Celebrating the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels (you can find the readings here)
icon of Jonathan Myrick Daniels
by Mark Friesland
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
Growing up in Alabama, one of the field trips our class went on in fourth or fifth grade was to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. One of the main exhibits is a replica of a bus from the freedom rides that had been firebombed by an angry mob. Now, up to this point in my life I had never experienced true hate or violence, and it came as a shock to my 9 or 10 year-old self. I remember sitting down across from the bus and weeping, staring at the broken glass and burned roof, imagining the people inside and how frightened they must have been. I could not comprehend what on earth would make people so angry that they would want to hurt people like that.
Tonight we are celebrating the feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Christian witness during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, Jonathan was a seminarian at the Episcopal seminary in Massachusetts. That spring, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeal for people, especially clergy, to come down to the south to work for voter equality. While listening to Mary’s Song in church one day, he realized he felt called to go to the south. He joined fellow seminarians in a weekend trip to Selma, Alabama. Moved by their experience there, he and a female classmate returned to seminary only long enough to get permission to come back to Selma. They continued their work for justice while doing their seminary studies by correspondence. Jonathan became an important part of the community he lived and worked in, respected by both African Americans and white moderates.
On August 14th, Jonathan and members of the community participated in a demonstration that led to their arrest. The group was held for 6 days, agreeing that none of them would leave until all of them had gotten bail. Despite awful conditions (no air conditioning, no bathing facilities, and the women were threatened with rape), their spirits were high, in part because Jonathan led them in hymns, songs, and prayers. On day 6 the protesters were unexpectedly released without bail, without notifying their lawyers, and without being allowed to make phone calls to get rides. They were thirsty, so four of them (Jonathan, a Roman Catholic priest, and two young African-American women) went to a nearby convenience store to get drinks for everyone. When they got there, a man with a shotgun threatened one of the young women, Ruby Sales. Jonathan pushed 16 year-old Ruby to the ground, taking the shotgun blast that was meant for her and dying instantly. His sacrificial act was a window into the love of Christ; his soul magnified the Lord.
Jonathan’s death and his killer’s acquittal by an all-white jury served as a wake-up call to the Episcopal Church. It could no longer stand by while injustice was happening; it could no longer remain neutral on the issue of civil rights. In 1991, Jonathan Daniels was declared a martyr by the Episcopal Church. In 1994, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, my church in Birmingham, had a big celebration of his martyrdom. We were hosting this celebration because our priest, Father Walter, had visited Jonathan and the others in jail. Following the martyrdom, Father Walter was sent to Selma to continue Jonathan’s ministry. Ruby Sales delivered the sermon for the service.
I don’t remember much about the service or the celebration, except that I was excited because Ruby Sales stayed in my bedroom and used my scissors. But Ruby’s sermon left a mark on my parents. Inspired by her words, two years later my parents moved our family out of our comfortable lifestyle in a gated community with nice schools to a poor, rural town in the mountains of East Tennessee that was in desperate need of doctors. Ruby’s words changed our lives.
Whenever I read about the saints and martyrs of the Church, I am always struck by their devotion, their courage, their self-determination. I think to myself, “There is no way I could ever be that brave or faithful. I can’t possibly live up to those standards!” Relieved that I have--up to this point--not been called to follow a similar path, I move on with my life, brushing off their amazing stories almost immediately.
But what if we did hold ourselves to a higher standard? What if we recognized that, while some of the saints faced incredibly trying circumstances that most of us (God willing) will never have to face, that ultimately they are ordinary people like you and me? That instead of putting them on a pedestal out of eyeshot, we took a good look at our lives to see where we could push ourselves to be better?
Each day is a unique opportunity to live into witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It might be on a smaller scale than the saints, but that doesn’t matter. When bullies are picking on a classmate in school or at work, will we do the right thing and step in? When a decision is made that reduces aid to the poor, will we fight against it? When a new family comes to church, will we pull ourselves away from the friends we already know and go try to make new ones?
The witness of Jonathan Daniels continues to serve as a wake-up call to us today. We can’t afford to sit by and watch as life happens around us. We are called to step out of our comfort zones into this wonderful, messy world we call home. We, like Jonathan Daniels, Mary, and all of the saints, are called to magnify the Lord.
photo of Jonathan and a child
probably the most well-known photo of Jonathan
picture from the 2012 Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville, AL
[For the past 14 years there has been a yearly pilgrimage commemorating Jonathan Daniels
and other people who lost their lives during the Civil Rights Movement. The pilgrimage retraces
the events of that fateful afternoon: the procession begins at the courthouse, then goes to the jail,
the convenience store, and finally back to the courthouse. It ends with a Eucharist in the courthouse,
the same building where Thomas Coleman was acquitted.]
digital exhibit of photos from the South,
including photos of Jonathan and his fellow seminarian, Judith Upham
An interview with Ruby Sales