The Rev. Canon Laura Howell
Trinity Church, Bethlehem
A good deal of what we know about the early African-American experience with the Episcopal Church would have been lost without the work of The Rev. George Freeman Bragg, Jr. He was a historian and author of several books on the subject. The Episcopal Archives has made some of his work available to us. In the History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church, he provides information about black church life in St. Thomas’ African Church and The Church of the Crucifixion in Philadelphia, as well as a number of other churches in the northeast. He details the literal fight to support education and ordination for their members.
George Bragg was born in 1863 in North Carolina, the grandson of a slave. He campaigned in Virginia for voting rights and state-supported higher education for African-Americans. He edited an influential black paper called The Lancet; in 1885 renamed The Afro-American Churchman, when he entered divinity school. He was ordained deacon in 1887 and priest in 1888. He challenged the practice of treating African-Americans as dependents, and denying them access to church structures that would give them influence. He challenged the practice of making African-American deacons wait much longer than their white counterparts to be ordained to the priesthood. And he challenged the practice of excluding African-Americans from the church’s mission work.
Fr. Bragg was the secretary and historian for the Conference for Church Workers Among the Colored People for 35 years and rector of St. James’ First African Church in Baltimore for 49 years. He never ceased to work for the benefit of his community. He was a voice of conscience calling the church to account for sidelining African American Episcopalians and devaluing their gifts and vocations.
We all travel to God together. God‘s interest is in seeing that we all enter the kingdom of heaven. St. Peter made it clear in Acts 10:34 that God does not show any partiality. The same message was repeated by St. Paul in Romans 2:11. Christians who discriminate are not reflecting the face of the Holy One.
Beyond God’s desire that we should all joyfully be folded into the Christian family, there is the expectation that we will all serve. I do not believe that God shows any partiality in choosing who will be called. There are a great variety of gifts, but they are all useful for the benefit of the church. There are a great variety of ministries, and the Spirit activates them in each of us for the good of everyone. (1 Corinthians 12) No one has the right to presume that God wishes to exclude some ethnic, social or racial group from the exercise of ministry–lay or ordained– merely on that ground. And especially if an individual has been called by God and is ready and willing to take the steps needed to become qualified for that ministry. Thanks be to God for hardy and faithful souls like Fr. George Bragg, who keep us from wandering off into unhealthy byways of partisanship and discrimination.
O God, whose mighty hand freed your servant George Freeman Bragg from bondage and blessed him with perseverance and courage: Deliver your Church from its ignorance and injustice, that through his example and prayers all the baptized may share in the work of ministry and, at the last, attain to the perfect freedom of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.