Sermon at Opening Eucharist of House of Bishops Meeting

Sermon at Opening Eucharist of House of Bishops Meeting

Feast of James Theodore Holly
March 13, 2009

Rabbi, eat something! I think we have abundant evidence that the people in this room more often hear, Bishop, eat something! It?s a curse for most of us. Like Jesus, we have to learn to deflect it.

Jesus is talking about the hunger to be off on God?s mission, ?I have food to eat that you don?t know about¦ my food is to do the will of the one who sent me. That?s the hunger we?re all supposed to focus on ? not the ?bishop?s favorite dish that every congregation tries to serve us.

It seems entirely appropriate that the celebration for James Theodore Holly will always fall in Lent, if this feast gets final authorization from General Convention. We?re all supposed to be hungry to do the will of the one who sends us, rather than for food which never satisfies.

Holly was the first black bishop in this church, and the first bishop of both Haiti and DR. He was born in 1829 into a Roman Catholic family, the descendant of slaves. His great-great-grandfather was a Scotsman in Maryland who freed his son and several others in 1772. A godly thing to do ? free your son, even if he is a different color or tribe or nation. How many sons and daughters never were freed by their earthly fathers? Even late in life it can make a difference ? remember Strom Thurmond?

James Theodore Holly grew up in Washington, DC and Brooklyn, and hung around with Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists. He left the RC tradition at age 22, and entered the Episcopal Church in Detroit two years later, as a candidate for ordination. He had married and moved to Windsor, Canada, where he started abolitionist groups among the free blacks and former slaves there. He went to church across the river in Detroit. He was ordained deacon in Detroit in 1855. His went almost immediately to NY to seek appointment as a missionary to Haiti. The Foreign Committee (Missions Board) sent him there for two months to do some investigation. They agreed to appoint him when they could find funds to support his work. While he waited around, he was assigned as rector of St. Luke?s in New Haven, CT, and then ordained priest in 1856 [deacon as rector!] The same year he also founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People. It eventually gave rise to the UBE. A central part of their work was to urge TEC to include African-Americans in seminaries and General Convention, and to take a stand for abolition.

It was several years before any support was forthcoming for Holly, and it didn?t come from General Convention. When he finally did go to Haiti in 1861, it was with the blessing of the bishop of Connecticut, and at the request of the President of Haiti [that connection continues today ? Rene Preval and Zache Duracin]. It?s a story not unlike the invitation from the King and Queen of Hawaii to Anglican missionaries in roughly the same era. [Kamehameha didn?t want Americans, however, having been insulted and pushed aside in the US because his skin was darker]

There have always been people hungry for the gospel, and it is often their leaders who begin the work. I?ve had requests just in the last few months from a group of Presbyterian pastors in Argentina and from Christians in Viet Nam who want to become members of this Church. Our ecclesiology doesn?t permit us to send evangelists there any more. We have to do the best we can to encourage them to work with others¦ One sows and another reaps¦

Holly led 110 colonists, including his own family, to Haiti. When he arrived, the first official act was to baptize a baby born to the group. President Geffrard (Haiti) and his wife stood as godparents and offered their home as a worship space. The colonists soon fell ill, and 46 of them died within the first six months, including five members of Holly?s own family. He was left with two small sons, age 3 and 5, and about 20 colonists. He was convinced, however, that he was called to stay in Haiti and spread the gospel. That?s the only hunger he acknowledged.

An American in Port au Prince offered a large building for worship services, and Holy Trinity began in 1863 and was taken into union with the General Convention the same year. Today it?s the Catedrale Sainte Trinite. Holly had gone to General Convention in 1862 looking for financial support, but came away with empty hands. He did get a small grant from the American Church Missionary Society.

He started schools in rural areas, missions in other cities and towns, and what we would call medical clinics. In the next few years Haiti received episcopal visits from the bishops of Delaware, Maine, and New York, who confirmed and ordained. The bishop of Maine died aboard ship on his way home ? the hunger that sends us out can be all-consuming. Students were sent to Philadelphia to attend Mission House, and several returned to be ordained deacon and priest.

Holly was consecrated as a missionary bishop in 1874 in Grace Church, NY, under the auspices of the American Church Missionary Society ? an evangelical wing of TEC. The then-PB, Benjamin Bosworth Smith, presided ? he was the instigator of the REC. The urge to separate in search of purity or greater truth is not new. Holly returned to Haiti and continued to found missions, schools, and health ministries ? all of which work continues to this day.

In 1897 Holly wrote a report about the state of the diocese, which noted that all the clergy were self-supporting, i.e., bivocational, serving as teachers, judges, principals of schools, and in the countryside, as farmers. The income the diocese received in grants from the US was only enough for about one-third of their needs. Financial challenges continue today as well, though Haiti now has its own seminary and a remarkably dedicated group of clergy ? 37 of them, to serve 169 congregations.

In that 1897 tract, Holly challenged his American friends to remember the need of their fellow Episcopalians for health care, particularly a hospital and a pharmacy: ?some one of those to whom God has given an abundance of this world?s goods should esteem it a privilege, for love of Him and suffering humanity, to give the funds necessary to establish both these needed institutions. It is the same plea you heard Paul Farmer make in New Orleans in 2007.

What are you hungry for? Holly was hungry for justice, education, feeding and healing the people of Haiti. It?s work that continues today ? with 254 diocesan schools that serve 80,000 children and young people. One sows and another reaps.

What are you hungry for? Holly served in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic until he died in 1911, 37 years a bishop and 81 years of age. There was no pension fund in those days, and the pension provisions for clergy in Haiti still aren?t fully adequate.

What are you hungry for? And what will you give for your life?

Share This: