What made Jonathan Daniels a saint? -- Writings from a Pilgrimage
Our first day in our pilgrimage took us to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, where we visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the “Sweet Auburn” section of the city. It was there that Martin Luther (M.L. as his family knew him) was born and raised, immersed in the life of the church where his father and maternal grandfather were pastors.
We joined the group of a dozen young persons from St. James’, Keene, at The King Center and the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site. It was a day to be steeped and soaked in the newsreels, recordings of interviews and sermons and speeches of Dr. King and those who accompanied him in the struggle for desegregation, racial and economic justice, and later, an end to the violence of the Vietnam war that send a disproportionate number of young black men into the jungles of that horror.
We then drove to Montgomery, Alabama, to the welcoming embrace of The Church of the Ascension who opened up their youth center, Joshua House, for us to stay. A family from the church invited us for a barbeque at their poolside, for a refreshing swim. Barbeque in Alabama is nothing like what we do in the New Hampshire.
All the while, I’ve been reflecting about what we talk about when we talk about Jonathan Daniels as a saint and a martyr. On our drive down from Atlanta, Polly read aloud to me portions of Charles W. Eagles’ excellent book, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.
Jonathan came from the “outside,” a Yankee who could not understand the racist structures of the Southern society, and who tried to integrate St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma by bringing black friends to worship on Sunday. That church, like so many in our own denomination, had clear policies to keep blacks out. Perhaps being an outsider who was meddling in a culture that was not his spurred such hatred of him. The husband of the organist met him outside of the church on Sunday and used insulting, vile language to get Jonathan to stop. The Bishop of Alabama, who denounced any intrusion of whites from the North into the affairs of his diocese, was apparently more concerned about the use of the language than he was of the blatant racism of one of his prominent parishes.
I’m thinking that saints are those who are willing to cross those borders and boundaries between outside and inside. Jonathan wrote: “We are inexplicably, indelibly one.” I take that to mean that we are not separate from those who are most different from us, whether they be black or white, social activist or racist. A saint is willing to immerse oneself into the full catastrophe of the human experience: open to the pain, and even the violence, of the powers of the world that do not want the changes that the Kingdom of God will always demand of us. Saints are those willing to sit at a lunch counter, willing to be smeared with vile epithets, ketchup and mayonnaise, and even punches to bear witness to the Kingdom of God where all are invited to the “welcome table.”
Baptism is the sacrament of such openness to the immersion into the full catastrophe of the human condition. It was his claiming his baptism into the wideness of humanity, in all its beauty and ugliness, that expelled, perhaps threw, Jonathan from cool hills of the Monadnock region into the heat of Alabama in the 1960s.
I am reminding of the German existentialists who had a word for this phenomenon of being thrown into the world: Geworfenheit, or “thrownness.” The experience is not unlike what the ancient Hebrews described: I will leave thee thrown into the wilderness. (Exodus 29:5).
Pilgrims choose to be thrown into the experience of wilderness. Today, we welcome the visit to the site of the slave market here in Montgomery, to the Rose Parks Museum, and a service project helping rehabilitate a home on the West Side. As followers of Jesus, we will know that God will be with us, not leaving us comfortless, but guiding us by the vision of our being immersed into His Presence, where we are indelibly one.