her mind. And this was the day when she couldn’t take it any more. This was the day when seeing him laugh with her son — it was just too much. This needed to be dealt with. They needed to be put in their place and completely cut off the family tree.
Worried about the family inheritance, wanting her own boy, who was younger, to have it all, she went to her husband and said to him,
Cast out this slave woman with her son.
So her husband arose before dawn, handed some bread and water to this slave, and sent her with her child away from his home forever and into the wilderness.
After there was nothing left to drink, she stopped to lay down her son under a bush before walking away, unable to bear watching him slowly die. And she wept, loudly, wailing as one who feels abandoned, even by God.
It’s remarkable that so much is written in the Bible about Hagar, the Egyptian slave, and her son Ishmael. The other woman, Sarah, and their shared husband, Abraham, are the main characters at the beginning of the story of faith in the Book of Genesis. It would have been so easy to cut out the story of Hagar and Ishmael from the pages of the Bible just as Sarah wanted to cut them out of the will. But God wants us to hear their voices in the same way that God heard the cries of Hagar in the wilderness — at the moment Hagar thought she would soon be left to die alone.
God wants them and their story to live.
Whose stories do we set aside, dismiss as unimportant, bury deep in the ground to forget? Many African Americans, like their parents and grandparents, memorialize what happened 155 years ago about 50 miles from where I’m standing. It took place on June 19, one day after more than 2,000 Federal soldiers had arrived in Galveston. That’s when Major General Gordon Granger read aloud General Order No. 3:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.
General Granger read those words two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued. And so that date, June 19, became a holiday called Juneteenth. It celebrated the end of slavery within the Confederate states in rebellion. Texas was the most remote of those states and the last refuge of slaveholders who tried to retain what they considered to be their property.
By the time of Juneteenth, somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 enslaved people had been essentially herded like cattle westward into Texas as slaveholders tried to get beyond the reach of the Union army. As Dr. Caleb McDaniel of Rice University writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Sweet Taste of Liberty:
No one was sure exactly how many came, but it was more than enough to make most of the state’s roadways impassable [as a result of heavy use].
The Mayor of Houston said that before this Juneteenth, before last Friday, two Confederate monuments in our city would be taken down. One of them, honoring Dick Dowling, was located just a short walk down Cambridge Street from Palmer. It was moved there from another location in 1958.
I took both of my sons there on Wednesday afternoon as that was happening. I wanted them to see it and to know that Juneteenth wouldn’t be Juneteenth without Dick Dowling, but not in a good way. Enslaved Texans could have been freed two years earlier in the absence of his most famous Confederate victory, the one for which he’s remembered, the reason why there was a statue of him in his uniform.
Because Dowling and his soldiers were all Irishmen, the Roman Catholic Church got to be front and center when his statue, which was the first publicly financed art in the City of Houston, was dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905. A Catholic priest offered the invocation, and it was a huge community event, with the governor as guest speaker. The governor referred to the President of the Confederacy as:
. . . the grand old man . . . [who had] lived through it all — through pain and through the shame of the shackels.
He was referring to the pain and imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, not the pain of an overseer’s whip that made blood flow or chains that held black bodies in bondage.
When the other monument, “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” was dedicated three years later in Houston, a different member of the clergy was invited to give the opening prayer. He was introduced by a judge who recalled:
. . . the toil and the hardships of the journey from the valley of humiliation and weakness through darkness and oppression to the heaven-kissed heights of prosperity and power.
Those are interesting words to have chosen to describe past adversity since he was referring to the humiliation and supposed oppression of white people only.
Anyway, he went on to say it was “meet and fit that we should invoke [God’s] blessing upon this assembly and these ceremonies” before inviting the Rev. Peter Gray Sears to do that. The Rev. Mr. Sears was the Rector of Christ Church downtown, but about 20 years later he would become the first Rector of Palmer Memorial Church.
In his prayer, the Rev. Mr. Sears described those who fought in rebellion as having:
. . . [poured] out their heart’s blood in sacramental sacrifice for others who should come after them.
Others would say similar things. One of the speakers embraced the title “rebel” as a rebellion against oppression, calling the war a battle for liberty that was not won but lost. He made no mention of the millions of black bodies that had been set free.
