On August 15, The Episcopal Church commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Myrick Daniels in the town where he was killed. The service included a stirring homily by then Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry and a pilgrimage by more than 1,000 people (including Bishop Shannon Johnston and 127 other Episcopal bishops), who walked from the Hayneville, Ala., courthouse to the Hayneville jail. Remembering Jonathan Daniels gives us an opportunity to reflect on his life and death, and to reconsider our calling in Christ.
Jonathan Daniels came to Alabama in 1965 in response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to support the ongoing movement to secure the rights of African Americans. Daniels wrote about the moment during an Evensong service at his seminary in Massachusetts when he felt called to go to Alabama: “As usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song…. I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining towards the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled ‘moment’ … Then it came, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He had filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew then that I must go to Selma.”
In August 1965, Daniels and several other protesters were arrested and thrown into the Hayneville jail, where they spent six days in deplorable conditions. Upon leaving the jail, Daniels, together with Ruby Sales, two other African Americans and a Roman Catholic priest, went to purchase sodas at a local store. There they encountered Tom Coleman. When Coleman pointed a shotgun at Sales, Daniels pushed her out of the way and took the fatal shot. In 1991, Daniels was designated a martyr by The Episcopal Church.
Over the decades, many like Daniels have answered their calls to work for justice, equality and freedom. Some of them — Dr. King; the Rev. George Lee, who used his pulpit and printing press to encourage blacks to become registered voters; and the Rev. James Reeb, who marched in Selma — lost their lives.
Today, the struggle continues. In the wake of police and church shootings, arsons at churches, and disproportionate levels of poverty and incarceration for people of color, we are far from achieving the dream of equality. We live in a world where God’s dream of a community ruled by love and compassion is not yet a reality. Our work – indeed our purpose as followers of Christ – is far from complete.
But every time we come into His fellowship in the sacrament of baptism and are “marked as Christ’s own forever,” we join in a mutual covenant with Jonathan Daniels. Unlike Daniels, Dr. King and others, it is not necessary for us to die for that cause – at least not literally. But it is incumbent on us to strive for justice, to work for peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. These are words of action, not exercises in academics. They are words of inspiration, not introspection. If we have the faith to follow our call, we undoubtedly will find that God will use us, as God used Jonathan Daniels, to help change the world. As Bishop Curry has put it, “to change us from the nightmare that life can often be to the dream that God intended.”
By: Aisha Huertas Michel, Multicultural Officer, Diocese of Virginia