The banner photo is accredited to the Church of the Good Shepherd, Pennick, Georgia

SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV. JILL HONODEL 9 DECEMBER 2018

The Second Sunday of Advent

THE LIFE OF THE BELOVED: SAINT ANNA

Prophets tend to emerge during times of turmoil and chaos.  They say things to us they dare us to think beyond our current condition words like

I have a dream. – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  28 August 1963

Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. - Jeremiah 18:6 

What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God- Micah 6:8[1]

 Jesus was born into such a time of chaos, one in which there were many factions: the zealots who were militaristic who wanted all foreigners expelled, the Sadducees, the political and religious reformers, the separatist Essences who were apocalyptic, the populist Pharisees…all these groups were vying for power and the average person didn’t know which one would win out… Through the dark clouds of chaos a voice emerged from the wilderness,

 

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. [2]

 

That’s what prophets do…they are re-imaginers during times of chaos. Today, I will tell you of St. Anna, a voice from our own past in America whose essential message was to reclaim the dignity of human beings… and she spent a lifetime reforming people and did her part to reform America during her own time of turbulence.  Let’s learn of her story today.

 

Anna Alexander. You may remember her from Lenten Madness (nationally she won the Golden Halo); we as a congregation voted her as our number one saint.  There’s good reasons for this. She was born in Peddick, Georgia, the youngest of 11 children.  But to understand her, we must first go back a generation and to appreciate her parents Aleck (James) and Daphne who had been born into conditions of slavery and worked in the household of the plantation owner on a plantation island off of Georgia.

 

Aleck became the personal assistant to “the master” of the house Pierce M. Butler who had fancied a famous Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble a woman with abolitionist sympathies.  The two married in Philadelphia, but Pierce had inherited several plantations on Butler Island in Georgia and “owned” hundreds of enslaved people, maybe even up to 600. Fanny insisted on visiting the island where she saw for herself the plight of the enslaved. She made friends with St. Anna’s father and throwing the law to the wind, Fanny began teaching Aleck to read. 

 

Fanny’s journal from the time she spent on her husband’s plantation has become the most frequently cited source of an eyewitness account of slavery.  So, let’s take a bit of time to see through Fanny’s eyes how Anna’s parents and others of her husband’s so-called slaves were treated on the plantation: 

 

She writes apparently in an argument with her husband’s overseer of the plantation Mr. King - I return to you Mr. [King’s? the overseer] ‘s letter. I do not think it answers any of the questions debated in our last conversation at all satisfactorily [regarding] the right one has to enslave another… He says, that to the Continental European protesting against the abstract iniquity of slavery, his answer would be, The slaves are infinitely better off than half the Continental peasantry. To the Englishman, They are happy compared with the miserable Irish.  But supposing that this answered the question of original injustice, which it does not, it is not a true reply. Though the negroes are fed, clothed, and housed, and though the Irish peasant is starved, naked, and roofless, the bare name of freemen – the lordship over his own person, the power to choose and will – are blessings beyond food, raiment, or shelter; possessing which, the want of every comfort of life is yet more tolerable than their fullest enjoyment without them.  As the thousands of ragged destitutes who yearly land upon these shores to seek the means of existence – as the friendless, penniless foreign emigrant if he will give up his present misery, his future uncertainty, his doubtful and difficult struggle for life at once, for the secure, and, as it is called, fortunate dependence of the slave: the indignation with which … [will] prove that… that his birthright as a man is more precious to him yet than the mess of pottage for which he is told to exchange it because he is starving.

 

[She continues]…I do not admit the comparison between your slaves and even the lowest class of European free laborers….Mr. , in his letter, maintains that they are an inferior race, and, compared with the whites, animals, incapable of mental culture and moral improvement: to this I can only reply, that if they are incapable of profiting by instruction, I do not see the necessity for laws inflicting heavy penalties on those who offer it to them.  If they really are brutish, witless, dull, and devoid of capacity for progress, where lies the danger which is constantly insisted upon of offering them that of which they are incapable.  We have no laws forbidding us to teach our dogs and horses as much as they can comprehend; nobody is fined or imprisoned for reasoning upon knowledge and liberty to the beasts of the field, for they are incapable of such truths. But these themes are forbidden to slaves, not because they can not, but because they can and would seize on them with avidity – receive them gladly, comprehend them quickly; and the masters’ power over them would be annihilated at once and forever.  But I have more frequently heard not that they were incapable of receiving instruction, but something much nearer the truth – that knowledge only makes them miserable: the moment they are in any degree enlightened, they become unhappy.  In the letter I return to you Mr. says that the very slightest amount of education, merely teaching them to read, impairs their value as slaves, for it instantly destroys their contentedness, and, since you do not contemplate changing their condition, it is surely doing them an ill service to destroy their acquiescence in it; but this is a very different ground of argument from the other. 

 

[Kemble goes on to say that there is no limit to human intelligence] and there and nowhere else the shoe really pinches.  A slave is ignorant; he eats, drinks, sleeps, labors, and is happy. He learns to read; he feels, thinks, reflects, and becomes miserable.  He discovers himself to be one of the debased and degraded race, deprived of the elementary rights which God has granted to all men alike; every action is controlled, every word noted: he may not stir beyond his appointed bounds to the right hand or the left, at his own will, but at the will of another he may be sent miles and miles of weary journeying-tethered, yoked, collared, and fettered – away from whatever he may know as home, severed from all those ties of blood and affection which he alone of all human …. [she continues by saying that even if there is such a thing as a “kind master” even by carelessness, slaves are ill-treated when left to the cruel overseer who has no personal accountability]. She says, Imagination shrinks from the possible result of such a state of things; nor must you or Mr., tell me the horrors thus suggested exist only in imagination. The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace – the handcuff, the lash – the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives – the weary trudging in droves along the common highways, the labor of body, the despair of mind, the sickness of heart – these are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slave’s experience. And this system exists here in this country of yours, which boasts itself the asylum of the oppressed, the home of freedom, the one place in all the world where all men may find enfranchisement from all thraldoms[3] of mind, soul, or body – the land elect of liberty.[4]

 

Anna Alexander’s parents were born into the world just described.  Fanny was appalled when she saw the degradation that was the foundation of her husband’s wealth and even though Aleck was a household slave, began teaching Anna’s father Aleck (James) to read.  Her disgust for the source of her husband’s wealth caused a heated divorce and through risk to herself, Fanny published her abolitionist views and traveled throughout America espousing her views during the Civil War.

