2nd Sunday in Lent C - March 17, 2019
James Theodore Holly, remembered as the first black bishop in history of The Episcopal Church, should also be remembered for his courage, perseverance, and magnificent facial hair.
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
Today, is famously St. Patrick's Day, honoring a great missionary bishop to the Irish. But today I want to reflect on the life of another saint in our tradition who we venerated this week. On March 13, The Episcopal Church remembered James Theodore Holly on its calendar of saints.
James T. Holly was born a free man in Washington, D.C., in the year 1829. He was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church and had a deep love for God and the church. As he grew into a young adult, Holly sensed a call to ordained ministry. But there was a problem. See, in those days, American Catholics weren’t accustomed to ordaining black men.
But Holly believed that God had a plan for his life even if people in authority told him his dream was impossible. So gave up on those people in the Roman Catholic institution, got married, and joined his local Episcopal Church in New York City. Now, this was still the 1850s. We can’t call The Episcopal Church at that time (and Holly’s experience of it) a bastion of liberty. But, by God’s grace, our church was at least open to accepting black ministers for its segregated black congregations in those days. Holly was ordained as a deacon in 1855 and as a priest in 1856.
Fr. Holly was born free in this country, but slavery and white supremacy were still scourges on our nation. Many blacks remained enslaved with little hope for emancipation (again, this was before the war). And Holly knew that even in freedom, he faced a level of discrimination and indignity from northern whites that was reprehensible and unacceptable. Holly had gotten to know many abolitionists in his young life and had spent some time living in Canada, where blacks were treated with much more respect than they were in the USA.
Fr. Holly became convinced that blacks could only find true freedom if they left this country altogether. This was not an uncommon opinion at the time. Many moved to Canada, but many also tried to settle in parts of the Caribbean or West Africa (most notably Liberia). Holly had been drawn to Haiti, the only free black republic in the Western Hemisphere at the time. Haitians had successfully rebelled against their French colonists and declared independence from both European colonialism and white rule. In the 1850s, Haiti welcomed black Americans with open arms if they could pay their way over and start a settlement.
Fr. Holly, then in Connecticut, began to assemble a group of blacks who would commit to moving to Haiti. He began fundraising for the project. He appealed unsuccessfully to the US government and to the Episcopal Church’s Board of Missions. Human rulers weren’t willing to support the vision that God had placed in Fr. Holly. But Holly was again not discouraged from pursuing God’s call.
In 1861, Holly and about 110 black people resettled to Haiti with the intention of starting an Episcopal Church. The first year saw nearly half of the settlers die of diseases, including Fr. Holly’s wife, mother, and two of his sons. Some returned to the US, but, Holly and a few others persisted. They stayed on the island and established Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and School in Port-au-Prince, and the church grew from there. By 1865, The Episcopal Church Board of Missions finally relented and began to support Holly financially.
In 1874, The Episcopal Church took another step forward. They called Fr. Holly back to New York for a visit and agreed to ordain him as missionary bishop of Haiti. James T. Holly thus became the first black bishop in the history of The Episcopal Church. His portrait is on the wall of Toomer-Walker Hall together with dozens of other black bishops in our church’s history (see a similar image above).
Bishop Holly dedicated the rest of his life to sharing the Gospel, establishing churches, schools, and clinics, and providing a path for freedom and equality for blacks in a time when the USA would not offer one. The fruits of his ministry continue to grow today. The Diocese of Haiti is now the largest Diocese by membership in The Episcopal Church. In addition to serving Haiti, Bishop Holly later spread his ministry into the neighboring Dominican Republic and laying the foundation for what would become the Episcopal Diocese there.
And that’s where it all comes full-circle to us here. The Dioceses of Georgia and the Dominican Republic have a companion relationship today. We send missionaries and resources back and forth to one another regularly. I just returned from a service project in the Dominican Republic last month, in which I got to partner with Bishop Holly’s successors in the ministry.
On a personal note, this is one of the reasons why your New York-born Dominican priest decided to serve in the Diocese of Georgia of all places in the country. It’s a little part of the story of how I became your priest.
All of this became possible because of James T. Holly’s choice to trust God more than he trusted human rulers. He never let nation, institution, or even church get between him and God's will. James Theodore Holly was a citizen of the USA and of Haiti, a member of the Roman Catholic Church and then The Episcopal Church, but first and foremost, he was a citizen of heaven.
In Philippians, St. Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven because from there we expect our Savior Jesus Christ. That means God and country or even God and church come into conflict, we obey God. James T. Holly knew that God made him and loved him just as he was, and he refused to be held down by discriminatory human leaders.
Jesus does a similar thing in our Gospel story from Luke 13. Some Pharisees (Jewish religious leaders) warn Jesus that Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, want to have him killed. And he brushes off this credible threat on his life. He is unafraid. Jesus knows that he has divine work to do. “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus knows that God is in charge and not Herod Antipas, so he is not afraid of Herod.
Jesus would rather follow God than protect his life. He has “work” to finish, and he must go to Jerusalem to finish his work, danger or no danger. Just so we’re clear, this is not a condemnation of Jerusalem alone or even all Jews. It’s a general rejection of corrupt and self-serving leaders who destroy their political opponents. It’s a rejection of those in power who persecute the powerless and their advocates for justice. It’s a rejection of the forces of racism and white supremacy that pushed the American-born Holly to leave this country behind.
When we face that kind of political, social, or church structure, Jesus reminds us not to fear. He will be our shield. He will love us like a mother hen loves her chicks. Jesus will wrap us in his loving arms. That doesn’t mean we won’t hurt or won’t suffer from oppression. But it means we can resist these indignities with boldness. God is on our side, protecting us when we stand up for justice.
We can be confident to do the work God calls us to do, no matter how unpopular or dangerous it becomes. Our security does not rest in human nations or institutions. Come what may, our citizenship is Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven, and our hope rests in God. Amen.