Attending church regularly can be a source of deep satisfaction, if only because every now and then one hears a really, really good sermon. My most faithful Episcopalian years date back to the eighties, when I attended St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights. A merged parish, the St. Ann’s side had sold their sanctuary for a school, and who am I to say nay to their wrenching choice. The Holy Trinity side had a history wrapped in the scarlet diapers of the Communist Party, with a dash of Bernstein for good measure. It was a Holy Trinity teen center, the story goes, that was the inspiration for West Side Story. It was certainly Holy Trinity’s two vestries brawling in the aisles who inspired changes to New York State’s church election laws.
By the time I sought solace there, an uneasy alliance supported an arts program that spanned Aaron Neville’s tremulous warbling to Carmina Burana with chorus in trenchcoats on sanctuary scaffolding. On one hand, an Aeolian Skinner organ…now protected from the elements by modern Lucite…and the window on permanent loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Stained glass that might be the first in America, unless Trinity Church across the river at the base of Wall Street commanded that honor. On the other hand, a congregation dedicated to radical arts and more radical peacemaking. All of us meeting weekly to open our hearts—individually and collectively—to God.
Episcopalians delve deep into a rich tradition of liturgy, but scratch the surface and you will find today’s passion. The rector when I was there was Bill Persell, who had grown up in the Episcopal Church. His father was a bishop in New York State, as Bill is now a bishop in Cleveland. Not literally, but in spirit, Bill came of age in the time of Dr. King. He spoke in moving tones of walking with Dr. King in Mississippi and in Alabama, the Deep South of my own childhood. It was only this year that I realized that when my father moved us out of Columbus, Georgia to avoid black people, it was 1963. I was nine, that’s what I knew, but it was 1963, and there was violence in the South.
Speaking of Dr. King, Bill Persell was eloquent, and in the end, it was not Dr. King’s specific views that I remember. Rather it was a view of a man, imperfect, who left his mark on a generation. As a human being, Dr. King was deeply flawed. He set his sights high, and in his personal life as well as in his aspirations for his race, he consistently fell short. But he never, never stopped. To his dying breath, he hoped and he worked—day after day, failure after crushing failure—for change. Too late for the good Doctor to see, change has come, and yet it is change that we still require. One chilly Sunday in Brooklyn, we all stopped to listen to Bill’s memories of Dr. King, to recognize a tormented human being, and to thank him for all he did for all of us.
Thank you, Bill. Keep telling the story. Somewhere in my files, I have a copy of that sermon, but I hardly need to re-read it. This time of year, it comes flooding back into my mind, renewing a thankful spirit within me.
Thank you, Dr. King. And happy birthday.