One night last fall GTS seminarians, Tommie Watkins ’16 and Alex Barton ’17 sat at Community Dinner with the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers and hatched two plots: what if a group from The General Theological Seminary attended the 50th anniversary pilgrimage remembering Alabama Civil Rights martyr—and seminarian—Jonathan Daniels? And what if the same group kept driving up to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, one of the only Episcopal churches to serve as a stop on the Underground Railroad?
Students could experience these places, compile video footage and create a resource for the whole Episcopal Church. It would illuminate the power of crossing the boundaries of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and location that separate us from one another. It would also recast the whole idea of evangelism and sharing “the good news.”
The fire was lit. We pulled in Jo Ann Jones ’17 and Nancy Hennessey ’16, wrote a proposal for the Episcopal Evangelism Society’s Evangelism for the 21st Century Grants, and soon the idea had become a reality.
On August 13, 2015, our group gathered—with friend and mentor, the Rev. Tom Momberg ’86—in a booth at the Holiday Inn, Birmingham Airport, to review the amazing, expanded journey ahead: Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma, and then up to Appalachia; from there, to Cleveland and then Baltimore, with a final visit early in the fall to Trinity Wall Street.
Each of us coordinated with leaders on the ground to set up interviews. But we couldn’t have predicted the surprising stories we would hear: stories of the good news, stories of relationship, stories of a God who breaks open hearts and lives.
We celebrated Eucharist with Episcopalians from across America in the same courtroom where the man who killed Jonathan Daniels in 1965 was acquitted. We heard Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry preach about the Jesus Movement at St. Paul’s in Selma—the church Jonathan Daniels and his fellow seminarian, the Rev. Judy Upham, fought to desegregate. Then we sat with her in the “Bishop’s Room” at St. Paul’s and heard about the struggle first-hand.
In Kingsport, Tennessee, we met Gordon Brewer, the director of Episcopal Appalachian Ministries, who ties together his diaconal ministry and therapy practice to become present to the ravages of gener-ational poverty. We accompanied a guest work group from St. Peter’s, Fairfax, who arrived in Appalachia to do “mission” work and ended up being challenged and taught by the poor people they came to serve.
In Cleveland, we saw how the former St. John’s Church had been transformed through a collaboration between artists, concerned neighbors, diocesan leaders, and the Episcopal Service Corps. Together, they had created Station Hope, a community space and theater where Clevelanders are retelling stories of liberation and engaging in prophetic action today.
Episcopalians in Baltimore shared heart-breaking yet empowering stories of their exploration of the church’s pro-slavery past. We settled into the slave balcony at St. Mark’s-Lappans and touched shackles just like the ones used to enslave black people for centuries. But we also learned how church folk were stepping into their neighborhoods to break down the contemporary class and racial divides that plague Baltimore and so much of America. And we look forward to hearing the inside stories of engagement by Trinity Church, Wall Street with the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and how Episcopalians and Anglicans together took risks for the sake of God’s dream.
Along the way, we have seen our church struggling to tell good news and to be good news, throughout history and in this urgent moment. Each new place on the map has also marked a deeper turn in our own relationships with Jesus, proving yet again the powerful connection of the inner and outward journey with God.
This fall we continue the work: reviewing film and conversations, crafting an evangelism curriculum—tentatively titled “Good News People”—to help churches cross over between boundaries by sharing the good news of God’s reconciling love in the world, and finding churches to pilot the series during Advent and Epiphany.
It has been a privilege to make this journey together and, as a result, to feel such a surge in hope for the future of the Church. If you’re interested, please join our Facebook group. Watch for our continued progress and share your own stories. We’re on this journey together, General Seminary.