All (Saints) Means All

In 1845, the first year that Christ Episcopal Church could send a report to the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, the Reverend C.C. Townsend, missionary to Bowling Green, reflected upon the significant work that the parish had undertaken in its first year of existence. Townsend wrote to the Bishop and Deputies gathered in Louisville that “Regular services have been performed in Bowling Green, and at two important points in the country, and the Holy Communion administered the 4th Sunday of each month. A Sunday School commenced one year ago has increased to 40 scholars and 6 teachers, and an interesting Bible class is instructed in the country. The good friends of the church have furnished us with an adequate supply of books.” He finished his description of the fledgling ministry in Warren County with these words, “An effort on behalf of the servants has been regularly sustained for a year with encouraging results. The Prayer Book enables them also to worship God, and
they are taught the way of salvation from His Holy Word.”
In his recently updated history of Christ Church, David Lee follows these words with an editorial comment that they are “likely a delicate reference to the approximately 4,000 members of the enslaved community in Bowling Green and Warren County.” Like many communities in the agriculturally rich southeast, slavery was a significant part of the economy in antebellum Warren County. By 1860, the Federal Census counted 5,318 enslaved Black people in Warren County, meaning a full 30% of the total population was enslaved. Of those more than five thousand men, women, and children, approximately 183 were enslaved by families belonging to Christ Episcopal Church. Despite strong pro-Union leanings among the membership of Christ Church, with nearly 75% of the congregation leaving town when the Southern army entered, the reality is that like the rest of Bowling Green, Christ Church was made up of a significant number of pro-slavery or anti-Black members. It is not a stretch, more than 160 years later, to say unequivocally that Christ Episcopal Church is the direct beneficiary of the system of chattel slavery and the subjugation of Black people who were made in the image of God yet were not granted their full humanity. They weren’t even given names when listed in the 1860 census.
“Some of them have left behind a name,” writes Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, “so that others might declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly [people], whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten…” I’ve heard these words on All Saints’ Sundays for most of my life, but since learning of these 183 souls it has taken on new meaning for me.
Prior to now, when I thought of those who died as though they never existed, I imagined all the people who don’t have names on plaques or nameplates. Those dedicated but quiet members who made sure the coffee was made, or the pre-k Sunday school class had a teacher. The kind of disciple who makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every Wednesday for our community lunch or puts together fidget blankets for those living with dementia. Healthy congregations, like Christ Church, are full of members who go about the work of loving their neighbors, never seeking a reward other than the good feeling that comes with knowing you’ve shared the love of God with someone you may never even meet.
What I had never considered are all the people who aren’t or can’t be members of a congregation who also contribute to its mission and ministry. I have started to think about the Recyclops driver who helps keep our bulletins from going into the landfill or the team from NewCon that descends upon this building every
Thursday to make sure it is clean and welcoming for all who enter. More and more, I find myself thinking about the employees at the Bistro or Just Love Coffee who serve so many of us brunch on Sunday mornings and the myriad maintenance people who make sure the elevators run properly, the HVAC system functions most of the time, and the hot water is hot, and the cold water is cold. Then I go even deeper, as I think about the Black man who came to the Christmas Eve service in 1954 and, at least according to Vestry minutes, was treated in a way that brought pride to the heart of one Vestry member. And now, almost daily, I think about the 183, most of whom remain nameless to us, whose labor helped secure the future of Christ Episcopal Church even though they could never even consider becoming members.
In all of this, All Saints’ Day has taken on new meaning for me. I have always been clear that the only Biblical benchmark for sainthood is being a disciple of Jesus, but I’m beginning to wonder
if even that is too narrow a definition. What if on this All Saints’ Day we include all those who might want to follow Jesus but have been told they can’t? Or those who live so close to the margins that three jobs leave no time for a community of faith? Or those who died as though they never existed because the dominant culture told them they shouldn’t exist? What if on this All Saints’ Day, All really meant All?
In his Revelation, John of Patmos was given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. There he saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and people and language who in their great diversity had in common that their robes were washed clean in the blood of the lamb. On this All Saints’ Day, I invite you to begin to look at the world with the eyes of John of Patmos and the heart of Ben Sira. See in all your neighbors the image of God. Pay attention not just to those famous men who get glory and power, but to those who live on the margins of society, as
though they never existed. Remember all the saints, and maybe especially those 183 whose names are known to God alone, whose lives and labor have brought this congregation to where we are today, a community of saints who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all. Amen.


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