On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Feb 13, 2022

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of Absalom Jones, on the anniversary of his death, which was on February 13, 1818. Absalom Jones is remembered because he founded the first black Episcopal congregation in 1794, and in 1802, was the first African-American to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. Born a slave, Jones purchased his wife’s freedom in 1778, before being manumitted himself in 1784. He spent much of his life and ministry as an abolitionist, and was instrumental in helping to create laws that would prevent free blacks and freed black slaves from being captured and taken (back) into slavery––a practice of (re)enslavement that was often supported by the legal structures (e.g. police, local courts, etc.) of his day.

I’ve celebrated this feast ten times as an Episcopal priest, but as I celebrate it again this year, I’m thinking especially about “time.” If you stop and pay attention to the dates I just mentioned, there’s a lot there. Jones spent six additional years in slavery, after freeing his wife, before he himself was free and they could be together. Six years. Where were you six years ago? Where might you be six years from now? It was also eight years after he founded the first black Episcopal congregation that he was officially recognized by the church as its leader. Ever worked at a job where you weren’t given the recognition (promotion, etc.) you deserved? Ever had to stick with it for eight years before you did?

I imagine that, in both of those lengthy seasons of dissonance, there were moments that required great patience, courage, wisdom, resilience, and perseverance. Jones also died more than fifty years before his work as an abolitionist would culminate in emancipation; more than a hundred and fifty years before the Civil Rights Acts; and over two hundred years before the recent efforts at criminal justice reform. That’s a really long time. And especially in light of that lengthy time, I’m thinking about two things this year.

First, justice takes a long time––so don’t give up hope. As Martin King once said, “though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.” There are injustices in the world that we may spend our whole lives fighting. And we may never ourselves see that justice executed. Absalom Jones sure didn’t. But––and this is the hope––that doesn’t mean that justice isn’t still on its way. The work that Absalom Jones did didn’t come to fruition in his lifetime. Nevertheless, that work was not done in vain.

Second, justice takes a long time––so don’t take it for granted. The path from justice to injustice is not straight, is often hard won, and is constantly being renegotiated. Think for a second about the fact that the first black Episcopal congregation was founded, and the first black Episcopal priest ordained, over two hundred years ago. Now think about that in light of the hard––but incontrovertible––reality that the Episcopal Church today is among the most racially white denominations in the world. As an Asian- American, I’m actually part of a “null set”––meaning, there are so few Asian-Americans in the Episcopal Church, we actually don’t register as a statistic in the data.

In the time since Absalom Jones, there have been times when it’s been both better and worse to be a person of color in our church than it is today. And that should remind us that justice isn’t an achievement you secure, so that you can then sit back rest on your laurels. It is a living reality that needs to be constantly nourished, supported, maintained, and grown. And so I think here of the words of St. Paul: “Let us not grow weary in doing what is good….” (Gal. 6.9). Happy Feast of Absalom Jones, dear church. May we be this kind of hoping and helping people, until we are living in the reality that Absalom Jones worked so hard to attain.