Freedom in the Cross

A Sermon for The Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels (Observed)
Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector

Some of you may have noticed that we’re doing some things out of the ordinary this morning. Although this is the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, as you can see on the hymn board and in your bulletin, the lessons, prayers, and hymns are not those customarily used on this day. Instead, today, we’re observing the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who is usually commemorated on August 14, and even when that day falls on a Sunday, is not usually given a full service. So who, you might ask, is Jonathan Daniels, and why are we honoring him today?

One of the reasons is that our bishop, Shannon Johnston, asked all of the churches in the Diocese of Virginia to consider doing so. His request was not binding, but it was persuasive. If you know about Jonathan Daniels, you know why. If you don’t know about Jonathan Daniels, let me tell you about him.

He was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire, where he was raised. His father was a doctor who took care of people whenever and wherever they needed him to do so, and Dr. Daniels’ commitment to medicine and those whom he served indelibly impressed Jonathan. From a young age, Jonathan sought a vocation to which he could be as devoted as his father was to the practice of medicine.

As a young boy, Jonathan loved tales of valiant knights and fair ladies. As he grew older, he was drawn to stories of his ancestors’ service in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as well as his father’s service in World War II. A military career also appealed to his sense of discipline, organization, and order, and in 1957 he entered the Virginia Military Institute.

It was harder than he thought. The “total hell” of life as rat and the total segregation of Lexington shattered his romantic idea of the Johnny Reb South. The Episcopal faith that he had embraced as a teenager was similarly shattered, especially when his beloved father died suddenly. Still, he remained at VMI, where he was an editor of the school newspaper and watched out for the younger cadets. He was elected valedictorian of the Class of 1961, graduated with honors, and headed to Harvard with a prestigious Danforth fellowship to study English.

Jonathan was unsettled, however. His mother was struggling financially, his sister was suffering emotionally, and he himself was depressed as he tended to them and sought to find his own path. But at the depth of his despair, he experienced a profound conversion on Easter Day 1962 at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Boston. Jonathan realized that he was called to the priesthood. He left Harvard and prepared to enter what is now the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.

When Jonathan entered EDS in the fall of 1963, the civil rights movement had gained momentum.  The nightly news became a window on nationwide efforts to desegregate public facilities and register black voters – and on the reactions of segregationists who responded with vitriol and violence that ranged from ugly words to beatings and biting dogs and, too often, to murder. President John F. Kennedy described a moral issue “as old as the scriptures and as clear as the Constitution – whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and opportunities.” Jonathan could not turn his back, whether it was the desegregation of Boston schools or the bombing that killed four young black girls at their church in Birmingham.

As part of his seminary training, Jonathan served as a youth counselor at an inner city Episcopal church in Providence, Rhode Island. He lived in the poor neighborhood surrounding the church and thus grew to understand issues facing those whom he lived among in ways that he might never have otherwise. He also soon showed a gift for building relationships, especially with children and young people.

On March 7, 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urgently appealed to Northern clergy, seminarians, and others to come to Selma, Alabama to complete a civil rights march that had been brutally cut short earlier that day. Alabama state troopers had set upon the black marchers, beating them with night sticks and bullwhips, unleashing vicious dogs, and setting off tear gas. Dr. King wondered whether the troopers who had attacked the mostly poor Southern blacks would do the same if the crowd included Northerners and whites. Jonathan wondered whether he should answer Dr. King’s call.

As he contemplated what to do, Jonathan attended Evening Prayer at the seminary chapel. As he sang the Magnificat – the gospel from Luke that we just heard – he was struck by the words as he would have sung them that night, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things…” And Jonathan knew that he must go to Selma.

On March 9, he and 10 of his fellow seminarians joined thousands of clergy and nuns who had responded to Dr. King’s plea. Jonathan was among a lesser number of people who stayed in Alabama during the days that the negotiations faltered and violence continued. He was still there when the march from Selma to Montgomery was successfully completed on March 25, 1965. And he stayed afterward, living among the people who were fighting for their civil rights and joining in their day-to-day lives.

Jonathan did not have any grand ambitions or plans. He simply confronted the issues as they appeared. He was deeply disturbed by persistent segregation in the Episcopal Church and was instrumental in desegregating St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, which had persisted in denying Holy Communion to black people even after they were allowed to attend Morning Prayer. Finally, on April 11, 1965 – Palm Sunday – they prevailed.

A pivotal point for Jonathan came during a voter registration drive in Camden, Alabama that same month. The Camden sheriff had posted two riflemen atop a hill with their rifles trained on the marchers and then opened tear gas on them. Jonathan had become increasingly angry in the face of the injustice, intimidation, and violence that he witnessed in Alabama, but that day, as he faced the men with rifles, he had an epiphany:

I saw that the men who came at me were themselves not free. Even though they were white and hateful and my enemy, they were human beings, too. I began to discover a new freedom in the cross, freedom to love the enemy, and in that freedom, to will and to try to set him free. 

From that point on, Jonathan did not view his work at the seminary and his work in the civil rights movement as either/or. They were one and the same. As he told Col. George Roth, his English professor at VMI, the more he was involved in the civil rights movement, the more convinced he was in the truth of the Christian religion. And as a Christian, as a soldier of the cross, Jonathan felt totally free to pursue the work to which he was called – with joy and thankfulness, even if it meant his death.

Sadly, it did. On August 14, 1965 – eight days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law – Jonathan was part of a protest against discriminatory hiring practices, unequal treatment of customers, and price gouging in Fort Deposit, Alabama. All 30 or so protesters were arrested within minutes of the start of the protest and taken to jail in a garbage truck. The protesters were held for six days without showers, toilets, or air conditioning. Jonathan buoyed their spirits by leading hymns and prayers. When the prisoners were suddenly released and ordered off the jail property, Jonathan and three others walked to a nearby store to get something to drink. As they approached the store, a special deputy ordered them off the property and aimed his 12-gauge shotgun at a 17 year-old girl. Jonathan stepped in to protect her and was shot and killed instantly.

We now observe the fiftieth anniversary of Jonathan Daniels‘ death. In addition to his commemoration by the church, he has been honored in many ways in the intervening years, including a prominent entrance arch, a memorial courtyard, and the Jonathan M. Daniels Humanitarian Award at VMI; one of four memorials on the Human Rights Porch at the National Cathedral in Washington; and as one of two Americans (Dr. King is the other) remembered in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs in Our Own Time at Canterbury Cathedral in England. Commemorations taking place in this milestone year in Alabama include an annual pilgrimage that took place yesterday in Hayneville, culminating in the dedication of a historical marker at the site of the Jonathan’s martyrdom and a service of Holy Eucharist in the courthouse where his killer was acquitted. The Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry preached. This morning, Bishop Curry will preach at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, the site of that first integrated communion on Palm Sunday 1965. Other special observances will take place in Washington, New Hampshire, and, yes, throughout Virginia.

We honor Jonathan Daniels today for many reasons that have only become more obvious throughout the past 50 years and in the light of today’s events. For us as Christians, though, perhaps the most powerful witness of Jonathan Daniels is that he lived his life through the sieve of faith. Whether attending services in some of the most beautiful churches of the Northeast or living among the poor, he remained tethered to the words of scripture. The right to receive communion deserved the same effort as the right to vote. As he explained to Col. Roth, his faith informed his actions, and his actions informed his faith. At the end of his life, he lived with the joyful knowledge that only in loving one another as Christ loves us are we free. That is a witness that each of us can provide.