“Samuel D. Ferguson, George F. Bragg, and W.E.B. DuBois” (August 2, 2017: Wednesday after Pentecost VIII–Proper 12A)

The following sermon was preached at the weekly Healing Eucharist of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 6:00pm.

Gospel: Luke 18.1-8

“And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly.”—Luke 18.7-8[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses[2] puts forth this week three significant figures, all racial minorities, from our Church’s past: Samuel David Ferguson, George Freeman Bragg, Jr., and William Edward Burghardt DuBois. Considering all three of these individuals’ importance in the history of both our Church and the world, I have elected to briefly highlight all of them in a combined commemoration. I am glad that we are tonight remembering these individuals, for their lives and work exemplify God’s command “to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”[3]

Samuel David Ferguson, Missionary Bishop for West Africa (1842-1916)

Samuel David Ferguson was the Fourth Bishop of Cape Palmas (later the Missionary District of Liberia) from June 24, 1885 until his death on August 2, 1916. In addition to being Liberia’s first black bishop, Ferguson was The Episcopal Church’s first bishop of color to be afforded full seat and voice in the House of Bishops, a privilege that the Church’s very first (and, until Ferguson, only) black bishop, First Bishop of Haiti James Theodore Holly, had been denied.

In conjunction with his episcopal ministry, Ferguson’s primary emphasis was in education. He helped start several schools throughout Liberia, the most notable being Cuttington College (now University), which today continues as Liberia’s oldest private, coeducational four-year degree-granting institution.

In the face of much discrimination from the Church’s racial majority, Ferguson modeled dignity and tenacity as one of equal stature, advancing his goal of establishing a strong spiritual and educational foundation for the transformation of Liberia’s people.

George Freeman Bragg, Jr., Priest (1863-1940)

Born to slaves of a North Carolina Episcopal family in 1863, George Freeman Bragg, Jr. was The Episcopal Church’s first major black historian. His books A History of the Afro-American Group of The Episcopal Church and Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were seminal in the preservation of the early history of the black Episcopal presence.

In addition to serving for 35 years as secretary of the Conference of Church Workers Among the Colored People (now the Union of Black Episcopalians), from 1891 until his death in 1940 (a 49-year tenure that included the last year of the 1789, all those of the 1892, and the first 12 years of the 1928 Prayer Books), Bragg was the rector of Saint James Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, The Episcopal Church’s oldest black Episcopal parish south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Throughout his 53 years of ordained ministry, Bragg “fathered” in the ministry over twenty priestly vocations.

Bragg is remembered as a tireless advocate for black Episcopalians’ inclusion in The Episcopal Church’s larger life, challenging their exclusion from its full mission and ministry.

William Edward Burghardt DuBois, Sociologist (1868-1963)

The most well-known of tonight’s commemorations, William Edward Burghardt DuBois was one of the most powerful advocates for black civil rights during the first half of the 20th century. Born into a Congregationalist family in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, DuBois became an Episcopalian in his adult life, remembering fondly memories of attending the Episcopal Church with his grandparents as a young boy.

His seminal book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) was the first significant challenge to the long-held perception that blacks were spiritually and morally inferior beings and became an authoritative text on black American identity. DuBois was a founder of the “Niagara Movement,” a movement committed to civil justice and opposing discrimination, from which was established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

DuBois was a Christian who believed in his faith being the vehicle through which justice and peace represented the highest ethical standards for humanity. He died on the eve of the March on Washington on August 27, 1963.

Three Saints and the Word

Earlier, we heard Jesus telling His disciples the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In this parable, a judge, “who neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” is being constantly hounded by a widow for “justice against my adversary” and refuses to relent until she is granted her request. Becoming increasingly irritated by the widow, the judge grants her justice just to shut her up, “that she won’t eventually come and attack me!” Jesus says

“Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

In their own times, Ferguson, Bragg, and DuBois all faced circumstances similar to that of the Persistent Widow. With their ministries altogether spanning from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, times of blatant racial oppression, Ferguson, Bragg, and DuBois’s struggle, reminiscent of Paul’s words from Ephesians, was “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world”[4] who deemed them and the people of their race undeserving of full and equal rights within both the Church and their local contexts.

But, like the Persistent Widow, they all stood their ground. They stood firm “with the belt of truth buckled around [their] waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with…feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.”[5] And because of their persistence and faith in a God in whose eyes they were always equal, the people of their race now experience the progressive fruits of their labors.

What Ferguson, Bragg, and DuBois remind all of us, people of all races, of in this current age is the reality that in God’s Kingdom, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[6] All of us are called to be like the Persistent Widow, demanding justice for all of God’s people against any adversary, not relenting until “justice roll[s] on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”[7] We have come a long way, yet we still have a long way to go.

For us to get to that place to where we all should be, we should all actively live that which we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

The question Jesus asked the disciples, He also asks us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” May the examples of Samuel David Ferguson, George Freeman Bragg, Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois inspire us to say, “Yes!”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

[2] An optional calendar of commemorations authorized by The Episcopal Church’s 2015 General Convention for devotional and/or catechetical use.

[3] Micah 6.8

[4] Ephesians 6.12

[5] Ephesians 6.14-15a

[6] Galatians 3.28

[7] Amos 5.24

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