 

After emancipation, Aleck married Daphne, another “household slave” and left the plantation life for Peddick, Georgia where they taught each of their 11 children to read, including Anna. 

 

Anna attended her sister’s church St. Cyprian’s each week walking and even rowing the 20 miles to get there, where she saw her sister create a parochial school. Anna had a desire to start a mission church in their home town of Peddick so she asked the priest of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church for help. He agreed to baptize anyone that she brought to him; so Anna – determined – went to Peddick to open up a church whose ministry was educating the formerly enslaved – In 1894, the church met for the first time in the open on Sappe Still. Father Perry of St. Cyprian’s came as promised to Pennick to baptize the children.  The church moved from meeting out in the open to  a farmhouse, then later in a store where she turned the whisky bar into an altar.

 

Meanwhile she sewed and taught and took on odd jobs to raise money.  With the help of her siblings, she raised enough money to buy property for the church she had envisioned. With the help of friends, her brother Charles built a one-room schoolhouse made of logs above which was a little apartment in which Anna lived. 

 

Anna’s mission: to make the children of former slaves literate.  It was a subversive act, but she spent the weekdays in the schoolhouse teaching; on Sunday’s the schoolhouse became church.  

 

A few years earlier, St. Anna had been accepted into college in 1897. St. Paul’s Normal School in Lawrenceville, Virginia. She had used that education to establish Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in this one-room schoolhouse just described (September 1, 1902).    As the children became literate by reading the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and became educated by her teaching, she made sure that as many as possible were admitted to university. Year after year, St. Anna loaded up her car and carted as many people as possible out of Peddick, effectively depopulating the area in which she started the church.

 

In the early part of the century, the Episcopal Church in Georgia was divided into black and white and therefore had two conventions.  In 1907 at a Convention for Colored Episcopalians, the Episcopal Bishop C.K. Nelson despite all the flak he would take, especially in the south at that time, named Anna Alexander as the first African American deaconess of the Episcopal Church. Later, her story was told by Bishop Reese at the white convention.   Saint Anna clearly did not do any of this for recognition yet she deserves the title of saint that she now bares.

 

Her parents had risked their lives to become literate.  Anna with stamina and determination became the words said during an earlier tumultuous time as she Prepared the Way of the Lord. She made what were crooked paths straight, not focusing on righteous anger but diverting all of her energies into making lives better through courage, persistence, personal presence. 

 

Anna Alexander’s pathway to sainthood started in southern Georgia where they waited for 50 years after her death in 1947 and began the process of canonization. At our Episcopal General Convention in 2015, a resolution passed to officially include St. Anna Alexander in Holy Women, Holy Men.  Just this past July, St. Anna was officially canonized at our General Convention[5]as the first African American female saint of the Episcopal Church. [6]

 

Her footsteps were the steps of Christ in America. As a woman who spent her lifetime walking in the footsteps of Jesus, Saint Anna made sainthood because she knew that church is not a building, but a mission meant to transform lives and open people up to possibility and livelihood, personal character development and betterment of all.  Saint Anna is America’s prophet calling out to make what was crooked straight so that America will live up to its rightful calling built into our own Declaration of Independence that we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. AMEN.

 

Collect for Ste. Anna Alexander
O God, you called Anna Alexander as a deaconess in your Church and sent her as teacher and evangelist to the people of Georgia: Grant us the humility to go wherever you send, and the wisdom to teach the word of Christ to whomever we meet, that all may come to the enlightenment which you intend for your people; through Jesus Christ, our Teacher and Savior. Amen.

 

In 1998, Alexander was named a saint of Georgia by the Diocese of Georgia with a feast day of Sept. 24. In 2015, the church voted to include Alexander in the book “Holy Women, Holy Men,” which assigns a particular day for a church saint, at its General Convention in Salt Lake City. This summer she will receive even more attention. At the 2018 General Convention in Austin, Texas, there will be a vote for full recognition for Alexander, which will bring her more attention as a saint nationally.

Many thanks to

Walter Holmes, Sr. Warden

Paul Nobles, Jr Warden (and Zora and Dwala Nobles)

The Rev. Julian Clark and The Rev. John M. Butin , co-pastors

Church of the Good Shepherd at 780 Pennick Road, Brunswick, GA 31525

for the historical information presented in this sermon as well as for their support

in the naming of our new church St. Anna’s Episcopal Church

and many thanks to the makers of the beautiful Youtube tribute to Ste. Anna:

A Life Beloved

[1] Jeremiah 18:6, Micah 6:8

[2] Luke 3:1-16

[3] Thraldoms: state of being in someone’s power.

[4] Kemble, Frances, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1830 New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1863.

[5] Lessor Feasts and Fasts, p.490. https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/21034

Holy Women, Holy Men is the first major revision of the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in more than 40 years. It is the official revision of Lesser Feasts and Fasts and authorized by the 2009 General Convention

Note that at the 2015 General Convention, Great Cloud of Witnesses will replace Lessor Feasts and Fasts

http://georgia.anglican.org/blessed-deaconess-alexander-honored-by-episcopal-church/