In mid-March as churches, businesses, and workplaces began to close across the country, historians noted similarities between this moment and the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic. I found myself wondering how St. Peter’s had responded then, and if there were any lessons we might learn from our past. As I dug into the parish archives, I saw only one mention: in 1919 the vestry of St. Peter’s reported that Bishop Joseph Blount Cheshire, former rector of St. Peter’s, had recovered from the “Spanish flu” and the vestry had sent him a walking cane to aid his recovery.
More recently, I’ve returned to our archives, hoping to learn about occasions in our history when St. Peter’s was called to courageous moments in confronting racism. Poring over vestry minutes from 1857 to 1969, I noticed a common theme: our history is complicated. In 1958, U.S. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia submitted for the Congressional Record a sermon by the Reverend Henry T. Eggers, then rector of St. Peter’s. In his sermon, Eggers claimed that integration would lead to higher crime rates, that God preordained the separation of races, and that “likeness does not mean sameness.” Mr. Eggers preached that sermon from the St. Peter’s pulpit on September 15, 1957.
In 1963, after the untimely death of Mr. Eggers, the Reverend Hunt Williams was called to serve at St. Peter’s. Those who knew Hunt speak often of his conviction, of how eloquently he advocated for justice, often charting the difficult path of truth. It was under Hunt’s leadership that St. Peter’s became a place known for its work among the poor, for feeding the hungry, and for fighting alongside others in the struggle for civil rights.
Since last Monday I have been outraged by George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. I grieve with the Floyd family and with my black siblings who continue to live in fear that the evils of white supremacy will claim their lives or the lives of their loved ones. This moment is calling us to confront our history, our complicity, and our apathy. We are being called to the hard work of reconciliation, work that is only made possible when we repair the breach, when we make right that which was wrong. But what does that work look like?
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called us to follow Jesus Christ’s Way of Love. On Monday Bishop Curry wrote: “What does love look like? It is making the long-term commitment to racial-healing, justice, and truth-telling, knowing that without intentional, ongoing intervention on the part of every person of good will, America will cling to its original, racist ways of being.”
St. Peter’s is an amazing and diverse parish, comprised of individuals and families from many racial and socio-economic backgrounds. For some, this work of justice-seeking and truth-telling will be hard. For others, our work may seem too slow. But we are called to this work together, called to learn to navigate this path of love.
This Wednesday our Social Justice Ministry will gather virtually to begin a conversation about how St. Peter’s will meet the challenge of this moment, how we will be agents of justice, truth-telling, and healing.
I begin my call as St. Peter’s new rector at another watershed moment, during a time of worldwide pandemic, political turmoil, and unbearable division. We cannot change a nation overnight, but we can do our part. I am committed to the work of reconciliation and I ask you to join me.
Faithfully and with hope,
The Reverend Jacob E. Pierce, Rector