It’s not just that these statues don’t reflect the values of the whole community today. They never did, even when they were dedicated before cheering crowds, before cheering white crowds. The “our” in speeches given on those civic occasions was never meant to include African Americans, but it was intended to send a message. After Reconstruction and elections marked by voter intimidation, including threats of physical violence, African Americans and their political allies were kicked out of office and laws were enacted to disenfranchise them throughout the South.
It’s only after that happened, after the old order had been reestablished in a new form, after African Americans had, from the perspective of white supremacy, been put back in their place, that these statues began to appear in front of courthouses and in other public spaces. So I’m grateful they’re now being contextualized.
As a priest, I’m also aware of this truth about myself as a sinful human being: If it had been me instead of one of my predecessors who had been invited to pray over the crowd assembled in front of “The Spirit of the Confederacy,” I would have been there. It’s too easy to pretend otherwise, to imagine that I would have been different, to judge others while self-righteously pardoning myself. But that would be a lie.
Of course, I have no idea what I might have said, especially if my own father had fought in defense of slavery and my childhood had been shaped to remember that in a particular way. I hope I wouldn’t have referred to blood shed as a “sacramental sacrifice for others” unless talking about our Lord Jesus Christ, whose mercy and love embrace the whole world, including black lives. But I have no doubt that I would have made a racist idol with my words, like Aaron the priest placating the people at Mount Sinai, albeit with poetic subtlety. And I surely do that now, participating in structures that have extended privileges to me time and time and time again.
One of the things that makes the Bible unique in the ancient world is its willingness to look at the underbelly of history, to see things as they really are, not as we wish them to be. The Bible invites us to make a true confession, to lament our sins and the suffering that far too many people endure in this world, not only in past centuries but also now, and to reach out to those whom we’ve hurt. That invitation is extended to everyone from ordinary people of God to the kings of Israel, from the disciples who followed Jesus to you and me, who are trying to follow Jesus too.
The Bible also reminds us to make room for others, bringing them into wide spaces where they can breathe and where their voices can be heard, just as the Bible itself creates space for the voice of Hagar and the laughter of Ishmael. And I think that’s part of our calling as a church in this time of social unrest and protest. Just as Hagar cried out in the wilderness, a lot of people are crying out for justice today.
They might not be speaking to God. Some might not even believe in God. But surely the God of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham hears their cry. And if we’re willing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help them and their story to live, we might find that one of the persons who is set free and able to breathe in wide spaces is ourself.
1 BACK TO POST Some translations say Ishmael was mocking his half-brother Isaac. Others say he was playing with him. The Hebrew word can also mean laughing.
2 BACK TO POST Genesis 21:10.
3 BACK TO POST Genesis 16:1-16, 21:4-21.
4 BACK TO POST Michael Davis, “National Archives Safeguards Original ‘Juneteenth’ General Order,” National Archives News, June 19, 2020.
5 BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 148.
6 BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 148.
7 BACK TO POST Caleb McDaniel, “Opinion: Houston is right to choose Juneteenth over Dick Dowling Confederate monument,” Houston Chronicle, June 12, 2020.
8 BACK TO POST Samuel Willis Tucker Lanham, quoted in “Unveiling Ceremonies Were Impressive,” Houston Daily Post, March 18, 1905.
9 BACK TO POST Norman G. Kittrell, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.
10 BACK TO POST Norman G. Kittrell, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.
11 BACK TO POST Peter Gray Sears, quoted in “Unveiling of Spirit of the Confederacy,” Houston Daily Post, January 20, 1908.
12 BACK TO POST Exodus 32:1-35.
13 BACK TO POST That image of being brought out of a place of constriction and into a broad place where one is able to breathe comes from these words in Psalm 31:
I hate those who cling to worthless idols, *
and I put my trust in the LORD.
I will rejoice and be glad because of your mercy; *
for you have seen my affliction; you know my distress.
You have not shut me up in the power of the enemy; *
you have set my feet in an open place.
14 BACK TO POST The Rev. Christopher L. Epperson, who is the Rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, wrote a message to his congregation yesterday that explained how the stories of African Americans have too often been considered less important to the writers of history and included this paragraph:
In the days to come, we will remove the boards from our church windows, which were placed there in the face of real threats. I hope that we, like our beloved church, can lower the armor we use to protect ourselves. I hope the scales will fall from our eyes so we see the suffering and needless injustice around us. I hope we will see how we participate in and perpetuate injustice. I hope we can remove the stuffing from our ears, and hear the stories and experience of our black neighbors.