Across Racial and Denominational Divides, Two Churches Forge a Decade-Long Partnership

From left, the Rev. Sidney S. Williams Jr., senior pastor of Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey, and the Rev. Cynthia Black, rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, take part in the Jan. 19 celebration of their congregations’ growing relationship. Photo: W. H. Schleicher

When members of the Church of the Redeemer and Bethel AME Church, both in Morristown, New Jersey, are out on the lawn sharing dinner, the Rev. Cynthia Black thinks to herself, “This is what heaven is like.”

The relationship between Redeemer and Bethel began 10 years ago and is part of Redeemer’s 20-year-old annual Season of Reconciliation. The season goes from the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January to the Sunday nearest Feb. 13, the day The Episcopal Church celebrates the feast of Absalom Jones. The season’s end coincides with a special day for AME members as well.

“One of the things we learn and relearn every year is about our relationship with Absalom Jones and Richard Allen,” Black, Redeemer’s rector, told Episcopal News Service recently.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were African Americans who left St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia after the mixed congregation voted in 1786 to banish its black members to the balcony. William White, the Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania, accepted the group as an Episcopal parish. It later became known as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. He ordained Jones, making him the first African American priest in The Episcopal Church.

Allen remained a Methodist and in 1794 founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He later organized the AME Church, and the denomination celebrates Allen’s birthday, Feb. 14, as Founder’s Day.

The idea for Redeemer’s Season of Reconciliation began in the late 1990s when members of the church’s racial dialogue group challenged the congregational worship committee to think about how the church could address racism.

It wasn’t a totally new question. “We had always celebrated Martin Luther King Day as a liberation holiday,” said Colleen Hintz, who was a member of the worship committee at the time and later chaired the group for many years. The committee took up the challenge, she told ENS, building on Redeemer’s habit of changing the focus of many secular holidays, such celebrating rights for all women on Mother’s Day.

The worship committee decided to go further. “These single liberation days are as good as the day is, and it addresses the people who are there on that day, and then you forget about it,” Hintz said. Instead, the committee proposed setting aside a period of weeks “when we would be looking seriously at the issues of racism.”

She decided to make vestments and altar hangings for the season. “I knew right away what they looked like; they looked like the secret quilt code of the Underground Railroad,” she said.

Hintz, who has been creating vestments since 1980, was inspired by the somewhat controversial book “Hidden in Plain View,” which explains how enslaved men and women made quilts encoded with long-recognized symbols and used them to direct escapees to freedom.

“To me, hidden within that code are all the tools we need to dismantle isms in our lifetime if we only follow them,” she said. “And in my heart, I know Redeemer is a safe house; it’s a safe place.”

Hintz explains the meanings of the vestments’ symbols in this video:

If the Season of Reconciliation began with a focus on division between blacks and whites, Redeemer later expanded the season to consider other issues, according to Hintz, including issues like intolerance of immigrants and refugees and of other religions. “It is a time where we intentionally name the issues that divide us,” she said.

One of those issues came to the fore in November 2010 when the Rev. Sidney S. Williams Jr. was called from a missionary posting in Cape Town, South Africa, to be Bethel’s senior pastor. Early on, he spoke during a clergy gathering about his experience of the truth and reconciliation work practiced in South Africa. Williams explained to the group that the work is “such an appropriate way to overcome barriers and prejudices,” adding that Americans don’t practice reconciliation nearly enough. “We just want to change laws,” he said.

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Source: Episcopal News Service