Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Feast Day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

The following are excerpts from an essay by Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the saint commemorated today in the Episcopal Church calendar of saints. He wrote this essay as a reflection on one of his trips to Selma, Alabama, in which he heeded the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to help with the Civil Rights movement.

Unlike most of the "civil rights tourists," as my grandfather used to call them, who came down from the North in the summer for a week of marching, finger waging, and stirring up trouble (sometimes needlessly), and then only to return to their safe, comfortable homes in Cape Cod while leaving the white Southerners who were actually working for civil rights in the South but who still had to live there and deal with the fallout of needless Klan antagonism, Daniels returned numerous times and actually worked.


-The Archer of the Forest,

14 August 2009


"The Burning Bush"

by Jonathan Myrick Daniels

April, 1965

Reality is kaleidoscopic in the black belt. Now you see it; now you don't. The view is never the same. Climate is an affair of the soul as well as the body: today the sun sears the earth, and a man goes limp in its scorching. Tomorrow and yesterday sullen rain chills bones and floods unpaved streets. Fire and ice-the advantages of both may be obtained with ease in the black belt. Light, dark, white, black: a rhythm ripples in the sun, pounds in steaming, stinking shacks, danced in the blood. Reality is kaleidoscopic in the black belt. Sometimes one's vision changed with it. A crooked man climbed a crooked tree on a crooked hill. Somewhere, in the midst of the past, a tenor sang of valleys lifted up and hills made low. Death at the heart of life, and like in the midst of death. The tree of life is indeed the cross.

Darkly, incredibly, the interstate highway that had knifed through Virginia and the Carolinas narrowed and stopped. It was three o'clock in the morning and bitterly cold. We found it difficult to believe that we were actually back in the South. But in the twinkling of an eye our brave, clean highway became backwoods Georgia road, deep in Cracker country, and we knew we were home. We were low on gas and miles from a point on the map, miled from sanctuary in Atlanta. We found a gas station and stopped. While one of us got the tank filled, the other went to the outdoor phone. Our Massachusetts places seemed to glow in the night. As I shivered in the phone booth, I saw, through a window, white men turn and stare. Then my eye caught the sign over the door-WHITES ONLY. We had planned to get a Coke to keep us awake until Atlanta, but I guessed I no longer cared.


We drove on into the night. Incongruously we came upon an all-night truckstop, midway to nowhere. There appeared to be no sign over the door, and I went in to get coffee-to-go. To late, I discovered that hatred hadn't advertised-perhaps the sign of blown off in a storm. When I ordered the coffee, all other voices stopped. I turned from cold stares and fixed my eyes on a sign over the counter: ALL CASH RECEIVED FROM SALES TO N*GGERS WILL BE SENT DIRECTLY TO THE UNITED KLANS OF AMERICA. I read it again and again, nausea rising swiftly and savagely, as the suspicious counterboy spilled coffee over the cups. It was lousy coffee. But worse than chicory was the taste of black men's blood. It was cheap: only twenty-five cents. At least Judas went for thirty.


When we moved in with our present family, we knew where Bunnie's mother stood. A few nights before, she had told us politely but emphatically that she didn't like white people-any white people. She knew from countless experiences that they couldn't be trusted. Until very recently, she would not have allowed white people to stay in her home. Though saddened, we were grateful for her honesty and told her so. We also told her that though we would understand if she didn't believe us, we had begun to love her and her family deeply. By the night we moved in, her reserve had almost disappeared. She was wonderfully hospitable to us, notwithstanding the suspicion she must still have felt. We spent an evening with Lonzie and Alice at the Elks' Club. Late in the evening a black nationalist approached her. "What are you doing here with them?" he asked. "They're white people." Much to our surprise and perhaps a little to her own, she answered: "Jon and Judy are my friends. They're staying in my home. I'll pick my own friends, and nobody'll tell me otherwise." The name for that, Brother Stringfellow, is miracle.


The girls looked particularly beautiful as we went into church on Palm Sunday. Their gloves and dresses were freshly cleaned and pretty. Their hairdos were lovely. There was a freshness, a quiet radiance about them which made is catch out breath. We were startled from our vision by a member of the congregation entering the church as we did. His greeting was unmistakable: "You g*d-d*mned scum..."

The disappointments of Holy Week and the bitterness of Easter Communion at St. Paul's Episcopal Church-we assume you have seen a copy of our letter to Bishop Carpentar-forced our eyes back to the inscription over the altar: HE IS NOT HERE. FOR HE IS RISEN. In a dreadful parody of their meaning, the words seem to tell a grim truth that was not exhausted by their liturgical import.

This is the stuff of which our life is made. There are moments of great joy and moments of sorrow. Almost imperceptibly, some men grow in grace. Some men don't. Christian hope, grounded in the reality of Easter, must never degenerate into optimism. For that is the road to despair. Yet it ought never to conclude that because its proper end is Heaven, the Church may dally at its work until the End is in sight. The thought of the Church is fraught with tension because the life of the Chrch is caught in tension. For the individual Christian and the far-flung congregation alike, that is part of the reality of the Cross.

There are good men here, just as there are bad men. There are competent leaders and a bungler here and there. We have activists who risk their lives to confront a people with the challenge of freedom and a nation with its conscience. We have neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters. We have men about the work of reconciliation who are willing to reflect upon the cost and pay it. Perhaps at one time or another the two of us are all of these. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings. Sometimes we talk with white men in their homes and offices, sometimes we sit out a murderous night with an alcoholic and his family because we love them and cannot stand apart. Sometimes we confront the posse, and sometimes we hold a child. Sometimes we stand with men who have learned to hate, and sometimes we must stand a little apart from them. Our life in Selma is filled with ambiguity, and in that we share with men everywhere. We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this, Selma, Alabama, is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.

-Text taken from American Martyr: The Jon Daniels Story by William J Schneider, copyright 1992. All capitals and emphases are the original writer's own.


Jon Daniels, a 26-year old Episcopal seminary student and volunteer civil rights worker, was shot to death on 20th of August, 1965, about 3 months after the above journal essay was written. He was shot by a deputy sheriff in broad daylight as he approached a "cash store" in Haynesville, Alabama. The store was the only one in town that would occasionally serve African-Americans.

The shotgun blast was intended for a 16-year-old African-American girl in a racially charged incident. Jon pushed the girl to the ground, thus saving her life.

The deputy sheriff was later acquitted in a jury trial; the shooting was labelled accidental and the case was closed; no further arrests were ever made.

Let us pray:

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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